It was the session that many of the participants were waiting for.
The men (and woman) in the arena reunited one last time to debate in the final session of yesterday’s (Nov. 4) Post-Election Conference organised by think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).
Here are five things we noticed when politicians play political pundits at a post GE-2015 conference:
1. Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung played down the significance of the PAP landslide.
In his five-minute opening remarks, Ong tried to persuade the audience that PAP’s victory is “more narrow than it seemed” by highlighting the negatives.
The negatives? PAP lost six parliamentary seats (the same number as it did in GE2011), and that the vote swing for the more hotly contested constituencies was only about 5 per cent.
He is not wrong in pointing out that the glass is half-empty.
However, someone with a glass half-full perspective will point out the positives – nearly 70 per cent of the popular vote, 83 out of 89 seats (which is translated to 93.26% of the parliamentary seats), and the re-taking of Punggol East-SMC.
2. The opposition parties had many complaints about the uneven political playing field
Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan said that the PAP’s “control” of mainstream media and the Elections Department (ELD) disadvantaged opposition parties, while Singapore People’s Party (SPP) chairman Lina Chiam lamented the challenges she faced during GE, like being refused entry into condominiums.
The only opposition with no complaints?
National Solidarity Party (NSP) Secretary-General Lim Tean.
He said that it is no longer relevant for the opposition to be a “co-driver”. He argued that “the opposition have to be prepared to drive their own policy cars and persuade Singapore voters to ride in their cars. It’s no longer possible for us to hitch a ride with the PAP”.
Wise words by Lim.
3. The Workers’ Party (WP)’s absence
Here is the backstory of how the political parties – PAP, SDP, SPP, NSP – were chosen for the panel discussion.
Arun Mahizhnan, the moderator of the panel and IPS Special Research Adviser, told the audience that IPS chose only five political parties due to time constraints.
Mahizhnan added that the five parties – PAP, WP, SDP, SDA, and SPP – were selected based on the highest percentage of votes they garnered in GE 2015. WP “declined to participate”, while SDA did not confirm whether they wish to attend. Hence, an invitation was sent to NSP.
Judging from the lack of national awareness from yesterday’s exchanges between the politicians, WP played it right by keeping their cards close to their chests. In time to come, Singaporeans will forget that this event occur.
However, one wonders if WP’s “selective engagement” with the public is good for the democratic health of the country. While WP has the right to choose the type of events it wishes to participate, Singaporeans may start wondering whether WP is being overly calculative and political in managing its public profile.
Imagine the amount of brickbats PAP and even SDP will receive if they decided to be absent. PAP would be criticised by many for not engaging the opposition on a level playing field, while SDP would face criticisms by some for not practising what it preaches in terms of freedom of speech.
The largest opposition party in Singapore cannot engage in politics only from its comfort zone.
4. Chee Soon Juan appears more angry than Chee Soon Juan version GE 2015
One of the unforeseen stories in GE 2015 was the rehabilitation of SDP chief Chee’s public image.
The GE 2015 image of Chee was how he was able to conduct himself in an above-the-fray manner. He was able to keep cool and act “above politics” by denouncing the antics of name-calling and personal destruction.
But the SDP Sec-Gen the participants saw yesterday was not the Chee of GE 2015. In fact, he sounded rather angry yesterday. Just check out some of his criticisms:
– On conferences not inviting the opposition as guest speakers: I thank the organisers for inviting me to address you. You can well imagine that speaking and addressing at a mainstream organisation like this is not a “daily occurrence”.
– On the mainstream media: “Party controls print and broadcast media for its own partisan political purposes.”
– On the Election Department: “The Election Department works from under the Prime Minister’s Office.”
– On thinktanks and universities: “Organisations like the Institute of Policy Studies and the National University of Singapore don’t seem to be encouraging or organising enough of these discussions and debates to propel a knowledge-based society that we so desperately need.”
– On the participants in the conference: “When the time comes and chickens come home to roost then our problem becomes intractable because the PAP did not want change, and we out of fear, meekly comply. We will find ourselves in a future where even the PAP cannot escape. We, all of us in this room, will become complicit in that ruin.”
5. Ong Ye Kung vs Chee Soon Juan
Before the session started, the audience probably wondered how Ong, a fourth generation leader, will fare in a debate with Chee. For instance, will Ong engage in a point for point rebuttal towards Chee’s criticisms? Will Chee win in such a debate? Will Ong lose his cool?
However, the stakes are low since the GE is over. In fact, the 90-minute discussion came to an end before the politicians warmed up.
Hence, the highly anticipated Ong vs Chee standoff was restricted to just one moment. This was when Ong mentioned about the mainstream media and its independence in making editorial decisions:
“I thought I share this story with you. During the nine days of campaign, Straits Times came to me and say, ‘Did you notice the feature in the paper – one of PAP candidate, one of opposition candidate? Would you like to be in one of these? We thought we would approach you.’ I said ‘Okay, which day would I be featured?’ They said, ‘On the ninth day” I thought that was quite a good profile. Ninth day is the last day of election. I was rather honoured, so I said yes. On the ninth day, I opened The Straits Times – I was not there. (laughter in the crowd) So I asked the journalist what happened. He said, “You didn’t read the online copy. You are now in the online section” (laughter in the crowd).” I am relegated. So I said, ‘who was therefore featured on the ninth day?” They said “Dr Chee Soon Juan”. (laughter) What to do? This is their editorial decision. They probably figured out that Sembawang (the constituency Ong contested) not as interesting as Holland-Bukit Timah (the constituency Chee contested). I had to accept it, you know.
And Chee’s response?
“Just to respond to what Mr Ong has said about the media…I would gladly trade places with you to give you the editorial during those nine days and then have between those five years and the fifty years before that, to have the media just right behind your back all the time giving you the support and wherewithal that you need to be victorious at the polls.”
Ong’s type of self-deprecating humour probably won some of the audience over.
When various members of the audience – blogger Alex Au and SDP member John Tan – started the Q&A session by directing all their questions to Ong, Ong quipped to the moderator that it would be “unfair (for the rest) if I get so many questions”.
This caused much laughter among the audience. Interestingly, the mood was subsequently less hostile to Ong as the audience posed more questions to the other members of the panel.
While there was no standout performers in the panel discussion, Ong certainly fared much better than his party colleagues when they debated Chee at the GE live TV forum.
All photos by Kelly Wong.