British TV debates making waves in Southeast Asia

Ben Bland
The Asia File

Although the United States has been holding Presidential TV debates for years, the stunning impact of the first-ever televised debates between Britain’s three main political leaders has not gone unnoticed here in Southeast Asia.

Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, has long struggled to get its message out, with the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, dominating media coverage of politics. But the TV debates, in which Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was given equal billing to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, have unexpectedly propelled the Lib Dems ahead of Labour in the polls.

Some political observers in Singapore and Malaysia, where opposition parties find it nigh on impossible to get any fair coverage in the largely government-controlled media, have taken notice of the seemingly levelling effect of the UK TV debates.

In Singapore, a Facebook group has been set up calling for a live TV debate to be held during the next general election, due by early 2012. The founder of the group, which has attracted 837 members so far, says:

I am sure ALL of us will agree that if we had a live TV debate between party leaders in Singapore, it would allow the electorate to question party policies in a way never before seen in Singapore and thus help and improve the chances of an informed voting decision.

Let us push for this! Be patriotic, Get Involved in Politics!

The Temasek Review website also carries a commentary that suggests that Singaporeans want a televised debate. “The proposed TV debate would reach out to a far larger audience and put all the rhetoric of the campaign trail into sharp focus,” says writer Lee Seck Kay. “What the parties stand for, their thoughts on the road ahead for Singapore, and their views on issues such as the cost of living, health-care costs, the ageing population and national assets would all provide the basis for the voters’ decision on Polling Day.”

Meanwhile, Malaysian politician Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation and a relative voice of reason within the ruling party, urged readers of his Twitter feed to watch the first debate.

“Sad political junkies should watch the UK election debate on YouTube,” he said. “90mins that may have broken the duopoly that is UK politics.”

I asked Khairy if he thought Malaysia should also hold TV debates during the next general election, which some analysts believe could be as early as next year, and he seemed keen.

“I would support such a proposal,” he told me, via Twitter.

Whether his boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the senior UMNO warlords would back such a move is somewhat doubtful, given their general lack of enthusiasm for a free press.

And, in any case, Najib’s likely opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, is facing questionable sodomy charges again and may well be behind bars by the time of the next election. That would make the logistics of a TV debate difficult to say the least.

As for Singapore, the government wants people to “cool off” politics rather then get enthused. It would be great to see Lee Kuan Yew go up against Chee Soon Juan, the oft-jailed leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, live on TV (they’ve already had an entertaining run-in in court). But the chance of it happening is a big fact zero.

%d bloggers like this: