Following my NTU Majulah Lecture last week on the future of education we had a dialogue. Some asked about the recent Presidential Election (PE) – and my views on the PE, especially how we should look at the issue of race, have been reported.

Gutter Politics?

I see that some social media commentators have claimed that I agreed in the dialogue that the PAP had engaged in “gutter politics” in the Bukit Batok by-election. That is not what I said, and not what I believe.

The PAP contrasted Dr Chee Soon Juan’s character with that of Murali Pillai in the Bukit Batok by-election, and highlighted how Dr Chee had said he was proud about his past. Dr Chee and his colleagues in the SDP responded by arguing that questions of character should not be raised in elections, and accused the PAP of gutter politics for doing so.

I stand by what the PAP and my colleagues said. The PAP was not engaging in gutter politics. The character of candidates is at the heart of politics: voters look at a politician’s actions over time, judge his motivations and integrity, and decide whether they can trust him. If Singaporeans ever come to ignore the track record and integrity of politicians, in the PAP or any other parties, it is Singapore that will end up in the gutter. That has been the story of many nations.

For the record, I was asked by a member of the audience at the NTU lecture for my views on whether the media landscape should be opened and the mainstream media “not controlled by the government” – he cited Singapore’s low ranking by Reporters without Borders – and whether I approved of the “gutter politics” by the PAP in recent elections such as in Bukit Batok.

I said that Singapore had become vastly more open compared to when I was younger. I added that “the sense of constraint is far less now. Yes, you get pushbacks, and sometimes you may not like it, and I don’t agree with every tactic by every one of my colleagues. But I have to say that if there is something that defines the PAP, it is its insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans.”

I did not entertain the assertion about the PAP engaging in gutter politics in Bukit Batok. It is an assertion that is recycled from time to time, and has been the SDP’s position. But having seen social media commentaries claiming that I had agreed with the assertion, I am making my views clear.

More generally – are there occasional differences of views on issues within Government, or within the PAP? Of course there are, and that’s healthy. But once any course of action is decided, there is no question that we take collective responsibility for it in the leadership.

The mainstream media

On the question about the mainstream media: I have said this before, here and abroad, but it’s worth saying again. The mainstream media in Singapore is not a free-for-all. Neither is it the heavily-controlled media that some critics caricature it to be. That’s not how things are in Singapore – the media doesn’t wait around for instructions, and it doesn’t excuse everything government does. The mainstream media is what I regard as serious-minded, responsible players in an evolving Singapore democracy – helping to take it forward, but airing views in a way that avoids fragmenting society.

That’s not an easy responsibility, because the ability of the media to divide people is a risk everywhere. In my opinion our media does a better job at advancing the collective interests of Singaporeans than that in several other Asian countries, where the media has added to a divisiveness in society not seen in a long time. Even in some of the mature western democracies, people are segregating themselves into media bubbles of their own – both in the mainstream and social media – and public trust in the media is now at an all-time low. These are not the things that Reporters Without Borders looks at, but they matter to the quality of democracy in any society, and are worrying many others.

One more point. Our mainstream media carries all the important news of the day, including both sides of the political debate. Singaporeans pick it up. As I said at NTU, “they know some things are more likely to come up on page four than on page one” but they read things and discuss them freely. So blaming the mainstream media for electoral losses is not a good strategy – it doesn’t square anymore with the reality of a public that reads, follows issues and thinks more critically.

We should keep this going – the mainstream media as responsible players in our democracy, helping to move it forward. We should hope too that the middle in the social media gets stronger, for Singapore’s good.

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