By Phyllis Lee
The People’s Action Party (PAP) did not engage in “gutter politics” during the Bukit Batok by-election last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a Facebook post last evening (Sept 28).
He was clarifying his comments made as the keynote speaker at the inaugural Majulah Lecture organised by Nanyang Technological University. Held last Wednesday, the lecture is a platform for leaders from both the private and public sectors to share their thoughts and ideas on campus.
In the post, Mr Tharman said that an audience member had asked him whether he approved of the “gutter politics” used by the PAP in recent elections such as in Bukit Batok.
Following the resignation of former Member of Parliament David Ong, a by-election was held in Bukit Batok Singapore Member Constituency in May last year. Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, who lost the by-election to PAP’s Murali Pillai, had criticised the ruling party for making personal attacks during the campaign period.
Mr Tharman said in his post: “I did not entertain the assertion about the PAP engaging in gutter politics in Bukit Batok. It is an assertion that is recycled from time to time, and has been the SDP’s position. But having seen social media commentaries claiming that I had agreed with the assertion, I am making my views clear.”
“The PAP contrasted Dr Chee Soon Juan’s character with that of Murali Pillai in the Bukit Batok by-election, and highlighted how Dr Chee had said he was proud about his past. Dr Chee and his colleagues in the SDP responded by arguing that questions of character should not be raised in elections, and accused the PAP of gutter politics for doing so,” he explained.
He agreed that there are pushbacks, and even he does not agree “with every tactic by every one of my colleagues”. However, he asserts that Singapore has become vastly more open as compared to when he was younger.
“More generally – are there occasional differences of views on issues within Government, or within the PAP? Of course there are, and that’s healthy. But once any course of action is decided, there is no question that we take collective responsibility for it in the leadership,” he said.
During the lecture, Mr Tharman was also asked about his views on whether the media landscape should be opened and mainstream media “not controlled by the government”.
Responding to the questions in his post, he said: “The media doesn’t wait around for instructions, and it doesn’t excuse everything government does. The mainstream media is what I regard as serious-minded, responsible players in an evolving Singapore democracy – helping to take it forward, but airing views in a way that avoids fragmenting society.”
He noted that the media does not have an easy responsibility as they have a risk of dividing people through the news they publish.
Nonetheless, he feels that the media in Singapore is doing “a better job at advancing the collective interests of Singaporeans than that in several other Asian countries, where the media has added to a divisiveness in society not seen in a long time.”
He concluded: “We should keep this going – the mainstream media as responsible players in our democracy, helping to move it forward. We should hope too that the middle in the social media gets stronger, for Singapore’s good.”