The propaganda campaign against the striking bus drivers

Vincent Wijeysingha

It should come as no surprise to an informed Singaporean that the government, its agencies such as Reach Singapore and proxy agencies such as Media Corp are engaged in a massive public relations exercise to guide public response to the SMRT bus drivers’ strike.

When 22 young persons were arrested under Operation Spectrum in May 1987, the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) used every means at its disposal to propagate the government’s case. We now know it to be propaganda designed to eliminate criticisms of government policy particularly in relation to labour and poverty.

The SBC doctored the sequence of Vincent Cheng’s television interview to make him sound like he was giving the answers they wished him to give. And the print media, day after day, reported verbatim the government statements which we now know to have been untrue.

Fast forward a quarter century later and identical areas of policy are motivating Singaporean social workers, lawyers and political activists to intervene in what is rapidly becoming a highly embarrassing moment for the government.

Last night about 30 prominent civil society veterans and newbies gathered to strategise a response to the incident. Hailing from all sections of civil society, they included established welfare organisations, research centres, well-known bloggers, writers, lawyers and social entrepreneurs.

On the table were a range of initiatives which are being timetabled for the coming period. It is understood they are hosting a forum on Saturday 8 December to explore trade unionism in our country. One attendee is quoted as saying that the trade union discourse became frozen in the “post-Hock Lee” bus strikes era [1955] and that the vast majority of Singaporeans, young and old, have an extremely limited meaningful understanding of trade unionism and its functions in a civilised society.

This may appear to have been borne out by the results of a survey carried out by Reach Singapore – no doubt paid for by taxpayers’ money – over the first three days of the strike. What is interesting to note is that, while the relevant authorities were grappling with the strike, Reach had the presence of mind to mobilise its resources on the first day itself to rush out among the general public and attempt an exercise that would give greater support to the government’s action against the striking workers.

I am a sociologist by training. Among the settled principles of survey methodology, researchers seek, as far as possible, to minimise those factors which might skew the results of the survey. In A-Level Economics we learn the term
ceteris paribus meaning ‘all things being held constant’. Research in general tends to try, as far as possible to keep other factors constant so that the results of the survey are trustworthy and can be replicated with a different sample of interviewees.

For example, surveys done in the heat of the action are to be avoided. Surveys conducted when people have had no access to alternative information with which to shape their conclusions are equally to be shunned. Surveys done in a constrained discursive climate are also shaky.

All of these factors were present when Reach carried out its survey. But perhaps most importantly, it committed the worst sin in the surveying world, that of the ‘leading question’. It is a well-established fact that you can elicit a desired answer by asking the question in a certain way. The setting of the interview, the inflection of the voice, the framing of the question can all impact upon the answer.

Take a look at the questions that were asked.

Question 1: Are you aware that a group of SMRT drivers from China staged an illegal strike on the 26th and 27th of November?

Immediately, the interviewee is put on his guard by way of the framing of the strike as ‘illegal’. If something is illegal, then I had better show the proper disdain for it lest I be seen as one who approves of illegal behaviour.

Also, bear in mind that at this point, the only information available to interviewees on which to base their opinion is the state press. Is it likely that they could have had the time to digest the information, explore different perspectives, talk to their friends and then gradually formulate an opinion?

Question 2: The Government has done the right thing by taking time to ascertain the facts before labelling the action as an illegal strike on the second day.

Question 2 then reiterates that the strike is illegal. The question, rather than asking ‘if’ the government had done the right thing, informs the interviewee that it has done so and to which you are simply invited to acquiesce. It also suggests that the government has acted in a measured and responsible way by examining all the facts before coming to a decision. Minister Tan Chuan Jin said exactly this at his press conference on Saturday.

Question 3: The Government has reacted swiftly to ensure that the situation is under control and there is minimum disruption to the public transport system.

Question 3 vaguely reminds the interview that the strike is a situation that could get out of control, without specifying what sort of chaos might arise. The word is dropped subtly into the question but the net result is to elicit the intuition of chaos and danger. The interviewee, opening his mental filing cabinet, hits upon the oft-repeated sentiment that strikes imply blood and riot and arrives at the expected attitude. And again, notice how it places the government in a positive light as having acted rapidly to contain the potential contagion. In fact, as we now know, the strikes resulted in nothing of the kind. The striking bus drivers stood quietly and peacefully outside their dormitory and refused their labour. That is all.

