The Real Checks on Government

Hougang by electionsPhoto: WP's Low Thia Kiang faces off with the assembled media during Png's victory press conference

One of the issues that had been constantly raised within this by election and last year’s general election was the urgent need for more opposition voices within the Singaporean parliament to provide a check on the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) executive and legislative powers.

After said rumors of the affair came to light, Mr. Yaw and the Worker’s Party (WP) came under intense public pressure to publicly disclose the truth. Instead of refuting the internet rumors, Mr. Yaw wound up leaving the country and being expelled from his party and his parliamentary seat – The Hougang chair was now vacant because the laws of Singapore state that you must belong to a political party to be able to have a seat in parliament. 

To this date, no evidence of Mr. Yaw’s infidelity has been produced to prove his supposed philandering. It is also important to note that Mr. Yaw remains unconvicted of any crime whatsoever. To date, former Member of Parliament Yaw Shin Leong remains the most high profile lynching of the online vigilante mob. 

And so the Hougang voters had found themselves in the unenviable dual role of having to once again choose their elected representative and act the nation’s surrogate to decide if we still need more opposition voices within parliament. Candidates Desmond Choo (PAP) and Png Eng Huat (WP) were unveiled by their respective parties. The battle of Hougang came and went with the full force of both candidates’ party machineries behind them. Campaigning by both candidates was fierce. Sniping between the WP and the PAP was intense, worsened by polarizing media bias from both the mainstream and online media. Then came the bomb shell claim made by both competing sides in the race:

“My fellow Singaporeans, this is what I have learned as I observed the last year. Even without the Workers’ Party candidates, citizens of Singapore who have now higher expectations and higher demands, they would have stepped in. They would have shaped and influenced government policies and government programs. If you don’t believe this, go and check out the internet. Go and check out the views of ex nominated MPs like Siew Kum Hong, Calvin Cheng, Pauline Straughan, Eugene Tan – who is now in parliament. And even bloggers like Mr Brown Kin Mum, they do not have allegiance to any specific political party, but they together with the other Singaporeans who have minds of their own, they are the real check on the PAP.”  Denise Phua Lay Peng, May 20 2012 (link). 

Ms. Phua made that claim while she was speaking at a Hougang by election rally on behalf her party’s candidate, Desmond Choo, in her attempt to make a case to the Hougang voter why they should choose the PAP candidate over the WP candidate Png Eng Huat. Ms. Phua claimed in her speech that Hougang did not have to feel obligated to elect another opposition candidate who would act as a check on the PAP in parliament because as she put it, the active citizenry of Singapore, who are a part of the online cacophony, are the real checks on the PAP.

The WP’s Gerald Giam rebutted Ms. Phua’s claim with this: 

Then she went on to say that we don’t even need opposition MPs. She said that we can go check out the Internet to see the views of ex-Nominated MPs and bloggers like Mr Brown. She said that they do not have allegiance to any specific political party and have minds of their own. She said that they are the real check on the PAP. 

Wow! Really?! Bloggers are the real check on the PAP? I was an active political blogger several years ago. If I had heard her speech back then, I wouldn’t have bothered going through all this trouble to join the Workers’ Party and contest in elections. I would have just stayed at home and blogged away to bring about real change to Singapore!

By her logic, we can just all go into Facebook to debate and make laws there. Why bother with Parliament?

In fact, even blogger Mr Brown, whom Ms Phua mentioned, was tickled. Here is what he wrote on his blog in response:

“I am honoured. Does that mean I get to vote on bills and speak in Parliament from now on?”

Gerald Giam, May 22 2012. (link)

Mr. Giam rebutted Ms. Phua’s argument by explaining how the legislative process works in Singapore. However, all the back and forth between the WP and PAP representatives ultimately had missed the point on who is the real check on not just the government but civil society. That role traditionally belongs to the fourth estate: A free, responsible and independent press; something that is painfully obviously missing from the Singaporean political scene. 

Mr. Low Thia Kiang, secretary general of the WP and MP for Aljunied GRC, reinforced this point during his final Hougang rally speech: “But how can the people make an informed choice when the main source of information is monopolized? Up till today, the chairman of Singapore Press Holdings is an ex-PAP cabinet minister and the main shareholder of Mediacorp TV is a government-linked company, Temasek Holdings. How much neutrality can we expect from them?”

Mr. Low went on to accentuate his point by adding: “The media is a potentially powerful tool for or against certain political parties. Therefore, it is imperative that the media must become a reliable source of information for the people, independent from the strong influence of the government. Only then can it be an effective check on all political parties including the PAP, not just against the opposition. We must not allow the media to be used by the government as a political tool.” (link)

Going by Mr Low’s words, it is evident that the Singaporean fourth estate is unable to fulfill its role as the counter balance to the government; it now falls to the fifth estate, the online media, to rise up and fill the responsibilities voided by the national press. In an ironic sense, Ms. Phua was correct in saying that our active citizenry who take matters into their own hands and go out and report the news are the real checks on the PAP. Online citizen journalism has changed the news landscape in the country. But the rise of citizen journalism has also brought to light a dark side in the local zeitgeist. As the online chatter grows louder and louder, the widening gulf of polarization becomes more and more obvious as that chatter increases. Political Singapore is now a society of you are either with us or against us, with no room for grey. And that is not a good thing.

Yes, the nation has an urgent need for more opposition representation within parliament; we need more people within the halls of government who truly represent the people and will vote no on bills and laws that do not benefit society. But more than that, the vital need for more responsible voices -- more credible and independent news reporting cannot be denied. Without these voices, Singaporeans will be blinded to what are the true issues that affect their lives and just simply stumble around repeating rhetoric they hear from other people with their own agenda. So in the end…what can we do? 

We do what both Ms. Phua and Mr. Giam suggested in their speeches. We take charge of our own information flow, we go out and report the news to help our society become a more informed and enlightened one. We open source the information we all create to keep our politicos in check, and we vote according to our conscience and accept that despite our differences in ideology, we all want the same thing: A better Singapore today.

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