Looking at two recent controversial events, I am going to argue here that the People’s Action Party (PAP) is too ready to embrace stage-managed show in lieu of substance, with serious consequences on its ability to understand what is truly going on among people.
In a Facebook post, Senior Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong whined that too many online comments ridiculed the display put up in Queenstown for the visiting Prince William of Britain and his wife, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Wong wrote in a post dated 24 September 2012:
When the British royal couple came to visit, PA and HDB organised an event at Queenstown to give them a glimpse of the diverse activities in our heartlands. Singaporeans young and old volunteered readily to be part of this event. Yet, they were mocked online for taking part in a “wayang” show.
I am not the first one to be pointing this out, but it struck me too when I saw those remarks that Wong either didn’t understand what people were saying or was trying to pit citizen against citizen in order to let the government off the hook.
The ridicule was not directed at those who took part, but at those — and now we know it’s the People’s Association and the Housing and Development Board — who came up with the foolish idea and put it into action. And since the People’s Association has become an arm of the People’s Action Party, and the HDB is an arm of the government, the ultimate object of the mocking is none other than the party and government that Wong represents.
Before Wong’s comments, Indranee Rajah had valiantly tried to save the sinking ship. The sham production had two objectives, she proudly told the media:
One was to showcase HDB living. The other was to showcase the various cultural and community activities of Singapore.
“At the same time, the organisers were also given a very short timeframe of about 25 minutes to show all of that,” she [Indranee Rajah] said, adding that they felt the best way to achieve it was to “do it in little exhibition spots.”
The playground was chosen as the venue to show the type of facilities in a housing estate, such as exercise machines and playground equipment.
— Singapolitics, 13 Sept 2012, Queenstown visit was an exhibition, by Tessa Wong, Link.
And so, as you can see from the Reuters picture above, they got an elderly man to dress up in some satiny stage costume to show the prince “real life” in Singapore.
Singaporeans have the right to laugh out loud at it, but it didn’t fool the visitor either.
Ms Indranee said that as she toured the area with Prince William, he had asked her if Singaporeans actually practice taichi and silat in the afternoon.
“I explained that they wouldn’t do so at 3pm because it’s hot, and that these groups were just here to demonstrate… So it was explained to our visitors that we were just showcasing activities,” she said.
In other words, they didn’t tell the prince beforehand that it was all fake. He caught them redhanded. Did the organisers really think they could fool him?
I find it very troubling that they had not told the visitors beforehand, because it indicates to me a mindset that does not question putting on a show in lieu of substance. It didn’t occur to them that non-PAP people would find make-believe something to be sceptical of.
To what extent, I wonder, has this blindsidedness been the result of decades of stage managing ministers’ walk-abouts? Of decades of media control that has produced mainstream media that, daily, “showcases” the government’s achievements? Of carefully organised feedback sessions and surveys whose primary objective is to provide confirmation of the PAP’s and the government’s cognitive bias?
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Lawrence Wong then accused critics of “politicising” the issue. He needs to go back to English class. “Politicising” is one of those words that has been so overused by people to mean what they don’t mean that the word has now lost all meaning.
Critics were criticising the decision to make Queenstown a Potemkin village. There’s nothing wrong with criticising, but Wong chose not to use the word “criticising”, using “politicising” instead.
Was it just a gauche choice of a word, or manipulative smearing?
Through decades, the PAP has tried to make “politics” a dirty word. Primarily, they tried to restrict its meaning to the activities of those who dared to join opposition parties or stand for election against them. In doing so, they seeded in ordinary people a fear of being labelled political, lest they be seen as dissenters and challengers, risking character assassination, job loss, defamation suits and detention without trial.
The word “political” came close to the same meaning as “subversive” or “seditious”.
So, when Wong describes criticism as “politicising” an issue, the effect is to tar critics with that brush, casting them as social and political trouble-makers. Fortunately however, times have changed. Where in years past, others would steer away from repeating similar criticisms to avoid guilt by association, now some will just slam the minister harder. And they are right. Think about it: If criticising the Queenstown sham is “politicising” the issue, what might Wong have imagined to be not politicising it? It can only mean not criticising it.
