Select Committee: An exercise in standing still

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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And so what was all the commotion about the last one month?  Clash of minister and historian (whose credentials have been queried), clash of historians, clash of politicians and journalist, clash of government agency and would-be website plus so much online chatter.

And in the end? Do not hold your breath, we are still at square one in public discourse.

Back to square one is an underrated phrase. But it is more accurate than another similar phrase which we often use to describe Singapore’s socio-political scene – déjà vu, which means we have seen all this before. Déjà vu is passive, like we have been drawn into something all too familiar without our realising it. Back to square one is a well-strategised, well executed exercise which will actively lead you all over the place, give you illusion and hope that we are moving forward, while standing on the same spot all the time. And we all know it instinctively, don’t we?

The government and most Singaporeans have seen it all before. The current activist players – or those who do not quite accept the comformist (not just political but also lifestyle and social rules here) –  are not a new phenomenon. I do not want to put unnecessary spotlight on these people in the past who have decided to move on.  But there is one lady I know who has had her coloirful high-profile run-ins with the government, including with Lee Kuan Yew no less. Up to this date, she has never conceded a millimetre. To the government’s credit, she has been left alone to live her life. No more coffee chats.

We have also come some way, but only some,  since writer Catherine Lim had her own run-ins with an over-sensitive government. She was called “boh tua boh suay” (disrespectful of elders) for writing a scathing piece on the PAP.

The interesting thing is that in the period when such writers tailed off and the first movers of the blogs and websites in the early smartphone/Facebook era were challenged by other fresher, more professional and more competent entrants to fill the space, these social media pioneers themselves have not moved on.

While these were stuck in their own black hole, the establishment was learning very fast the ABCs of social media. With unlimited resources, it very quickly came to grips with the new animal and now has a good idea how to can control it.

The Select Committee is just one example of how it has carefully thought through the whole game and decided to develop a very sophisticated way to kill many birds with one stone.

First, come up with a name no one can dispute with  –  Select Committee On Deliberate Falsehoods.  Second, welcome any idea. Third, invite submissions from as wide a range of people as possible. Fourth, promise nothing and leave it to Parliament to make the final decision.

Fifth, let the entire proceedings come through as transparent and inclusive. Hence, the saturation coverage which serves a number of purposes  –  let no one who has anything to say not be denied, members of the public get involved in shaping an important piece of legislation which will affect them since they use smartphones, Facebook and Twitter and it purportedly shows the government is always unafraid to take on the most vocal of any critics. Six hours of exchanges between Law Minister K Shanmugam and historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin took place over Dr Thum’s allegation that the PAP was the biggest purveyor of falsehoods.

At least two follow-up developments have put paid to any belief that the government is any less reluctant to concede anything when it comes to what it views as one of its core standards of proper conduct  – its credibilty.

Kumar Ramakrishna, Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, wrote an article in The Straits Times criticising Dr Thum over the allegedly fake history issue. Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Senior Minister of State Dr Janil Puthucheary, both members of the Select Committee, disagreed with Straits Times Editor At Large Han Fook Kwang that history is the preserve of historians.

So we are back to square one.

We have never left 2011 (the pivotal General Elections which carried such promise of spring) or even 2014. That year, Catherine Lim wrote an open letter to PM Lee Hsien Loong advocating for magnanimity by the government. Dr Puthucheary replied then: “The majority of Singaporeans do not deserve to have their views warped by jaundiced commentators on the sidelines.” Right.

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.