Want a national conversation? Free the media

September 11, 2012
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

The Today newspaper asked for the SDP’s response to the Government’s plans for a national conversation. The SDP provided a comprehensive response stating clearly our position. The most important point is: free the media.$CUT$  

1. Will SDP bepart of this national conversation?

A national conversation is the defaultmode of a democratic society. The various elements in a communitycontribute ideas and policy suggestions through a range of mediawhich form the vehicle of policy making. The SDP has contributed ever since its founding. It has produced arange of publications containing policy options backed up by researchand expert opinion.

Recently, we published an alternativeeconomic strategy entitled It’s About You; two Shadow Budgets in 2011and 2012; a paper on ministerial salaries; and a National HealthcarePlan. Secretary-General, Dr Chee Soon Juan, has published eight bookson various aspects of economic and political policy over the courseof the last 18 years.

We have hosted numerous policy forumsincluding a cross-party one on challenges faced by the Malaycommunity on 8 September 2012. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim was invited butdeclined to attend. The National Healthcare Plan was unveiled at apublic forum to which Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong was invited;he too declined to attend. We have since repeated our invitation toMr Gan but he has not responded.

2. If so, howwill SDP be involved in this national conversation?

The SDP has always been a part of theframework, proposing alternative policies and research papers as wellas public forums. However, the government has never entered aconversation with us. Therefore, it cannot be for the SDP to statehow it intends to participate. It is for the government to explainwhy it has not engaged us (and indeed the broad mass of civilsociety) and how it intends to depart from this practice.

Otherwise,the government will be extremely vulnerable to the accusation thatthe national conversation has little real substance. A conversationis only as strong as the participants: if the participants areselected from those inclined to agree, little policy development willresult.

For the government to ensure aneffective conversation, it has to make available all those avenueswhich facilitate communication. There are two principal vehicles: themainstream media in all its forms and civil society organisations.Controlling the media and marginalising civil society organisationssuch as NGOs and political parties will not conduce to a robust andeffective debate.

3. What are themain areas that SDP will be focusing on?

The SDP’s policy positions haveremained consistent across two decades:

a. We advocate a radical rethink ofeconomic policy that harnesses the creativity, pluralism anddiversity of our people; reduces the dependence on multinationals;and trims down direct government participation in the economy;

b. The restoration of civil andpolitical rights and the removal of policies that discriminateagainst the disadvantaged;

c. Controlling rising prices of publicand private goods and ensuring a living wage for all persons as wellas assistance for those unable to work; and

d. Cultivating a transparent andaccountable political system that ensures value for money, honesty,and the ability to get the job done rather than a system which seeksto shield leaders and their decisions from valid policy criticisms.

Underlying these policy principles, theSDP advocates firmly the removal of those structures that obstructcandid and sincere feedback or discourage citizens from speaking upor joining organisations devoted to change, principally themainstream media, the public assembly controls, the limitations onfree speech, and the parliamentary innovations introduced from 1988which have limited rather than advanced our democracy.

Today reported one small paragraph despite asking all the questions:

Opposition slams make-up of committee
Ng Jing Yng
Today
10 Sept 2012

A dayafter Education Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled the members of acommittee which will lead the national conversation, Oppositionfigures yesterday lashed out against the lack of Oppositionrepresentation.

In particular, some of them pointed to theinclusion of seven People’s Action Party political officeholders, inthe 26-member committee – including Acting Minister for CommunityDevelopment, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing, Acting ManpowerMinister Tan Chuan-Jin, and Senior Minister of State Lawrence Wong -as a sign that it was a partisan exercise, despite Mr Heng’s remarkslast Saturday that it was not.

Several Opposition politiciansTODAY spoke to were also keen to distance their parties from thenational effort, even though the Government has made it plain, onseveral occasions, that the conversation must be as inclusive aspossible.

The Workers’ Party, which has the most number ofOpposition Members of Parliament, was unable to respond to TODAY‘squeries by press time.

Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam saidher Singapore People’s Party (SPP) was “deeply disappointed”that the committee only included PAP politicians.

Pointing tothe exclusion of bloggers as well, she reiterated the need foralternative voices on the committee. “Otherwise, Singaporeanswill regard this as yet another publicity stunt by the Government(and) not regard it as a sincere or genuine conversation, let alone anational one. Given these circumstances, the SPP will be deliberatingwhether we even have a role to play in this or not,” said MrsChiam.

Noting how a couple of ministers did not take upSingapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) offer to participate in itsforums, SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan said “theGovernment has never entered a conversation with us”.

SaidDr Chee: “Therefore, it cannot be for the SDP to state how itintends to participate (in the national conversation initiative).”

He added: “The SDP has always been a part of theframework, proposing alternative policies and research papers as wellas public forums … A conversation is only as strong as theparticipants: If the participants are selected from those inclined toagree, little policy development will result.”

Concurring,the National Solidarity Party’s (NSP) Secretary-General Hazel Poasaid that, for the conversation to be inclusive, the PAP “canstart by not simply talking to people who already agree with them”.

Ms Poa said the NSP “will continue to engage in nationalconversation by publicly putting forward our points of view onmatters of national interest” through the Internet and themedia. However, Reform Party’s (RP) Secretary-General KennethJeyaretnam said the RP is “not taking part in a state-managedexercise” as he demanded for “freedom of expression”.

‘Committee will not direct conversation’

OnSaturday, in response to why “alternative voices” likebloggers and Opposition MPs were not included on the committee, MrHeng told reporters that the initiative “is not a partisanexercise”. He added that “every Singaporean is welcome toprovide their views, including members of the Opposition, and thecommittee will be happy to receive their feedback and ideas.”

ActingManpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told TODAY “the idea is indeedto be inclusive”. “Many of us feel very strongly aboutbringing in a wide range of voices and have been discussing thepeople whom we can and should meet. It is not possible to converseabout our future if we are blinkered,” he said.

He addedthat as far as the civil society space is concerned, “we willgather their points from their stated positions, their posts andconversations with us online and off line, we’d also meet a range ofthem in person though we can’t meet all”.

Said Mr Tan:”Hence, social commentators, influential bloggers, oppositionmembers and others will be involved, along with Singaporeans andgroups who may not have articulated their views, especiallyonline.”

He stressed that the conversation is “amongSingaporeans, in which Government leaders will be among theparticipants. The committee we have formed will not direct theconversation.”

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharuddinsaid he does not see the need for Opposition figures on thecommittee. He said: “At the end of the day, it is about thedecisions the Government of the day has to make … This is theconversation of the Government of the day and its people.”

ButNational University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singhdisagreed. Describing the Opposition as “part of the nationalpolitical landscape”, he said: “If the intention is to holdan ‘inclusive’ (conversation), then it must include all, irrespectiveof one’s political or ideological shades and colour, whether you arefor or against the Government.”

Former Nominated MP SiewKum Hong said that, given the current composition of the committee,the “glaring omission” of the Opposition and non-governmentorganisation representatives could skew the discussion.

Addingthat ground rules could be laid down to deal with disagreements, hesaid: “Let’s say in the committee you have (Workers’ Partyleaders) Low Thia Khiang or Sylvia (Lim) and they actually disagreewith the ultimate outcome. You have a clear process of how thatdissenting view is captured and recorded.”