I was going to write a column about the Singapore Democratic Party’s Saturday launch of its campaign for the general election, but more interesting developments have taken place. Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing has written to the Huffington Post to decry its publication of two op-ed pieces by SDP’s Chee Soon Juan. The point, in the view of this observer at least, is to tell HuffPost not to lionize Dr Chee, as he is no Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics.
He has also written to the ST Forum page to rebut a letter from Dr Chee rebutting a letter by Singapore envoy Jacky Foo which in turn rebuts an op-ed piece which the SDP chief had published in the Wall Street Journal. (You wonder why the two sides just go to a dark alley somewhere to slug it out….)
And so it begins…
On Saturday, the SDP announced that it wants to be “Your voice in Parliament’’ and will be contesting several seats including, it appears, Mr Chan’s seat in Tanjong Pagar GRC. Now, Mr Chan’s two letters could have been made public much earlier, instead of about a month after. You can just imagine the People’s Action Party deciding to wait until after SDP signals its intention to contest, to set off its own rockets. Maybe it also decided to wait until its whole Central Executive Committee has been established, and take a collective decision. (We wouldn’t know because Mr Chan used his ministerial position, indicating that this is a G response – and not a PAP response.)
Anyway, the lateness of the letters meant that I had to go back in time to find out what exactly Dr Chee said in HuffPost. I had read his piece on Free the Singapore Media and Let the People Go. What a biblical headline, I thought. If I were Charlie, I would have caricatured Dr Chee as Moses berating the Pharoah and parting the Red Sea. This was also why I wondered why the SDP had no plans to “free the media’’ when asked about it at its Saturday press conference.
After all, this was what he wrote in his Dec column:
The state-controlled media shield the ruling class from being responsive to the needs and aspirations of the common people. They have put reason and intellectualism to sleep and, as a result, stymied development.
Such kind of politics cannot continue, not if Singapore is going to graduate into the next phase of development. The ruling party must stop attempting to conquer people and, instead, move to contest policies. It must end the political solipsism from which the PAP arrogates unto itself sole ideological legitimacy and turn to a contemporary pluralism where differences in opinion are debated, indeed celebrated.
If the country is going to survive the next phase of technological advancement in an increasingly competitive global environment, politics in Singapore must evolve in tandem. Starting with the media.
Instead, on Saturday, he flip-flopped between berating the “state-controlled media’’ and appealing to its representatives there to “look into themselves and do what is right’’. As someone who used to be in MSM, I have been subjected to enough cutting words by opposition politicians. Rather than use the media as a punching bag, I have always wondered why they do not put their money where their mouth is and come up with proposals to change media laws and regulations. Instead what we hear from Dr Chee et al was that other players can take the lead on this front, the SDP will cheer from the sidelines. Sheesh. What a cop-out.
Besides the media, I wondered why the SDP platform was bereft of the party’s usual emphasis on other forms of liberal freedoms and human rights. After all, these are his pet topics at the various foreign events he had been invited to. In fact, it was a key point in his earlier HuffPost piece, Without Freedom, there is no Free Trade. On the free trade agreements Singapore has concluded – and about to conclude, he was disappointed that nothing was said about democratic freedoms and the rights of workers.
It is clear that the benefits of the USSFTA have not accrued equitably. One reason for such a skewed outcome, at least for Singaporeans, is, as I’ve mentioned at the outset, the lack of democratic rights of the people.
The labour movement is under firm state guidance (the umbrella National Trade Unions Congress is headed by a cabinet minister), the print and broadcast media are owned by the government (Singapore ranks 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index — even Myanmar is higher at 145th), the ranks of the political opposition and civil society have been decimated through decades of state harassment, and fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association are severely proscribed.
The European Union (EU) is about to sign its own FTA with Singapore. The proposed agreement makes extensive provisions for the protection of the rights of businesses, but almost nothing in it speaks of the protection of the rights of workers.
But it was a different Dr Chee and SDP which presented itself on Saturday. It dealt with bread-and-butter issues like housing and healthcare. There was no banging of drums on abolition of the Internal Security Act, freedom of speech or assembly and human/worker rights. The silence disconcerted me, and when I asked about it, Dr Chee replied that the SDP had never “consciously’’ set out to be “liberal’’ and issues such as healthcare are about human rights too.
So it seems that Dr Chee presents one face of the SDP to the foreign gallery and another to Singaporeans. Quite smart, I thought. Even sneaky. It went on issues close to the heart of Singaporeans, as Dr Chee himself put it, while it is addressing Singaporeans… because the other face it presents to the world is not something Singaporeans are enamoured with?
