Sunday, September 12, 2010

Political fear and apathy? What fear? What apathy?

First posted on The Online Citizen.

Political filmmaker Martyn See reviews that historical 2006 televised debate between MM Lee Kuan Yew and the post 65′ers.

During the run-up to the 2006 General Elections, Mediacorp’s Channel News Asia aired a 50 minute-long programme entitled “Why My Vote Matters.” It featured a dialogue session between Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and a selected panel of post 65-ers.

Televised debates with PAP leaders are extremely rare. Older Singaporeans would have to cast their minds back to the mid-1980s when Select Commitee hearings such as the amendments to the Legal Professions Act were beamed into their living rooms. It had reportedly featured the then Law Society President Francis Seow jousting with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, with cameo appearances by young lawyers Teo Soh Sung and Tang Fong Har. Two years after the programme was aired, Teo and Tang were detained under the ISA for an alleged “Marxist conspiracy” to subvert the Government. Seow was also arrested a year later.

Throughout the latter half of the 1980s to the mid 1990s, televised political debates did make recurring appearances, most notably with the live Parliamentary proceedings and other Select Commitee enquiries, including a rare face-off on the cost of living, which featured SDP’s Chee Soon Juan versus PAP’s George Yeo. And there was a particular memorable hearing on the Elected Presidency Bill, when a law lecturer named Walter Woon held his own against a panel of ministerial heavyweights including the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. By the mid-1990s, ‘Live in Parliament’ and other Select Commitee hearings were eased off the air, sporadically appearing only as heavily-edited spots during the nightly news broadcasts.

It is in this context that the airing of this 2006 debate makes for such a rare milestone event in Singapore’s television history.

On hindsight, there are questions one would ask of the station’s executive producers and the Prime Minister’s Office. Why did they see the need to conduct such a televised dialogue? Were they hoping to win the young voters over by allowing the octogenarian to remind them of PAP’s accomplishments? Were they hoping that the young post-65ers’ would be so in awe of the MM that they would capitulate? And why entitle the show “Why My Vote Matters” when half the population of this country have not and will probably not be able to vote, given the number of uncontested seats since the 1980s? Add to that, it was Lee Hsien Loong’s first General Elections as the Prime Minister, so why didn’t he take the hot seat instead of his father?

Presumptions and motives aside, this televised debate makes for compelling viewing, and some startling revelations, chief of which was how the post 65-ers went straight for the jugular and tabled questions on the uneven playing field, particularly of the GRC system, and on occasions even interrupted the MM. Older Singaporeans conditioned to deference towards Lee would have been appalled at such disrespect shown to the ‘founding father’.

One young post-65er who stood out was journalist Ken Kwek of the Straits Times’ political desk. Kwek had pinned Lee to the ropes on a survey he had done about political fear. But in a reversal of role, Lee shot back, probing Kwek to disclose the names of his sources.

Having watched this again on Google video, I found several illuminating moments. I leave marked timecodes of them but I’ll leave it to you to make your own conclusions.

(Ken Kwek has since left the Straits Times. He is currently a playwright and had written the screeplay to the local film The Blue Mansion.)

1:47 : On why there are many PAP MP’s who have never contested.
2:06 : On why “there isn’t much of a fight.”
3:55 : On why the need for GRCs. It’s for racial minority representation.
4:33 : When pointed out by Ken Kwek that PAP’s minority candidates had indeed won in single seats prior to implementation of GRC system, Lee replied , “That was with the PAP in complete control. That generation voted for the PAP.” There was a pause. Lee seemed unsure of how to continue. But was interrupted by another question. This is probably the biggest Freudian slip by Lee that the GRC system was implemented for a different reason other than for minority represenatation.
4.55 : Voting are “basic, visceral, emotional biases.”
8:47 : Potong Pasir and Hougang “have to wait at the end of the queue.”
8:57 : Lee asks, “Does any government help the opposition to displace itself?”
10:05 : On eliminating the opposition.
11.10 : On fear of voting against the PAP.
12:04 : No level playing field anywhere.
12:42 : We can “guess” but we don’t know who voted against us.
13:07 : The grilling of Ken Kwek begins here. You name the voters who are afraid.
13:26 : I started as a cross-examiner. You name them.
13:45 : Kwek : Why should I name them?
13:55 : More cross-examination by Lee on Kwek.
15:10 : We have said categorically, “The vote is secret.”
16:11 : “I allowed my grandchildren to speak back to me but from time to time..I put them down.”
17:45 : I built up my base from one single seat in 1959.
18:56 : We want a fair media.
19:10 : Where is the opposition’s “substance?”
22:14: GRCs does the opposition good.
23:22 : I’ve never said that the opposition is unnecessary.
24:52 : Is the PAP insecure about losing?
25:22 : On why the government disallows political podcasts and blogging.
27:18 : Emotional attachment to nation via right to vote is an “unfounded thesis.”
27:15 : “The fact that we are not challenged is a strong mandate.”
32:44 : There is no political apathy.
33:35 : The definition of politics equals jobs, home, medicine, education, future.
34:40 : In the 50s and 60s, Singapore was “in a state of agitation everyday.”
36:50 : Once the PAP goes soft, it will be displaced.
36:39 : Our candidates have competence, integrity.
38:10 : There is a databank here (points to his head).
38:40 : Would you like me to retire from politics?
39:56 : Do you not think my son has a mind of his own?
41:00 : I’ll be sad if your generation wants me to retire.
44:04 : “If I’m arrogant, would I be talking to you?”