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By Bertha Henson
I didn’t realise that this kerfuffle over an opinion piece would last so many days. Frankly, I had hoped that the People’s Action Party website had been hacked and that Dr Tan Wu Meng, whom I know to be a perfectly friendly person, had had his name mis-used for an opinion piece.
But now it is clear that the PAP is serious about defending his column, which raised so many eyebrows because it seemed so uncharacteristic of the PAP. What had since looked like character assassination has morphed into a question of the Workers’ Party position on bilateral relations. Only a seasoned debater like Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam could have achieved such a re-direction of the issues.
In between, many people have dived into the row, more to attack the PAP MP, than to defend his column. You may say that this just a small segment of the population, and the rest haven’t been following or just reading what others have read. Whether the segment is large or small is immaterial. It is whether that segment which has read the to-ing and fro-ing have made points that require further reflection.
The timing of Dr Tan’s missive seems to herald the start of PAP’s campaigning. For its staid and boring website to have printed such a column is itself remarkable. The party must have anticipated a response. I can actually understand if comments were thrown up in the heat of an election campaign, impugning another’s character and questioning his or her fitness for public office. Usually, these remarks relate to the individual themselves, some action or speech which is plainly egregious, like conducting extra-marital affairs. Sometimes, they refer to remarks made to foreign audiences which go beyond criticism into condemnation.
That is why Dr Tan’s missive boggles the mind. I am not sure I’ve come across such a roundabout attack in Singapore politics. He picked on a couple of lines in Mr Pritam Singh’s speech during the debate on the Fortitude budget: “We should count ourselves fortunate that we have citizens who are the loving critics amongst us, some of whom have been questioned in this very House in this term of government. Members would recall one citizen’s poems were nit-picked with a view to cast wholly negative aspersions on his character, even though that individual was not present in the House to defend himself.”
Dr Tan, citing some of Mr Alfian Sa’at’s work, said the poet was consistently running down Singapore. “I suggest he read them carefully, and then tell us if he still thinks Alfian is a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore. If he does, perhaps Mr Singh considers himself a ‘loving critic’ of Singapore too?”
It is the politician’s way of disarming his opponent – and there is no question about “the point’’ of the column: It was that Mr Singh liked how Mr Alfian ran down Singapore and, therefore, Mr Singh is anti-Singapore; so, he should explain himself. As a writer, I know all the different ways to skin a cat, without actually showing the knife. So, on the face of it, Dr Tan’s column could be described as an innocent framing of a legitimate question about Dr Singh’s leanings towards Malaysia.
It is clear that Dr Tan does not have a high opinion of Mr Alfian or his works, although he did not weigh in on the side of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung who brought the poet into the public eye when Parliament discussed his participation in a programme run by Yale-NUS College. Nor did Dr Tan respond to Mr Singh’s speech during the Budget debate. Instead, the opinion piece was put out in the midst of the national broadcasts, which makes me wonder if the PAP’s media machinery was doing this on purpose for some unknown reason or simply has no sense of what are the important issues of the day.
Any editor would have asked Dr Tan how he would defend his piece if it was pointed out that the term “loving critic” was coined by a distinguished Singaporean, Professor Tommy Koh, who had also used it to describe the poet. Just as Mr Singh might not have read all of Mr Alfian’s work, surely Dr Tan would know what Prof Koh said given the immense publicity at that time. Or is this purely because it’s Mr Singh – not Prof Koh – running for re-election? I would have thought that it would be more damning if a respected diplomat agrees with Mr Alfian’s view. I mean, what will other countries think?
Also, just as Mr Alfian had put up his other writings to counter Mr Ong’s selective rendition of his work in Parliament, Dr Tan would realise that the award-winning poet and playwright would be able to rummage through his treasure trove to counter his supposed anti-Singapore/pro-Malaysia writings?
It seems like what is needed a brain scan of sorts to determine Mr Alfian’s leanings, or a distinguished review of all his work, to analyse his intentions and agendas.
But then again, the column isn’t about Mr Alfian is it?
Going by Dr Tan’s argument, even if Mr Singh is not anti-Singapore, he is terrible at assessing people for praise or defence. So his shortcomings would be not reading Mr Alfian’s work more widely and, therefore, siding with people indiscriminately.
Along the way, discussion on the Internet on this Bermuda Triangle turned to the term “gutter politics’’ and whether an examination of “character’’ is fair game. So if someone was a bully in National Service, he should be called out, one commentator said. It strikes me that if we want to delve into someone’s past, then every prospective candidate should start his or her campaign by apologising and accounting for every single bad thing he or she did, lest they get “outed’’. This is hardly an encouraging way to get people into politics, because even the best people are not saints.
Of course, character is important, which is why people with criminal records are banned from contesting in elections. Society dictates that people in public office must have other virtues, such as incorruptibility and sticking to their marriage vows. But we must be careful not to let discussions on character defects and past follies degenerate into demagoguery. Also, to remember that he who casts the first stone should be without sin – lest this be an invitation to a stone-throwing competition.
But what a person says about another, and how he says it, also reflects on his character and outlook. Too many people have pointed out that Dr Tan’s column was condescending to minorities. When referring to Mr Alfian, he wrote: “This man grew up in Singapore. Singapore gave him his education and he earns a living here. An education and a living that is denied to many minorities in the region.”
That was, to put it mildly, not nice.
Dr Tan opened a new can of worms called Chinese privilege. It doesn’t help when his supporters note his excellent academic record and sterling career path, achievements which have no bearing on character. Instead, what comes across is an unconscious, blinding arrogance.
There is a view that people are yelping only because the words came from the PAP, but they will condone or keep silent when opposition politicians make similar remarks. In other words, they are hypocrites. That might well be the case for extremists on both sides of the political debate. I daresay no worse epithets are used on opposition politicians who make silly noises, than those on the PAP. If people are surprised, it might be also because they hold the PAP in higher regard than the opposition parties. I, for one, have yet to see a roundabout attack based on a person’s endorsement for a third-party who is doubtless a controversial figure. But Mr Alfian is not Hitler.
The PAP can do better than that if it wants to take down the opposition and ask for explanations of their position on this or that. But if this kind of salvo continues, I’d rather listen again to the national broadcasts.
I’m getting out of the Bermuda Triangle. Getting lost is a waste of time.
Bertha Henson is a veteran Singapore journalist who now lectures at NUS. The views expressed are her own. This commentary was reproduced from here blog Bertha Harian.