Low Thia Khiang interviewed live is a masterclass on how to deal with mainstream media
Questions about ongoing civil suit become how the Workers' Party has an army of young supporters ready.
Any opposition politician who has spent some time in Singapore politics will have the battle scars to show for.
For Low Thia Khiang, who has two decades of experience under his belt, he has that and much more.
One skill he has fine-tuned over the years — besides walking out of a beating in an incumbent-dominated parliament sitting — is the ability to deftly deal with Singapore’s mainstream media with a knack of asking hard questions of opposition politicians.
So, with his guard up and eyebrows ready to furrow at any moment, the Workers’ Party chief told the media gathered on the sidelines of the Meet-The-People session on Wednesday night:
“My conscience is clear and we have acted in good faith, and in the best interests of residents. The residents can see for themselves. And I’ve been in politics for 20 years, more than 20 years, and I think people know me.”
Burning questions became smothering side queries
Those 20-plus years of experience sure came in handy.
Just like that, less than 24 hours after The Straits Times reported about the lawsuit filed by an independent panel on behalf of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) over alleged improper payments, the media had the air sucked out of their burning questions.
What they were left with were a smattering of smothering side queries and little choice but to quote the WP leader who essentially vouched for his own integrity.
Partly because the interview was streamed live over Facebook and there was no way of cutting these parts out.
But mostly because Low set the agenda right from the get-go and the media could only play ball.
How Low beat the media to their agenda
Here is a play-by-play account of Low’s masterclass in dealing with Singapore’s mainstream media.
1. Low started the interview by setting the agenda. He stayed on message by repeating what WP had already revealed in its first press release on the matter.
Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh enter.
Sylvia Lim: Hello everyone.
Low Thia Khiang: Hi, good evening everyone. Thank you for coming. I know you have a lot of questions to ask. But let me start.
First and foremost, my conscience is clear. We have acted in good faith and to the best interests of our residents. And there is no dishonest intention. You may ask the questions you want to ask.
2. Low dealt with the political questions and left the legal questions to lawyer Sylvia Lim.
Reporter: You are said to have made false representations and misrepresentations with regards to the juncture where CPG was being released and the appointment of FMSS, what do you say to that?
Sylvia Lim: I think as we have mentioned in our statement, we reject these allegations against us and as you all know, the case has been filed in court, so we intend to present our defence in the proper forum. And we’ve been advised that it may not be proper for us to go into some of the details right now so we hope you all understand that.
Reporter: Mr Low, would you see this latest move as further eroding the trust that the residents have towards the town council and towards the Workers’ Party?
Low Thia Khiang: Well, we are always open. We leave it to the residents and the voters of Singapore to make their judgement. As I said here once again, our conscience is clear, we acted in good faith.
Reporter: Could you share a bit more of what’s going to happen next in terms of timeline in proceedings right now?
Sylvia Lim: So, as you all know this is a civil case filed against us in the High Court. So, in accordance with the rules of court, certain documents need to be filed in the next couple of weeks. The first one will be the of memorandum of appearance, that will be filed about one week from the time we receive the writ of summons. And then two weeks from then we’ll be entering our substantive defence. So in all these things we’ll be working with our lawyers, and in due course if we can share more information, we certainly will.
Reporter: What is your response to the headline figure of S$33 million that they want you to account for?
Sylvia Lim: May I answer? I think that is calculated to be the total value of the payments made but as I’ve said earlier, we reject the allegations that these payments were unlawful and wrong. And it would be up to the court to determine what they think is the fair and correct decision. So, I’m afraid we cannot go into the merits of our defence in detail now, because we have to do it in court.
Reporter: Will you be liable for any amount? What is your contingency if you are unable to get the funds to pay for it.
Sylvia Lim: I guess we’ll have to look at the amount and whether we have the means to pay back. If we don’t, we may have to consider other options, perhaps raising funds. If we are not able to, then I suppose the law will take its course.
Reporter: But are the MPs actually concerned that if the lawsuit is actually successful, and you said you’d find ways to pay the funds, the settlement, in case you don’t, are you concerned it may cost you your seats?
