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.
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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.
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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.