That, by the way, was going to be the point of my column.
Back to recent developments…
So Mr Chan has written to the HuffPost. I have to say I’m disappointed. If there is one thing I deplore, it is politicians who diss the media. In this case, Mr Chan laments the “considerable but undeserved space’’ given to Dr Chee. Media give attention to what they deem important issues, aligned with their own editorial values which they believe their readers/audiences share. I don’t think the Singapore Government would think it is its place to tell Charlie Hebdo what it should have or should not published…
What flummoxes me is that Mr Chan signed off in his capacity as a Government minister. I would have comprehended the move if the response was to deal with points in his articles that were incorrect or mis-represented Singapore. In fact, there are plenty that the G can take issue with. They include sweeping statements such as “We have a pension savings system that is broken. An entire generation of workers is in danger of not having sufficient income to retire on’’ or “As for the younger generation, there is significant underemployment and limited opportunities for graduates.’’
Instead, the letter was about how Dr Chee was not the “weighty politician’’ the HuffPost might think he is, but a defeated, deflated opposition politician with a string of political failures and a record of run-ins with the law. I wonder if the HuffPost editors would respond with a thank you note…
Then there was this perplexing defence of the local media:
As he has done in the past, he has looked to the foreign media for redemption, chiefly because foreign journalists don’t know him as well as Singaporeans and he believes he can beguile them into believing he is the Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics. Dr Chee, however, claims he is forced to publish in the foreign media because he has been silenced in the Singapore media.
But this is false. There are several socio-political websites in Singapore, some with as wide a reach among Singaporeans as the Huffington Post has among Americans. They have run several articles by Dr Chee. The local press also has carried several of Dr Chee’s letters.
Mr Chan surely realises that Dr Chee isn’t referring to online media but local MSM, including the state broadcaster? In any case, why is he speaking for the media? (And man, oh man, which websites was he referring to which has HuffPost’s reach???? Put your hands up please!)
Mr Chan’s letter to ST Forum Page makes more sense. As I said, it is a response to a response to a response…so bear with me.
This is what Dr Chee said in his letter headlined Not possible for poor Singaporeans to live on $1,000 a month.
The Government asserts that these families are able to afford their own apartment. It forgets that they still need to eat, transport themselves to work, send their children to school, seek medical treatment when they fall ill, and save for retirement.
Mr Chan’s response: Singaporean families earning $1,000 a month can indeed afford their own flats because of various housing grants. As a result, the lowest 20th percentile of households have an average net home equity of $200,000. That is an achievement no other nation in the world can boast of.
And that is not all. In recent years, we have enhanced our social safety nets. Lower-income households have benefited from, among other things, Workfare and various assistance schemes for medical, transport, utilities and education.
We will soon strengthen our social safety net further with the Silver Support Scheme to help Singaporeans with low Central Provident Fund balances.
So what we have is a fuller version of the help Singaporeans, including $1,000 a month, get. That is useful and puts Dr Chee’s point in context. It is right that the Minister in charge of social and family development replies on a matter under his portfolio.
Then Mr Chan takes a swipe at Dr Chee’s articles as “sacrificing’’ Singapore to score points abroad:
For instance, when he writes in the right-leaning WSJ, he attacks our government-linked companies – never mind the many Singaporean jobs at stake if foreigners do not do business with our companies.
And when he writes in the left-leaning Huffington Post, he attacks the US-Singapore free trade agreement – never mind that this FTA allows our companies to compete in the US market and creates jobs for Singaporeans.
Hmmm….This is interesting. It’s an ideological conundrum that Dr Chee and the SDP face methinks. Which principles do they uphold? Does the SDP want the European Union to “force’’ the G into some position/condition on human rights before an FTA is signed even at the expense of not having an FTA at all?
Thing is, sometimes SDP’s “foreign’’ face is in conflict with the “local’’ face – or can they both meld in some way? The SDP should clarify.
The second part of the letter is a “reminder’’ to Singaporeans of Dr Chee’s past, such as how he had betrayed his mentor, the much loved Mr Chiam See Tong and ousted him from the party he founded.
Ouch. I agree that there are some things Dr Chee would probably rather not have mentioned in public…History has a way of coming back to haunt you….especially in election-time. Doubtless, the SDP is preparing ammunition to use against Mr Chan as well.
And so it begins…
Campaigning has started…
Singaporeans, sit back and relax and watch the spectacle unfold – at the SEA games lah.