By Howard Lee
Can anyone remember what happened in Parliament last week between Chee Hong Tat and Leon Perera?
If your answer is, “Chee bitch-slapped Perera for not declaring conflict of interest and for lying about Mediacorp skewing Parliament footage”, you’ve just proved that Perera was absolutely right.
Here’s the quick run-down. Chee, Senior Minister of State for Health and Communication and Information, fielded two separate questions from Perera, a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from the opposition Workers’ Party. The first related to the government’s position on e-cigarettes as therapy to get smokers off their tobacco fixes; and the second relate to public access to video records of Parliament debates, the archives which are currently held by Mediacorp.
Media highlights of the debate showed Chee questioning Perera’s business interest in the e-cigarette business, to which Perera refuted and voiced strong objection to the SMS’s barely-veiled insinuations. On Mediacorp’s copyright to Parliament footage, Chee pointed out that the public can use Mediacorp’s videos for “personal and non-commercial purposes with attribution to Mediacorp”.
Chee then later queried Perera on his exchange with Mediacorp to highlight that Mediacorp has already amended a video that Perera said was truncated, to which Perera conceded could have been possible.
It did not end there. Chee continued to hound Perera on his Facebook page, alleging that Perera made “a serious accusation” by “implying that Mediacorp had edited Parliamentary footages in a partisan manner”. Perera responded to refute Chee’s allegations, and the whole social media cold war was published in national media.
Insinuations! Accusations! Excitement! All very interesting. But what was the issue about, again?
Let’s get back to the points of contention: the government’s position on e-cigarettes as therapy for smokers and Mediacorp’s copyright access to Parliamentary footage. Did Chee answer the questions? If he did, what were the answers and where are the records?
We don’t really know. What is hogging the headlines now is Perera supposedly accusing Mediacorp of partisanship. Such a claim is, of course, completely preposterous, and Perera was right in dismissing Chee’s accusations (again). But before the public can check Hansard, the spectacle has already taken on a life of its own, negating all other interest in the issues raised.
In fact, what Perera was after was fairly straight-forward: why can’t Parliament debates be published in full for public consumption?
In granting Mediacorp monopoly to Parliamentary debate, the public is effectively at Mediacorp’s mercy, knowing only what Mediacorp chooses to let the public see. Much of this is couched as “news sense”, or what Chee might call editing for brevity. We should not deny Mediacorp from doing its job of distilling the important from the frivolous, but when that news sense is geared towards the sensational bickering in Parliament, as this case has proven to be, the public is left wondering exactly what the fight in the august chambers was about and what was its true value to voters who have placed their trust in their MPs to speak on their behalf. It risks devaluing Parliament, as much as give fuel for the public to desecrate Mediacorp for being partisan.
The only solution is to publish full unedited records of Parliament debates, so the public will always have a reliable source to check against Mediacorp’s news sense, and also to evaluate if their MPs are worth the votes they have been given. Any serious democracy would do that, if it values citizens’ participation in matters of public interest. With technology, it is not even difficult – the UK Parliament, for all its shortcomings, publish lengthy records of debates on its website. Singapore, one of the most wired nations in the world, should not fall short.
As it currently stands in the public eye, Chee might have won in the battle of words against Perera, but the episode proves that all he has done was, intentionally or not, shift the focus of the debate. It does not reflect well on the aptitude and attitude of a Senior Minister of State. Without unedited Parliament records available for public viewing, Mediacorp’s monopoly of Parliament footage remains a major disservice to the nation, and there is no good reason for it to be this way.