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Yes, DPM Tharman, we’re not idiots. We do read the inside pages and between the lines

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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I totally agree with Tharman Shanmugaratnam. “I don’t think Singaporeans are fools”, the DPM said at a Q-and-A session held after the NTU’s inaugural Majulah Lecture on Wednesday. Yes, we are not.

Tharman said Singaporeans are discerning. When people get news from the mainstream media, they “do not read blindly”: “They know some things are more likely to come up on Page 4 than on Page 1; the headlines may be a slightly different size, but they read things.”

Translation:  The main controlled media can manipulate, bury as much of the real story (or even the truth) as they can but smart readers automatically know how to read in between the pages and lines and seek out the truth.

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Remember that famous Abraham Lincoln quote: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” You can’t.

Social media, smartphones and the Internet have made it almost impossible for anyone to lie, tell half-truths and push one-sided propaganda for too long.  And that includes seeing the inevitable emergence of more people who will question and not accept even long-held beliefs and sacred cows – even that Lincoln quote in the preceding paragraph. There are now doubts whether he actually said it. According to the Associated Press: This was thought to be part of a speech Lincoln gave in September 1858 in Clinton, Illinois, but the line was not in the text printed in the local newspaper. It was attributed to Lincoln in 1910 when two people remembered hearing him say it in 1856 –  54 years later!

With that in mind, let’s put this more discerning Singaporeans in the new more open world theory to the test.

Take Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his MRT nightmare. He came to the job with a reputation of being a hands-on problem solver, with his vast experience at the HDB and his encounter with SARS. Much was expected of him. But it has been one excuse after another. The Transport Minister has more or less given up on the Bukit Panjang LRT as a lemon which has nothing to do with him as it was built before his time.

If the picture of a minister trying his best that is being painted by the main media is to be accepted, do we then cut him some slack and bear all the continuing delays without protest? Do we also believe that the MRT mess is merely technical? Should there not be more accountability on what happened with the whole MRT system  – who was at fault or what can be done to prevent a similar fiasco? First, it’s the signalling system, next it’s “political pressure”. Singaporeans deserve to know the truth and the real picture. Dribs and drabs and a litany of excuses will not do.

The disconnect between main media narrative and the truth is just as pronounced in two other current events.

There is Lee Hsien Loong making his trip to China for his much-awaited meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. And, of course, the whole Singapore mainstream media machinery went Pravda-like.

PM Lee was shaking hands with just about anyone who was anybody in Beijing. PM in PMO Chun Chun Sing and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat were posing for pictures everywhere. Like long-lost brothers, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was bear-hugging PLA general Chang Wanquan, the Chinese Defence Minister.

As Tharman correctly pointed out, all on Page 1 and top of the page prime news. It was fence-mending all the way and at the same time, to PM Lee’s credit, a bit of flag-flying as he tried to boost the flagging ties between Beijing and Singapore.

The real story, or at least Xi Jinping’s message, was innocuously massaged into Goh Sui Noi’s column at the bottom half of Page 8 in Saturday’s Straits Times: “However, in a sign that things are not yet all hunky-dory, Xi, at his meeting with Lee, said the two sides needed to build mutual political trust and support each other on issues of core interests and major concerns.” This was not mentioned on Thursday’s Page 1 coverage of the Lee-Xi meeting.

I think Singaporeans are really not fools. They can make up their own minds on issues. If the issue is that China wants to pressure us, we may as well know it rather than pretend the pressure does not exist or that we are dealing with angels.

Finally, the “walkover” election of Madame Halimah Yacob – again. No, the issue will not go away, however the government wishes it to.

I have no solution except one. There is enough angst among many Singaporeans on the streets and online regarding the moral legitimacy of the just-concluded Elected Presidency to warrant concern. How do we get all this behind us?

I would suggest holding a public meeting between President Halimah and Dr Tan Cheng Bock. Both should have an open dialogue followed by a Q-and-A with concerned Singaporeans, including live calls from members of the public. This will be better than the forum which was supposed to have been held before the walkover was announced. It will be much more productive – for the sake of all Singaporeans and the EP’s evolution.

Trust us. We are all Singaporeans.

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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