Question 4: The bus drivers from China should have gone through the proper channels to air their grievances instead of staging a strike.

Question 4 implies, without a shred of evidence, that the workers did not go through the proper channels. It is difficult to ascertain if Reach was in the know about the six months of proper channels the workers had tried without success (which I documented in a Facebook post on Sunday). Reach’s Supervisory Board is stacked with government MPs (including Dr Intan Azura Mochtar who is a member of the PM’s GRC), trade union officials, and grassroots leaders. Therefore, one could reasonably expect that they might have some knowledge of this; the survey question suggests otherwise.

Question 5: If the bus drivers from China are found to have breached Singapore’s law, they should be punished to the full extent of the law, as Singapore has zero tolerance for illegal strikes.

Question 5 commits an error of logic. It states that the bus drivers should be punished BECAUSE Singapore has zero tolerance. Punishment for an offence arises because the thing being punished for is against the law not because there is extreme intolerance for it. Otherwise, if we had, say 50% tolerance, then they should not be punished to the full extent?

For example, in the 1997 General Election, the then Prime Minister, his two deputies and former MP, Dr Vasoo,  were found inside a polling station of a constituency they were not contesting – a clear breach of the Parliamentary Elections Act. The Attorney General, however, justified the action. Did we only have about 5% tolerance to that particular law?

Furthermore, the question leads the interviewee to the conclusion that this amorphous entity called ‘Singapore’ is opposed to this action and THEREFORE the interviewee should also have zero tolerance for it since he is part of Singapore. It is not made clear if ‘Singapore’ means the government, the legal system, the cultural settlement, the rules of trade union activity, the PAP, or the general public. The interviewee is led to the particular conclusion.

Question 6: The bus drivers from China were wrong to have held a strike, but SMRT also bears some responsibility for the situation as it did not manage the grievances of the Chinese well.

Again, a leading question which, if objectivity were the true intention, should have been rephrased as, “If the bus drivers were wrong…”. Furthermore, Question 6 is in direct contradiction to Question 4 for if the workers had not gone through any channels, how did Reach know, on the very day when the strike began, that the bus drivers had any grievances at all?

Over the course of these last five decades, the government has sought to co-opt all national entities such that they serve the government’s behest. In each decade it carried out at least one major swoop on its perceived detractors to impart a salutary lesson. In 1987 we saw the last major, wholesale attempt to do so. Last week it used Reach, again, I remind you, at taxpayers’ expense, to lead public opinion in a cynical and devious attempt to obtain, through covert means, antagonism towards the strikers.

The workers, as I wrote in my Facebook note last Sunday, had a string of concerns which they tried to remedy over a period of six months by talking to their bosses, their union, the NTUC, and the government (including a letter to the PM himself). Frustrated at every step of the way, they finally took what must have been a terrifying decision: to deliberately place themselves at the risk of losing their livelihood.

For Reach to conduct such a flawed survey is distasteful to me, both as a citizen and as an academic who hold close to the scientific principle of falsifiability, which Reach has violated.

In 1987, the state media prevented any alternative analyses of Operation Spectrum and, particularly, those which early and easily dismantled the government case – and I assure you there was a huge amount – from reaching the ears of Singaporeans. In 2012, we should not let this happen to us. Allow me to plead with you to form your own judgment of the bus drivers strike based on all the available information and not only on what the government determines is safe to publish. You may arrive at a very different conclusion than the one the government is so desirous of propagating.

avail yourself of attending the forum on 8 Dec (
Saturday), 2-5pm at #04-01 Bras Basah Complex of 321 Bain Street. Bring your friends and family. You would have started the process which, in time, will help you to grow up from under Big Brother’s dark shade.

Public Forum: The SMRT strike: Why should we care?
Date: 8 Dec 2012,

Venue: #04-01 Bras Basah Complex, 321 Bain Street

[More details at event’s facebook]

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is the Treasurer of the SDP and Head of the party’s Communications Unit.

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