3 things to consider before we criticise SMU don for his 'unhinged rant' on Chee Soon Juan

It is not really what you think it is.

Martino Tan | May 12, 2016, 05:50 PM

Poor Eugene Tan.

The Singapore Management University (SMU) law don received some sharp rebuke from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Chairman, Wong Souk Yee, after Tan made some unflattering comments in The New Paper regarding Chee Soon Juan's electability after his BE loss.

The SDP Chairperson took issue with Tan's criticisms of the SDP Chief, describing those observations as "unhinged rant" and labelled it a "bizarre tirade".

In fact, she provided four point-by-point rebuttals to the quotes by Tan gave to TNP (see more below).

Context first: Tan, a former Nominated MP, is one of those regular political observers -- Institute of Policy Studies' senior researcher Gillian Koh is another -- who helps Singaporeans make sense of political issues and events here.

It's quite a thankless task really -- these academics are performing a public service for apathetic Singaporeans. Yet, many would dismiss them as Captain Obvious(es) if they highlighted observations that some people already know.

Sometimes, information might be easier to digest if you read the headline ("SDP takes SMU law don to task for unsubstantiated vitriol!").

But one needs to realise is that the alternative sites (here and here) are basically just reporting from one source, which is the SDP's press release.

We decided to read the TNP report on Monday, Tan's BE commentaries this week, and TNP's coverage on Chee to get a better sense of things.

Here are three things you may want to consider before jumping on the hate academic bandwagon.

1. The SDP is entitled to their views. But Tan wasn't the only one who commented about Chee's electability.

TNP interviewed two other political observers and one political observer Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow from the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, was equally pessimistic about Chee's chances:

"As much as one has to applaud the determination of Dr Chee to keep going despite losing every time he has contested, it is highly doubtful that he will strike parliamentary gold eventually...It will take an extraordinary turn of events, both politically and economically, for Dr Chee to make it into Parliament under the current circumstances of entrenched one-party dominance".

2. Tan comments a lot, especially given his track record of commenting on issues over time. And his quotes in TNP may not fully reflect his considered views. 

In fact, Tan is a busy man, having written two commentaries on the BE this week.

Commentary 1: Voters’ choice showed their pragmatic side", TODAY, May 9

i. BE victory not a surprise, but 11.8 per cent drop in PAP's vote share can be attributed to several factors: 1) By-election effect; 2) No SG50 and the Lee Kuan Yew dividend; 3) Much stronger SDP candidate in Chee.

ii. Voters were more concerned about municipal and bread and butter issues: People's Action Party (PAP) Murali Pillai focused on how he would serve residents, and went about the hustings quietly. He won because he put the residents at the centre - it was not about him or the PAP.

iii. What next for Chee: The Bukit Batok by-election was his best opportunity to be elected. His failure to "poll the confidence-boosting 40 per cent against a much inexperienced opponent" suggests that he still has much work to do. Tan felt that voting for Chee "required that dramatic leap of faith that proved too much for voters who were concerned about his track record and individual qualities".

"Dr Chee’s long list of promises ranging from making Bukit Batok the envy of Singapore, to an SDP-run town council that surpasses the performance of PAP town councils, while bold, raised questions of whether his plans and his promises were more form than substance, especially since he has no track record in town council management and had only started to work the ground in Bukit Batok when Mr Ong resigned in March this year"

Commentary 2: "A Contrarian Perspective of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s Performance", Lianhe Zaobao, May 11

In this commentary, Tan argued that Chee's BE result was way below par for him even though this is his best electoral performance so far. These are the reasons he gave:

a. PAP was on the defensive due to its former MP's resignation and PAP's poor BE track record.

b. No halo effect on the PAP from the passing of founding PM Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations.

c. Straight fight between Murali and Chee, with no danger of the opposition vote being split.

d. Chee is the most well known SDP politician.

Tan then went on to do some mathematical calculations to show the impact of Chee's presence:

Sadasivam V. - 26.4% in GE2015

SDP's drop in vote share from GE 2011 to GE 2015 - 5.5%

Sadasivam, if he runs in BE 2016 (without SG50 and LKY) - 31.9 % (26.4 + 5.5)

Chee's premium - 7%  (38.8 – 31.9)

"For a veteran opposition leader like Chee, a 7 per cent premium for his personal standing is poor. His premium might even be lower if this figure includes the by-election effect. For a measure of how significant the by-election effect can be, consider the 2013 Punggol East by-election. There the Workers’ Party Lee Li Lian won with 54.5 per cent of the vote, which was a 13.49 per cent improvement over her performance in the same constituency from the 2011 general election, which can be attributed to the by-election advantage (and the WP branding)."


What next for Chee: Bukit Batok voters decided that Chee did not inspire the trust needed for them to vote for change. For "all of Chee’s efforts in gaining sympathy votes for his personal and family narrative as a politician committed to the democratic cause, they fell on deaf ears". Tan also asked whether Chee will remain "the proverbial rolling stone, opportunistically look for a sixth constituency come the next election?"

In short, both commentaries offered some "hard truths" on Chee that the SDP camp may not agree with but they are not exactly some "unhinged rant" or "bizarre tirade".

3. TNP is not Chee's biggest fan.

At the end of the day, the reason for this brouhaha is how TNP decided to play up Tan's criticisms of Chee to suit its agenda.

After all, there is no love lost between TNP and Chee.

TNP is a paper that Chee was particularly irritated with.

When Chee declared in a blog post that he would stand for election last year, he criticised TNP twice.

He singled out Irene Ng (former PAP MP) from TNP who claimed that he was as "fishy as the tuna fish sandwich" that she had for lunch.

Editor's note - A check in The New Paper (Oct 29, 1996) revealed that the line about Chee being as "fishy as the tuna fish sandwich" was in reference to the headline of Ng's column. The column mentioned Chee's errors in SDP's report on healthcare but did not use the phrase. Contrary to Chee's claim, the statement was not made after an interview that Ng conducted with him.

He added that TNP "would not let up even when I was not the candidate", slamming a TNP article ("Is he SDP's Loose Cannon?") for giving readers the impression that he had attempted to conduct an illegal march.

In other words, one shouldn't be too surprised if TNP is the paper that decided to question Chee's political future and splashed it all over its front page. #justsaying

Now, take a deep breath and read SDP Chairman's criticisms of Tan.

Done? You can now criticise Tan. #freedomofspeech


Top photo via here and here

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