Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shamugaratnam has denied saying that the PAP engaged in “gutter politics” during the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election, in a NTU lecture organised last week.
Mr Tharman said that some factions online have been claiming that he had said so, especially with regards to the character assassination of Dr Chee Soon Juan by PAP MPs.
During the lecture, Mr Tharman had said that sometimes his fellow PAP MPs “fall short” when it comes to the PAP’s values.
He clarified in his statement yesterday differences in opinion within the party are “healthy”:
“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.”
This is Mr Tharman’s statement reproduced in full:
“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.
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.”
This is the Q&A between Kenneth Lin and DPM Tharman at NTU last week:
“Don’t you think it’s also important to open up the media landscape to have the mainstream media not controlled by the government? As some of you may know, Singapore is ranked a 151st out of a 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders.
And you’ve also said there is a need to return to honest politics, and have indicated that you believe political campaigns should be a healthy debate on ideas, not one muddied with mudslinging and personal attacks. Why then has the leaders of the PAP made gutter politics and character assassination central to their campaigns in recent elections, such as the Bukit Batok By-Elections last year? Is that something you personally approve of and would like to see continue in Singapore, or is that simply out of your control?”
“I’ll answer this in two levels. First, as someone who’s lived through some of Singapore’s history – I grew up in the 60s, I was politically very conscious and aware, and in the 70s, I was active in my own way, and I joined the ruling party in 2001 – I would say Singapore has really changed. I don’t want to minimise anything you might talk about today, but it is a vastly more open and liberal place compared to what it used to be, believe me. I was an activist. Vastly more liberal and vastly more open. And the sense of fear, the sense of constraints is far less now.
Yes, you get pushbacks. Sometimes you may not like it. And I don’t agree with every tactic of every one of my colleagues. But I have to say, that there’s something that defines the PAP. It’s the insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans. Now I’m not saying this to besmirch anyone, but that trait of the PAP shows up almost all the time. And sometimes the PAP falls short, and action is to be taken on individuals.
So just bear in mind that that was one of the colours of the PAP, that emphasis on character, and it shows up in a variety of ways. But it is a vastly more open society than it used to be. Vastly more open politically, and people don’t have to be frightened. I don’t agree with every tactic but every political party and political campaigns have a range of tactics. I also have great faith in Singaporeans, which is my second point. Singaporeans judge. Singaporeans judge in Bukit Batok, Singaporeans judge in each general elections and they’ll judge the PAP in the next elections. I don’t think Singaporeans are fools. I don’t think they are fools at all.
And even when they read what we call the mainstream media, they don’t read it lightly. They know some things are more likely to come up on page 4 than on page 1. The headlines might be a slightly different size, but Singaporeans aren’t fools. And Singaporeans have the social media as well. People talk more openly, they exchange views more openly and they make judgement. And that, at the end of the day, is the test of how we’re progressing.”