Why are they so afraid of an open debate? Part 1

Vincent Wijeysingha

I represented the Singapore Democrats on Channel NewsAsia’s (CNA) political panel discussion which will be aired on Saturday, 2 Apr, at 10 pm.

The state-run media have demonstrated a pattern of blacking out the SDP from their reporting and programming. And no wonder. Over the years, the Singapore Democrats have emerged as a credible political force, translating an effective party machinery and sound political philosophy into policy documents.

In November, we published our alternative economic programme at our second Pre-Election Rally, itself an unparalleled event in Singapore’s political history. Entitled It’s About You: Prosperity and Progress for Every Singaporean, this alternative sets out our party’s socio-economic philosophy based on a deep-structure critique of the problems Singapore is facing at this time.

The publication is a result of intense analytical exercise around our nation’s challenges, and takes an in-depth look at why these problems have arisen, and the role of the PAP’s ideology and priorities in generating this crisis.

It puts forward both an alternative framework of political-economic assumptions and a set of polity alternatives to benefit all the people of Singapore.

In March, the party again decisively occupied the political landscape with the publication of its Shadow Budget, again the first time in the history of our nation that such a document had been produced.

Entitled Empowering the Nation: Shadow Budget 2011, the document made clear proposals for the financial year 2011, carefully based on our party’s philosophy of Competence, Constructiveness and Compassion.

The overall thrust of the Shadow Budget is contained in three policy elements emphasising productivity and sustainability, trimming the bloated costs of government, and creating a home fit for all Singaporeans to live in.

With our productivity consistently failing to improve over the years (despite various policies designed to enhance it), government expenditure that is spiraling mainly due to the world’s highest wages and bonuses that minister pay themselves, and the rapid increase in poverty, inaccessibility of public services due to the profit motive being implicated in our housing, healthcare and education, the Shadow Budget puts forward a sensible and coherent programme that, in fact, manages to be costed at less than the previous year’s PAP budget.

My purpose in going through these publications is to make the argument that in a democratic society and one where the government party of the moment is not insecure of its own positions and popularity, it would not shy away from a free and open policy debate.

The PAP, on the other hand, is highly apprehensive of the electorate. After years of mismanagement of the economy, the hundreds of billions of our money wasted in ill-judged investments, the crippling of access to public services through the introduction of the profit motive, I would be too.

And yet it continues to reward itself quite out of measure with its failures.

If I were guilty of such a track record, I too would hide behind the now obvious ban that the PAP-controlled media have imposed on discussing SDP’s programmes. I hear that in the past, DJs at Caldecott Hill were not allowed to mention Dr Chee Soon Juan’s book Dare To Change on air.

My point is that even though the SDP had brought out unprecedented policy documents, both SPH and MediaCorp have refused, despite calls from this website to do so, to carry detailed analyses of our proposals.

All this seemed to change when we were invited to CNA’s programme. However, all was not as it seemed with the forum.

First, as has been reported on this website, the host insisted that all participants should fulfill three criteria: they should be a member of their party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) and an office-bearer, and eligible to stand for election.

Its justification was that it wanted participants who had a stake in the coming elections, an unstable line of reasoning since all members of political parties have a stake in elections: the winning of seats in Parliament is one of the key tasks of a political party.

No doubt, the criteria set by CNA were designed to keep from participating in the programme the SDP’s Secretary-General, Dr Chee Soon Juan, by far its most eloquent and compelling advocate.

However, the SDP complied with CNA’s criteria and appointed me to represent the party, and I considered it an honour to address my fellow citizens on what the SDP is able to offer the nation.

Prior to recording on Caldecott Hill, I asked the CNA executives if both the PAP participants (yes, the PAP was allocated two places, the opposition parties only one each) met the criteria set by CNA and I was assured that they did.

The PAP’s representatives were Josephine Teo, MP, and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. It is curious that while other forums have included rank and file PAP MPs, this forum, the first to feature the SDP, caused it to send a cabinet minister.

No matter. Having led on the SDP’s Shadow Budget, I was eager to debate Minister Tharman, a call that many netizens have made since our Shadow Budget was published.

I had asked CNA for the names of the other participants; this information was not given to me. So, I only found out who the PAP reps were on the day. The following day, I checked up the PAP website and found that Josephine Teo meets only 33% of CNA’s criteria, ie she is eligible to stand for elections. She is neither a CEC member nor an office-bearer within it.

I telephoned the same CNA executive who had refused to give me the names of the other participants and was first told that Ms Teo was an MP. I reminded my interlocutor that this met only one of the criteria.

I was then told that the criteria only applied to the opposition participants. I reminded her that this was not made known in advance and reminded her also of her reluctance to reveal the names of the other participants. Clearly, they did not wish me to query Ms Teo’s inclusion in the programme, since she did not meet the criteria.

The executive had no further defenses to offer and therefore I was unable to come to any other conclusion than that the criteria were only to apply to the non-PAP participants, and more so that the SDP’s Secretary-General, whom the PAP is so fearful of, should be kept out of the programme.

To me, quite apart from the unpleasantness of dealing with CNA’s perfidy, this reluctance to engage with the SDP except under highly controlled conditions designed to give the upper hand to the governing party, is a sign not of our limitations but precisely a sign of our credibility and the strength of our arguments.

The PAP’s desire to keep the SDP out of the public domain, through its control of the mainstream media, is evidence precisely of its failures and its insecurity. This is a party running scared.

In Part 2, Dr Wijeysingha talks about the arguments he raised at the CNA programme

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