But how is not criticising what one considers a bad decision the best way forward for Singapore?
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The other issue Wong accused critics of “politicising” was the presence of at least seven identifiable PAP members among the 50 carefully-selected members of the audience in a TV forum with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, and PAP members of parliament Indranee Rajah and Intan Azura Mokhtar about two weeks ago.
Online, Singaporeans had a field day ferreting out the party members. Naturally, the subtext was that having seven (and maybe more) party members out of 50 strongly indicated deliberate skewing.
Lawrence Wong, in the same Facebook post, 24 September 2012, wrote:
No one was invited because of his or her political affiliation. But it so happens that among the group of 50, a handful were PAP members.
Does he really believe that it was all by chance, as implied by the use of the phrase “it so happens”?
A more plausible explanation for the outcome can be found in Straits Times’ Singapolitics blog:
But more so than any of the questions asked, it was the make-up of the 50-member audience that caught the attention of many netizens.
Many scoured the footage of the televised forum to try and spot PAP members.
Over the weekend, dozens began questioning the authenticity of the forum, posting pictures of some audience members identifying them as PAP or grassroots activists.
The issue picked up steam again on Wednesday when a picture began circulating on social media giving the background of 36 participants. Netizens accused them as being linked to or “friendly with” the PAP.
A CNA article published before the forum said that the 50 audience members were drawn from “various quarters of society, including business leaders, professionals, tertiary students, unionists, non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, new citizens and others”
A check with the attendance sheet distributed to media outlets found that some attended in their capacity as grassroots members.
They include Ms Hamidah Aidillah Mustafa, a grassroots leader from the Keat Hong citizens’ consultative committee (CCC); Mr Tay Xiong Sheng from the Woodlands CCC; Mr Budiman Mohamed Salleh, assistant secretary in the Kaki Bukit CCC; and Mr Daniel Ho, member of the youth executive committee for the Boon Lay Community Centre.
— Singapolitics, 19 Sept 2012, No special invites to PAP, PA, says CNA, by Tessa Wong. Link
Let’s take it at face value: that the intent was that the forum guests were to be grassroots leaders and representatives of “various quarters of society”. Firstly, is this another example of “showcasing”? Secondly, and more seriously, the outcome confirms what most Singaporeans know of the profile of grassroots organisations, etc: they are filled with party members and sympathisers. Once someone decides to have “grassroots” organisations included, inescapably, there will be heavy skewing to PAP members.
Yet, the government depends on these structures to provide ground-feel for ministers. How much filtering takes place? Groupthink? Does the system leave ministers in a bubble, out of touch with the real Singapore?
If what happened over the question of single parenthood is any indication, the answer looks like Yes.
One of those at the forum, fashion designer Jo Soh, said: “If I can’t find a husband that I want to marry, why can’t I have a child as a single woman? Or why can’t de-facto couples be recognised? Why can’t de-facto couples have children and still have the same access to subsidies and rights?”
It was a question that prompted PM Lee to ask for a straw poll on the issue – should non-married couples have children?
The vote was split almost equal – 46 per cent voted “yes” and 54 per cent said “no”.
— Channel NewsAsia, 14 Sept 2012, S’pore will stick to policy of encouraging traditional families: PM Lee, by Imelda Saad. Link.
The news story went on to report that the result of the straw poll “took Mr Lee by surprise”. No prizes for guessing that he expected a much more conservative and moralistic poll outcome, for he quickly dismissed the revealed opinion, saying, thank you very much for your views, but the government will stick to its policy of encouraging traditional families.
So much for a National Conversation, critics will say.
But my point — and I think it is a more damaging one — is this: If a carefully selected audience, loaded with party members, can produce an opinion that takes the prime minister by surprise, what does the poor man really know of what Singaporeans think?