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Singaporeans are not idiots Part 2

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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Let’s continue with DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s Singaporeans are not morons conversation. I reiterate, we are not fools. Now, where are we this week?

We are at what I would describe as a curious juncture. Everyone seem to be talking at cross purposes. It is like we are all living in silos or bubbles and are shutting our ears and eyes to what the talk or situation is outside the Istana or away from where Singapore’s top leaders blissfully do their work or socialise.

Suddenly, there is a highly publicised “clarification” from Tharman that the People’s Action Party did not engage in gutter politics against Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan when it raised questions about character during the Bukit Batok by-election last year. The DPM said he never  agreed with the view that the PAP was engaging in gutter politics: “This is not what I said, and not what I believe…I stand by what the PAP and my colleagues said. The PAP was not engaging in gutter politics.”

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What feedback has Tharman been getting from the government machinery? Who has been raising this issue so quickly after the NTU Majulah Lecture a week ago? Not in any of the main social media channels that I know. But I checked and discovered a blog by someone called Kenneth who said he brought up the question, among others, at the NTU lecture.  Kenneth commented on the answer:  “I’m glad to hear that Mr Tharman has, for the first time, disavowed the gutter politics and mudslinging utilised by his colleagues during election campaigns.” Chee himself has only just reacted, predictably to disagree with Tharman.

I got it. The DPM had to get back because there was an implication by Kenneth that Tharman was distancing himself from his party colleagues. Power to Kenneth, whoever he is.

So we all live in our own world. Tharman was talking about something that the so-called responsible state-controlled media did little to clarify because they have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what they decide is important or not important for unintelligent Singaporeans to know.

We are not all on the same length. And, as a good example of this Great Singapore Non-Dialogue, we need go no further than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s detailed defence of the government’s decision to push for the Malays-only Presidential Election.

Again, we get this picture of a heroic administration willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the country’s future. PM Lee said he knew it would be unpopular and would cost his party votes: “I did it because I strongly believe, and still do, that this is the right thing to do.”

All this is a massive (and intentional?) diversion from the real issue – the unhappiness felt by many Singaporeans that the just concluded PE was simply and cleverly to prevent Dr Tan Cheng Bock from taking part in a normal PE, with all the risk (to the establishment) of his becoming our Eighth President instead of the anointed Madame Halimah Yacob. The reserved PE could just have been postponed to 2022. As it is, the government has lost the moral high ground.

It is quite bizarre and Alice In Wonderlandish. There’s PM Lee talking about one thing – and the rest of Singapore about another. One of these days, we will all wake up and decide we don’t want to be part of all this ongoing wayang kulit. And that would be either a rude or good awakening, depending on who you are.

But there are some signs that mainstream media may be waking up into 21st century Singapore.

On Thursday, The Straits Times carried excerpts of an interesting lecture by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens delivered at the Lowry Institute Media Award dinner in Sydney, Australia. It was on The Dying Art of Disagreement. At the risk of oversimplifying the subject, this is what he says: “Every great idea is really just a spectacular disagreement with some other great idea. Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone.  Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.” So we must learn to accept and embrace disagreement in civilised society as the way to move forward.

And it gets even more interesting when he talks about the role of the media: It “requires proprietors and publishers who understand that their role ought not be to push a party line or be slave to Google hits and Facebook ads or to provide a titillating kind of news entertainment – or to help out a president or prime minister who they favour or who’s in trouble.”

Their role is “to clarify the terms of debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.”

And, to confirm and double confirm that dawn may yet be upon us poor Singaporeans, The Straits Times ended its editorial on arts funding on Thursday with this hearty declaration: “A culture of seeking approval from above would hardly produce a breed of people who are given to thinking out of the box.”

Amen.  Can’t agree 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.

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