Sylvia Lim: We are aware of what the law provides for. At the moment we’re focused on presenting our defence in court. Of course, lawsuits are never pleasant but we welcome this opportunity to actually go into detail to explain to the court and the public why we made certain decisions in that point in time. We hope that, because town council management is a technical matter, we hope that with this court case, there will be a greater understanding, especially on the public’s point of view, to better understand what the considerations were when we made the decisions and why we still stand firm today in what we did was the best interest of the council based on information we had at the time.
Reporter: HDB has said that that they are studying the statement of claim and is seeking the AGC’s advice. Will there be concern that there will be further actions down the road, are you all prepared in seeing that coming?
Sylvia Lim: Well, we read that news about HDB seeking AGC’s advice on the statement of claim. I mean as far as we know , the statement of claim is still before the court , the case is not over.
Reporter: Mr Singh, could we get your perspective as well, some of your thoughts on this case?
Pritam Singh: The case in general?
Reporter: As well as anything as well, your message to residents and your understanding of the case?
Pritam Singh: I think I will reiterate the words of Ms Sylvia Lim. I see the court case as an opportunity for us to put our side of the story out there, so our defence, which will be a very robust defence. And the residents of Aljunied will also have the opportunity to look at our defence quite closely because we will be making it known to the public and I’m sure the media will do its job and put that defence out there for people to get a full perspective. It’s my firm conviction that we acted in good faith and we’re not in politics for the purposes of enriching ourselves and things of that nature. We hope to serve the community to better our abilities. It was a commitment we made in 2011. Same commitment we made in nomination day in 2015. And that commitment remains.
3. Low put his track record and experience to good use.
Reporter: My question for Mr Low. You know this case has been ongoing since 2014, how do you try to restore the faith and confidence of your constituents?
Low Thia Khiang: I don’t think Singaporeans have lost faith in us. We acted in good faith. I believe Singaporeans will trust us. 2015 elections, it was a testimony to us. It was worse than this, during the election, or before the election, MND or HDB was coming out with adverse statements during the election, and PAP brought the issue to the ground, distribute pamphlet door to door, but we are prepared to be judged by the people. As what I said, my conscience is clear and we have acted in good faith, and in the best interests of residents. The residents can see for themselves. And I’ve been in politics for 20 years, more than 20 years, and I think people know me. So be it.
4. Low stonewalled the mainstream media and left them with no choice but to ask questions that were unrelated to the lawsuit. Like the May 2016 leadership challenge. Yes, May 2016. Not May 2017.
Reporter: And Mr Low, given that there was a leadership challenge last year for your position, do you think that this issue will erode your popularity or confidence of your members within the party itself?
Low Thia Khiang: I don’t really care about my popularity in the first place. (Laughs) I do my part, and I always believe that what is important is you have to keep your conscience clear in politics. I mean, people will always their own opinion of you, as a public figure, you just do what you are supposed to do, what you have to do, and be clear of what you are doing. That is my belief and that is what I’ve been doing and leadership challenge is a good thing. That shows the Workers’ Party is maturing. There are people who are prepared to be in a leadership position because being in leadership means responsibility. I’m very happy people are prepared to come forward to serve, to take the responsibility. And the worst thing that could is that nobody wants the leadership position. So I’m happy that this challenge. And I look forward to more challenges. Well, I have said about renewal since I took over in 2001. It has been my priority.
5. Finally, Low pivoted to talk about WP’s bright future and how WP is undergoing a leadership renewal. Just like the PAP.
Low Thia Khiang: I’m happy to see that the party has renewed, we have more new members today, and I think I’m the oldest in the CEC. Okay, that’s fine. (Laughs) Some of you might be worried what would happen if we lose our seat? I can tell you, if we lose our seat there will be more people and the younger generation of the Workers’ Party will be prepared to come forward to serve Singaporeans. So I have no worries.
Pritam Singh: You can count on it.
Low used agenda-setting, it’s super effective
A day later, there was no back-to-back negative coverage on the lawsuit over alleged improper payments related to the financial management of AHTC.
In other words, Low’s immediate and decisive response to the matter preempted the media’s framing of the issue.
And now Singaporeans will find it increasingly hard to believe that any politician who spent more than 20 years in a domain fighting tooth and nail would squander it for personal benefit.
You can also view the interview on the Workers’ Party’s own platform:
Here are totally unrelated but equally interesting articles:
Top photo from Workers’ Party YouTube