It’s called ‘framing the issue’

September 12, 2011
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

Recent events have re-opened the debate over the issue of “confrontational” politics in Singapore. The Singapore Democrats have always been criticised for being confrontational in a country that eschews such politics with the people preferring a softer or moderate approach. 

While terms like “confrontational” and “moderate” have been bandied about a fair bit, there has been little discussion of what these terms mean, how they came about and whether they are, in fact, good (or bad, as the case may be) for Singapore.

How Singaporeans perceive these brands of politics is, of course, dependent on how they understand the words. In the Singaporean context this is shaped almost entirely by the state-run mass media.

All this while the PAP has hammered home the message on two fronts: That confrontational politics is destructive for Singapore and that the PAP equals Singapore.

Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, any opposition party that is confrontational is necessarily destructive, and destructive not just to the PAP but also to Singapore. How can any citizen bring him or herself to support an opposition party that is out to tear down the very country they live in? 

This is how the PAP has defined the lines of debate and set the parameters of the argument to lead the people to think along its terms and to reach a conclusion that it wants them to reach. The process is a common, and a very effective, technique called ‘framing’.

For a long time the PAP has framed the issue and shaped public opinion at will through the newspapers, television and radio. (To be sure, it still does this but the new media has been able to offer some pushback.) It has used this process of selectively influencing Singaporeans’ understanding of what constitute “confrontational” and “moderate” opposition politics, and defined these words in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and discourage others.

Confrontation equals bad

The PAP’s strategy is such that if it can get Singaporeans to accept that confrontational politics is bad, then the opposition will shy away from such an approach. It discourages the opposition from taking positions diametrically opposite that of the ruling party’s and to find effective ways of communicating these to the public. It thus controls the political narrative in this country.  

But do we stop to think that with all that the PAP is doing, is confronting the Government necessarily bad? If the opposition does not confront, then what should it do to change policy? And if the opposition should confront the PAP, how should it be done?

The SDP has demonstrated repeatedly that existing policies of this Government is leading Singapore down a dangerous path. For example, the secretive and unaccountable nature in which the Government handles our financial reserves is a problem that needs urgent attention and reform. 

We have the Prime Minister in charge of the GIC and his wife, Mdm Ho Ching, the execuitive officer of Temasek Holdings. Together these two sovereign wealth funds manage the bulk of our reserves.

Such an arrangement would not be tolerated by a thinking public in a democratic system. The opposition in such jurisdictions would be considered negligent if it failed to make this issue its prime concern. In other words, it would be expected to confront the government on the matter for the good of country. Anything less would be unacceptable.

Secondly, confrontation does not mean destruction – or worse – violent destruction. Confrontation can mean peaceful but assertive (and persistent) speaking of truth to power. In the SDP’s case, we confront the PAP with reasoned argument and with the truth – not with aggression.

We continue to point out the dangers of what the PAP is doing and call on the people to act through the ballot box and through peaceful protests. These are measures protected and guaranteed us under our Constitution. How is this equal to destructive politics?

But when the PAP, uneasy about being confronted, resorts to using the police and the legal system to silence its critics, we have a choice: Be cowed into submission or stand our ground and continue to speak up.

The former approach may help us win favour from the PAP. Submitting to the bullying of the PAP may win us some plaudits from the media and the title of “moderates”. It may even increase our chances of getting elected into Parliament under the PAP system.

In contrast, we continue to be labeled as confrontational and therefore unworthy of support if we adopt the latter approach.

What does an opposition party like the SDP do then? Our choice is clear: What is paramount is our responsibility to the people. Some may not understand what we are doing, they may even criticise our efforts. But we are reminded of the fact that nothing worth doing is ever easy.

It will take time, not to mention much effort, to change the people’s mindset from all the years of PAP indoctrination and inculcation of fear. What we need to do is not shrink from what we have to do. What we need is to communicate our ideas even more effectively. With the Internet, our endeavour is made lighter.

Change will come and the SDP is determined to bring it about.

Ultimately, it is about doing what is right versus what is expedient. One brings about a principled opposition that people will find trust, the other is an opposition not much different from the PAP, always looking out for itself first.

Read also The need to label the SDP as confrontational