A while back, I made a prediction that as opposition parties make headway into the political mainstream, new media will increasingly make those parties the objects of scrutiny. The oft-repeated complaint of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and its government that new media tends to give opposition parties a free pass while fiercely attacking the government will prove to be a passing phase.
Indeed, this phase is passing. A well-known blog, T R Emeritus, recently wrote of an alleged affair between Yaw Shin Leong, Workers’ Party member of parliament for Hougang, and another party member who had stood as an election candidate in the recent general elections. Both are said to be married. The accusation is therefore that of adultery — which in Singapore is not a crime, I need to add.
The allegations lit up social media, though few other blogs followed suit. The traditional media however, picked up the story and tried to confirm it. If you’re partisan about it, you might say the pro-government traditional media was merely seizing the opportunity to make the Workers’ Party look bad, never mind if the story was initiated by a blog that the same traditional media would often hold its noses over.
However, an argument could be made that regardless of provenance, the story was newsworthy enough to be followed.
But, to come back to my first point, this report by a blog is consistent with my thesis and prediction that as new media matures, it is going to come in different flavours and it is going to treat all public issues and political actors as fair game. Which, generally speaking, I think is good for Singapore.
It is traditional media that is going to stay immature. It is imprisoned in the cot mandated by the government. Despite its claims, newsworthiness is not the sole or even most important criterion for choosing its stories.
Look how the Straits Times reported the strike by 200 foreign workers at a construction site in Tampines. The headline said:
Wage dispute resolved after 200 workers stage protest
Construction firms agree to pay salaries unpaid since November after MOM intervenes
It is a weird headline because the newsworthy thing is that a strike occurred, yet the main thrust of the headline was not that. Rather, it hailed the government for being effective in solving / curing / bringing about happiness and harmony just like the government of the Great Leader / Dear Leader / and whatever new leader in a certain Northeast Asian country.
The Online Citizen did a better job than the Straits Times. Carrying the same story, its headline said, simply, and to the point:
Construction workers strike at Tampines
It so happened that a week prior, Channel NewsAsia approached the charity I volunteer with over a documentary they were planning to do on the subject of the increasing numbers of foreign workers in Singapore and the impact of that trend. I told them that if they wanted to interview me, they had to be prepared for the likelihood that my comments would be highly critical of government policy, and for obvious reasons: I see that a lot of problems faced by foreign workers and Singaporeans alike over this issue can be traced to blindsides in policy. I suggested to the CNA representative that she should check with her higher-ups whether they would air such comments.
A few days later, she phoned back to say thank you very much but they wouldn’t need to interview me after all. I don’t feel I should disclose what exactly was said in that conversation, but it would be a fair conclusion to say that my initial gutfeel was not contradicted.
Enough about foreign workers, let’s talk about the Yaw story.
* * * * *
Last night, the Workers’ Party issued a terse statement to say that Yaw Shin Leong had resigned from the Executive Council and his position as Treasurer. In about 100 words, it said:
The Workers’ Party wishes to inform the public that at the monthly meeting of the Executive Council on Tuesday, 7 February 2012, the Council accepted the resignation of Yaw Shin Leong from the party leadership. Yaw Shin Leong will cease to be Treasurer of the Party with immediate effect.
The Council has also decided to appoint the Deputy Treasurer, Yee Jenn Jong, as the Party’s Treasurer.
Yaw Shin Leong will focus on his responsibilities as Member of Parliament for Hougang.
The Workers’ Party assures residents of Hougang of the Party’s commitment to the constituency and to supporting the work of their Member of Parliament.
There was no mention of the allegations, entirely in keeping with Yaw’s and the party’s “no comment” stance through the last few weeks. However, the resignation alone will probably confirm in many people’s minds the notion that the allegations were well founded. That said, they remain allegations, and as I had pointed out above, if even it was a case of adultery as rumoured, such is not a crime.
Nor is it my intention to discuss the truth or falsity of these rumours. What I found interesting was the reaction of the Workers’ Party. In choosing to stonewall the issue, the party is tacitly kowtowing to two things that I consider damaging to Singapore’s long-term interests, and that will probably come back to haunt the party:
1. By refusing to discuss the allegations, the party in effect submits to the moralism that is being whipped up.
Accusations of adultery on the part of politicians are always built on the unstated premise that politicians should be morally pure, super-human, virtually saints. Setting such a high bar will deter the best and brightest from coming forward to serve, not just the Workers’ Party, but any other party. While we can acknowledge the fact that leadership does indeed call for some degree of personal discipline, we should never confuse politics with religion. Short of being saint-like, a reasonable modicum of discipline, plus a large dose of humility and honesty with the public should be good enough to earn trust and goodwill.
But by refusing the route of honesty, the Workers’ Party is implicitly subscribing to the moralism at play, thus conceding the tenet that politicians should have nothing less than immaculate lives.
I think the party is making a huge mistake. As I told the Straits Times (reported 8 Feb 2012): “‘The WP and Mr Yaw should have had a forthright discussion with Singapore citizens about whatever it may be that may have generated the rumours,” and to seek understanding rather than duck.
2. By refusing to discuss the allegations, the party in effect subscribes to the notion that only politicians should set the agenda, not the public.
One of the things Singaporeans are truly sick of is the PAP dictum that the government should be setting the agenda for the media and voters, not the other way around. People should respond (preferably rally to) the government’s ideas, but the government does not have to respond to the public’s. The behaviour of the Workers’ Party in this instance is cut from the same cloth. The party is saying it will only discuss what it wants to discuss, not what the public considers important or newsworthy.
I suspect the party is hoping the issue will blow away in time and Yaw’s hard work serving his constituents will earn him reelection at the next general election. It may well be, and that constituents will overlook these allegations and vote for him again for his dedication and effectiveness in Parliament. But if so, it will only prove the other point I made to the Straits Times: “If they think Singaporeans have a one-track mind, the party is wrong. I don’t think Singaporeans on the whole are always judgmental.”
If the party hopes Hougang voters will overlook the allegations at the next general elections — they are hardly likely to forget them — why doesn’t the party trust that Singaporeans will be understanding now? Why not set an example of honesty and openness now?
Why is the Workers’ Party putting on the PAP’s mask of sullen resistance?