PM Lee Hsien Loong managed only 30 minutes when he met Dr Mahathir Mohamad in May just after he became Malaysian PM for the second time. And tongues immediately started wagging. Yes, they did pose for pictures at the Perdana Leadership Foundation in Putrajaya, the two leaders and their wives. But half an hour was surely not half decent time for anything beyond executing a quick hello and a fast sip of the teh tarik. Was Dr Mahathir trying to say something?
Contrast that short courtesy meeting with the lengthy 80 minutes Dr Mahathir gave a group of Singapore activists, including one in exile (or fugitive, depending on your political inclination), on Aug 30 at Putrajaya. If tongues had wagged over PM Lee’s not so bountiful return for making the effort to shower his heartiest congratulations and show his friendship, much coffee must have been spilt and splattered when the Singapore Cabinet saw those pictures of a smiling Dr Mahathir with historian Dr P J Thum, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, civil rights activist Jolovan Wham, graphic novelist Sonny Liew and political dissident Tan Wah Piow. The local pan-Peninsular (meaning Singapore and Malaysia) slang would be: Tak boleh tahan.
And the same question: Was Dr Mahathir trying to say something?
As a number of commentators, including my ex-colleague P N Balji, have already noticed and said, he did not utter a word. Touted as “a beacon of democracy” in South-east Asia by one of the activitists and having been invited to an upcoming conference on freedom, human rights, etc, he was happy enough to be part of the roadshow.
But, as we all know now, the PAP government had much to say, perhaps too much. MP for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng immediately questioned Dr Thum’s invitation to the Malaysian leader to “bring democracy to Singapore”: “I wonder what deep historical insight prompted him to make this plea, to Dr M, whose views on the Water Agreement with Singapore, and Singapore knowing its place in relation to Malaysia are well known.” Whoa. What happened to all the early efforts by Singapore’s leadership, exemplified by PM Lee’s rush trip in May, to continue a cordial, pragmatic and prosper-thy-neighbour relationship with whoever is power in Kuala Lumpur?
It is one thing to try and draw a line about what is acceptable about public debates on issues, as Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam tried when he said: “We can have political differences within Singapore … but I think we should never go out and invite someone foreign or a foreign politician to intervene in our domestic politics.” No-nos and red lines, whatever you call them, that is entirely the PAP’s prerogative. Whether a new generation and even newer generations of Singaporeans would go along with these boundaries as they test the limits because they do not recognise or want to behave according to the PAP’s unilaterally imposed political rules is entirely debatable, I should say.
It is quite another thing to indulge in cheap shots to score points. Using the usual scare tactics, the MP for Marine Parade GRC attempted to conjure up two or three bogeymen. The first was an unfriendly Dr Mahathir. Now, this is the real crossing of lines and somewhat naïve too. It may prove to be self-fulfilling. The other is to somehow link ex-detainee Teo Soh Lung with the Mahathir meeting just because of a Facebook comment she made: “Democratic space is the first to be preserved. Singapore is part of Malaya la.” In so doing, he also tried to link the Singapore Democratic Party to the whole episode: “Really? This is what PJ Thum and Teo Soh Lung and the SDP believe in their heart of hearts?” Teo is no longer an SDP member.
He had to say sorry: “As Ms Teo had previously stood as a SDP candidate in GE2011, I had assumed she was still a member. I apologise for this wrong assumption and thank SDP for the clarification”.
And, suddenly, the Singapore Democratic Party has earned kudos for the mature manner in which it had viewed Seah’s immature conduct.
“Dr Thum and Ms Teo are not members of the SDP thus do not speak for the party or represent us in any way. We did not have anything to do with the meeting nor did we say anything about the matter. We only learnt about Dr Thum’s meeting with Dr Mahathir through reports in the media”.
It acknowledged that Seah has apologised for his erroneous statement on his FB and accepted his apology: “While we may differ in our views on how to take Singapore forward, politicians should not resort to questioning their opponents’ loyalty to our nation. No matter what our political persuasion, we all remain faithful and committed to this country. Let us move on and focus our attention on tackling the issues that affect the lives of our fellow citizens.”
Touche. The large and fluid middle ground voters would have noticed the signs of the SDP’s coming of age. And there’s hope yet for a more activist political landscape beyond the activities of activists. And beyond the don’t-rock-the-boat and beginning to be out of touch Workers Party whose leaders don’t seem to know how to cope with millennials and have no presence whatsoever in the social media space where the battle for hearts and minds is taking place.
What is Op-Ed?
The American media is currently abuzz with an Op-Ed column in The New York Times supposedly written by a senior member of the Donald Trump administration. The anonymous column, which carried the headline, “I Am Part Of The Resistance In The Trump Administration”, said a group of White House insiders are trying their best to contain the American leader and protect the institutions and the country from a somewhat inadequate leader in a dilemma best captured by the Washington Post article,” We are a superpower run by a simpleton”.
For those who are puzzled, Op-Ed is short for Opinion-Editorial. Most newspapers have an Opinion Page where the Leader (the newspaper’s comment) appears alongside with other editorial comments (which usually come with the bylines of the authors), sometimes over two pages or more.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.