Comment: No needles were moved nor minds swayed after 2023 presidential forum

No needle-moving.

Sulaiman Daud | August 29, 2023, 11:25 AM

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Political debates are a chance for candidates to change the game. There are moments that are later recognised as causing a paradigm shift. U.S. elections in particular are rife with such examples.

In Singapore, the 2020 general election debate was memorable, with Jamus Lim of the Workers' Party introducing "blank cheque" and "cockles" into the local political lexicon.

So I tuned in on Aug. 28 to take in the sight of all three PE2023 candidates in the same place for the first time since Nomination Day. There was even some uncertainty over whether Tan Kin Lian would show up, due to his refusal to appear on a Straits Times-hosted forum.

With all three men in place, I would have preferred a better understanding of why I should choose one candidate over another. I anticipated some debate over each other's campaigns, given the somewhat sharp public statements that the candidates have made. I would have expected some rebuttal of each other's positions or views, at the least.

What I didn't expect, and what we all ended up getting, was barely anything new being said.

Nothing new in the opening

Let's start with the candidates' opening remarks and their responses to the first question - "What experience and expertise do you possess, that make you the most qualified candidate to be the President?"

Ng Kok Song spoke of his accomplishments at GIC and MAS, as well as his non-partisan status. Tharman Shanmugaratnam went over his experience in government positions, and his experience in the international arena. Tan Kin Lian touted his independence and career at NTUC Income.

Now if this all sounds familiar to you, that's not a surprise. This is basically what each candidate has been saying, whether in their walkabouts, Nomination Day thank-you speeches or the previous Presidential candidate broadcast.

I'll concede that not everyone may be paying as close attention to these three men.

But the only way that these opening statements would have seemed fresh and new to you, is if this is literally the first time you've heard the candidates speak.

The only thing that was somewhat novel was Tharman saying that — with respect — the other two don't match up to his depth and breadth of experience.

Given the state of Singapore politics, this counts as something of a zinger. It would be considered the height of politeness in the campaigns of many other democracies.

Forum, not a debate

I get that as Singaporeans, we are supposed to look down our noses at the somewhat messy way things are done elsewhere. But some interaction between the three would certainly have been more interesting.

CNA called this a forum, not a debate. And it showed. Forums are for airing opinions. Debates are about challenging them. We got precious few moments of the latter.

About the only moment that got heartbeats raised a little was a question about how candidates would avoid politicising the election, as they were all (accurately) characterised as being associated with the establishment, the ruling party and the opposition.

What about Tan Cheng Bock?

Just the day before, former 2011 presidential election candidate and current Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chairman Tan Cheng Bock threw his weight behind Tan Kin Lian's bid, although he took pains to stress that he was doing so in a personal capacity. But Tan Cheng Bock is the only current party chairman of a political party with presence in parliament to do so.

Tan Kin Lian could have addressed that. Instead, he seemed to give a response about how "solving difficult problems" does not necessarily mean that the president would be engaging in politics. He would continue in this vein for the rest of the night, until CNA's Otelli Edwards stepped in after his closing statement to remind viewers of the functions and limits of the presidency.

Ng Kok Song, who had previously spoken out strongly following Tan Cheng Bock's endorsement, reminded the audience that he alone had no previous political affiliations.

In fact, the only guy to utter Tan Cheng Bock's name was Tharman, and it was just in the context of him as a former presidential candidate in 2011. Tharman said it would be "simplistic" to rule out candidates like former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock based on their past political affiliations.

And so one of the more intriguing developments of this election passed like a whisper in the night during this forum.

Positive calls

However I will say there were some positive and interesting moments during the forum. CNA's Otelli Edwards resumed her questioning after the break with a question on fostering a compassionate and inclusive society.

Tharman spoke of not overlooking the elderly, who are at high risk of loneliness. Tan Kin Lian highlighted the good work done by the President's Charity, and expressed his wish to do more. And Ng Kok Song discussed the spirit of volunteerism, as well as not forgetting migrant and domestic workers as part of our society.

But at times, their answers started to blend into each other, especially when faced with questions like global challenges and being a unifying figure for Singaporeans.

After all, with the reminder that the president cannot have a different foreign policy from the government, and with eternal warnings drilled into us against doing anything to stir up racial or religious animus, it was absolutely no wonder the answers sounded similar. You cannot, in this country, cross these OB Markers.

No moving of the needle

At the end of the day, the candidates appeared to have a simple objective heading into the forum — do no harm.

It's a truism of politics that if you're in the lead, don't lose ground. Conversely, if you're trailing behind, you have to do something to get ahead in the polls.

Perhaps due to Singapore's strict laws on public polling during elections, all three candidates behaved as though they were in the lead. Thus, they appeared to set out intending to do no harm. They may have succeeded.

Anyone expecting a Tharman knockout punch akin to his famous "trampoline" quip was left disappointed. Anyone expecting Tan Kin Lian to say something controversial was left disappointed. Anyone expecting Ng Kok Song to hit his two opponents a little harder was left disappointed.

And so ultimately, this forum will sway no minds and change no votes.

As you were, gentlemen. Literally.

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Top image by CNA.