Sad day when political reporters become celebrity paparazzi

Chen Show Mao is a good public speaker, if a little bit too deliberate.  Like all candidates from the Workers’ Party, he sticks to the script, a habit that tends to exasperate reporters (both mainstream and new media) because they crave “news”.  If it’s been said before and ain’t new, how can it be news?

Here’s a video (all videos here are courtesy of The Online Citizen) of the prepared speeches by four candidates — the last batch — introduced to the public at a press conference on Monday, 25 April 2011:

If you can understand Chinese, this next video may be of interest. Three of the four candidates also spoke in Chinese, though for some unknown reason Yee Jenn Jong’s portion wasn’t included:

The candidates kept their introductory speeches short, leaving considerable time for questions.

Alas, most of the questions were directed at Chen, virtually ignoring the other candidates until party leader Low implored them to please be fair. The video below gives you a flavour of the press conference, but omitted from the video were plenty more questions asked of Chen and the one or two questions asked of Yee Jenn Jong and Glenda Han.

The best part of the above video starts at 6:30, and gets quite funny from 12:40 to 17:45.

As the questions poured in, I became rather disillusioned, not about the Workers’ Party but about the reporters in the room. They kept grilling Chen about his being abroad, his family and whether, having been away so long, he really understood what Singaporeans yearned for, certainly more questions (at least 20 – 30 minutes’ worth?) than you see in the video above. I guess the Online Citizen too thought the questions were trivial, and thus omitted them from their video.

Firstly, these questions are really a projection of the People’s Action Party’s attack strategy, to try to pin him down on so-called personal “weaknesses”; secondly, it is questionable whether focussing on the person serves the greater public good. There are plenty of issues — e.g. cost of living, how we should structure public transport, what is the right level of foreign student intake in universities, how realistic is the much-ballyhooed push to improve productivity, what plans we need to provide better eldercare without burdening families further — that cry out for debate.

I tried to help out. After the umpteenth question thrown at Chen, I raised my hand and put a question to Yee Jenn Jong (pic left). Yee is a successful entrepreneur in education-related fields, and I asked him to sketch out his thoughts about what ails Singapore with regard to fostering entrepreneurship and what ideas the party has in this area. (Alas omitted from video above).

I also put a question to Pritam Singh, about the party’s manifesto items concerning civil liberties and reform of the criminal justice system. You can see my question and his reply at 21:30 in the third video above.

* * * * *

It is a fallacy to think that only someone belonging to a set can understand other members of the set and represent their concerns. By this token, only children can speak up for children’s interests, only gay men can speak up for gay men’s interests, only a migrant worker understands what migrant workers would wish for. This kind of essentialist thinking assumes that our humanity is necessarily limited to our own corporeal gratification, our intellect consumed by selfishness.

The grand narrative of history disproves this. The rich and well-connected have spoken up to free slaves, men have championed women’s rights, the scions of the middle-class and the elite have devoted their lives to improve the lot of the poor. Decades ago when Singapore was convulsed in racial riots, Chinese gave shelter to Malays who feared for their lives; Malays did likewise for their Chinese neighbours.

So what if Chen Show Mao has spent the better part of his working life abroad? How does that disprove his ability to understand and empathise with those of us whose lives have had a different trajectory?

If we have to choose someone to represent us, the best move we can make is to find a person with the intellectual calibre to grasp facts and issues, with the empathy to weigh and palpate them and with the commitment to go out and speak untiringly on our behalf. I think Chen Show Mao meets all three conditions, not least the last — commitment — by choosing to give up his high-flying corporate career to serve the public good.

So please now, stop asking for personal trivia. Stop treating political reporting as no different from entertainment news. Stop treating candidates as celebrities.

* * * * *

Before the press conference began — I arrived very early — I had the opportunity to speak with a handful of Workers’ Party candidates and volunteers who had been involved in the 2006 election and also walking the ground more recently. I shan’t name them because I didn’t clarify whether the conversation was on record or not, not that there’s anything sensitive about what was discussed.

To what extent are voters keen on the candidate as a person or are they more interested in what the party represents? I asked. The feedback I got was that at the ground level, people were largely responding to the party label. The days of votes being swayed by larger-than-life personalities such as J B Jeyaretnam are either passing, or the phenomenon might never have been as big as made out.

I was gladdened to hear that. Our voters may be more sober and down-to-earth, focussing on the issues that truly concern them, than some of us may fear.

If only our media would get the message. If only our monopoly broadcaster got the message months ago and organised a lot more television debates giving party representatives sufficient time to engage in depth.

If only voters would punish the one party that does its utmost to distract voters with extraneous trivia, scurrilous innuendo and needless questioning of candidates’ “identity” and “belonging”. Anyone who is prepared to run the gauntlet of such disgraceful attacks for the sake of Singapore’s future will have proven his loyalty ten times over.

14 Responses to “Sad day when political reporters become celebrity paparazzi”

  1. 1 Chow 26 April 2011 at 18:56

    Be very careful of the reporters. I believe Mr Low himself is distrustful of the Singapore media – he’s made it known publicly in the past. They can twist your words and make you say become “black”.

    Good things that the candidates say will not be prominently featured in the paper – maybe a small boxed-up story hidden near the bottom of the page.

    But when the wrong things are said, they will be front-paged with a sorry-looking picture of the candidate.

    That explains why most candidates chose to stick to their prepared texts.

