Health care costs not a ‘debate’-SDP replies to Straits Times

September 15, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

In trying to argue for a fairer political environment in Singapore (ST, 14 Aug), Mr Cherian George has not been impartial himself when he described the health-care subsidies as being conducted in “open debate in a Select Committee setting.”

There was nothing “open” about the Select Committee hearing over the issue of health-care subsidies in which the SDP participated. The reasons are not difficult to see. One, in my “debate” with Mr George Yeo, then Minister for Health, I was not allowed to ask him questions whereas he was at liberty to ask me all the questions he wanted. This format is hardly conducive to a free and open debate.

Two, a public debate can only be “open” if the public is allowed to watch it and be convinced by its own eyes and ears. Unfortunately, Singaporeans were not allowed to attend the hearing. The “demolition job” of the SDP’s case was not carried out by the PAP, as erroneously pointed out by Mr George, but by the local media, whose objective reporting about political issues in Singapore is, to put it delicately, not exactly its forte.

Here’s how. The TCS and the local newspapers made little of the fact that Mr George Yeo had during the hearing repeatedly apologised for wrongly costing in hospital charges. These are some of the words he uttered: “The point I am making is, yes, there was a mistake; yes, the mistake should have been put right earlier by Tan Tock Seng”, “It was a mistake for which we are sorry”, “I concede that, in some of them, we might have made mistakes”, and “…yes, there was a mistake; yes, it should have been detected earlier, the hospital should have made a correction. It should have conducted an investigation. If it did not, I do not know the reason”. It culminated in Mr Yeo admitting: “I am not saying that the SDP had no basis” in its claim, and “I accept the reasons why the SDP had this figure…” The figure in dispute, as readers will recall, was the $225 that Government hospitals was costing for its C-class beds. This was the central issue of the the hearing.

A “demolition” job of the SDP’s arguments can hardly be possible when the Government repeatedly apologised for its mistakes and accepted the basis of the SDP’s arguments. Of course with the elections looming in 1996, the PAP could not be seen to be bested by an opposition party. Hence, the media exploded with the mistake that the SDP made on one of its statistics in its submission – a genuine mistake that the SDP itself pointed out to the Select Committee and one which was peripheral to the issue at hand. Yet the Government made the SDP pay $51,000 for it in fines.

For political debates involving the Government and Opposition to be open, the local media, which Mr Cherian George has failed to include as a prerequisite, must be independent and fair in its reporting. Unfortunately, and ironically, Mr George’s employer is anything but.

Chee Soon Juan
Secretary-General