  2. 2 Yen 26 April 2011 at 19:28

    And they have the gall to give themselves a big self-congratulatory pat on the back at the annual news awards. That said, it is good that people are focusing more on issues rather than on people, a sign of the maturing electorate

  3. 3 Peter Mak 26 April 2011 at 22:36

    I agree with the first commenter’s point – I’ve read somewhere that LTK did not grant interviews to the mainstream media in the as he viewed them as being biased.

    The mainstream media has not changed.

  4. 4 ExExpat 27 April 2011 at 00:26

    Hi Alex I ask again, and don’t know who else to ask: LKY does not appear in public, in this GE, at least as of now, as it looks! Is this just so normal that noone cares, or do I miss something?

    I today’s channel 5 news, there was a segment about what he said in an interview, and a supposedly recent video was shown alongside. However, quite clearly, I saw in the background on some event stage “11 March”, so this video material was not recent.

    Yesterday, comments of him were presented alongside an an archived picture.

    Is this a quite strange misrepresentation of the one contesting a GRC, and whose book presentation was advertised all over the media for weeks?

    This is especially obvious now when compared to aged gentleman Chiam, whom I can see talking everyday talking candidly live at the news in Channel 5, never mind his age and health!


  5. 5 Rabbit 27 April 2011 at 01:10

    Looking at the way the reporters carried themselves, I suspect some instructions must have been given. I fear individual smearing campaign is not going to end anytime soon with the nomination day coming to an end and serious rally is about to begin. Already the last couple of weeks we already smell heavy gun powder from the local press. Let’s watch closely how the reporters are going to pen about the opposition parties in the upcoming days.

  6. 6 Michael 27 April 2011 at 01:25

    Chen Show Mao, he is a little younger than I am.

    I did my national service in the 70s, and so did he. National service in the 70s was probably more demanding, and his decision to do NS, despite not needing to do so, was really commendable. That’s his commitment to Sg and he has shown it more than 30 years ago. So do not question his loyalty nor his commitment to this country.

    Like him, I spent the most part of my adult life (some 15 years) working overseas after graduating from the Uni. I am now back in Sg doing my own business. I can fully understand and accept his take that those of us who are overseas tended to be more Singaporean, more interested in what’s happening in Sg than the Singaporeans living in Sg.

    Nobody questions my loyalty when I was working overseas nor when I am doing my business now. I pay my taxes and I raise my children in Sg. Why should anyone doubts Chen’s loyalty?

    What we have here is a very brilliant man. I honestly believe he is able to grasp the grassroot part of the MP’s responsibilities, and with the WP’s network of volunteers and helpers, fulfil that role.

    More importantly Chen is really a cut above many of us in articulating the need for an effective opposition in Sg Parliament. What could be more real than offering oneself to realise this goal?

    PAP is a self serving party. Under the PAP, Singaporeans have long been rendered infantile in our political awareness. Sg is a “pseudo” democracy and PAP is responsible for the suppresion of a healthy growth in opposition politics.

    We need people like Mr. Chen to challenge the status quo. I support Mr. Chen and wish him every success in the 2011 elections.

  7. 7 yuenchungkwong 27 April 2011 at 06:59

    well at least you cant blame this on the press monopoly, since most of the reporters there would be foreign – HK, Taiwan, mainland china, western; it seems they bought into the PAP counter attack

    when ex-presidents of USA goes around the world showing faces and giving handshakes for money, when they are remembered more for sex scandals than achievements, what are they but paparazzi fodder?

  8. 8 Tan Tai Wei 27 April 2011 at 10:03

    Just an extension, either deliberate (maybe even engineered by the powers-that-be, SPH having been briefed?), or the result of habituation into that suspicion of those who oppose, of PAP’s usual strategy of attacking the creditability of opposition candidates?

    They had been attacked for being incapable and/or character-flawed. So, if capability cannot be convincingly questioned, then it’s their character and commitment. And so the exclusive questioning, not about his political agenda, of this superstar?

    It might be worth noticing that in our secondary school moral education texts, students are being taught that they have the moral responsibility to vote only worthy candidates at general elections, in our context where PAP had very readily accused opposition personalities of being unworthy, nay, “liars and cheats” and income-tax frauds.

  9. 9 87:0 27 April 2011 at 14:54

    It would be a clean 87-0 sweep by the PAP.

  10. 10 Peter They 27 April 2011 at 16:42

    Check out this video at youtube of Viv Bala nomination speech.

    “This election is about our home, our family, our children and our GODS” . He is playing the religion card. Wow

  11. 13 This is Anfield 27 April 2011 at 16:57

    Reporters for the mainstream press are fully aware of the capabilities (or not) of the ruling party candidates. Don’t forget, each ruling party press conference is managed by heavyweight minister. A look or a stare at any impertinence would render the reporters weak in the stomach. The only way to “score” a story would be to focus on the other guy because he is new and has no protection. Tripping up the ruling party guy is next to impossible, but its open season on the other guy.

  12. 14 Stephan Xue 28 April 2011 at 14:21

    The reality in life is that all leaders are celebrities, not just actors and musicians. Some celebrities are so charismatic they have achieved cult status… our LKY to some people. Our new opposition candidates must understand this, be conscious of the dangers but at the same time also be able to wield the power of this media attention. The Americans call this “spin”.

    To prevent misquotations and misrepresentations, most leaders or celebrities will hold a mdia conference so that what they say will be reported by a diverse group of media, reducing the probability of misquotations as one can now compare the standard of the reporting. Local ly however this may sometimes be difficult without participation of the overseas media as all the mainstream media is controlled by the same shareholder.

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