General Election TV Debate: To what end?

Donaldson Tan

Political parties exchanging pointers during the televised forum.

MediaCorp has finally aired the first televised General Election (GE) themed dialogue in 20 years. The English edition [VIDEO] was broadcasted on 2 April 2011 while the Mandarin edition [PART 1] [PART 2] [PART 3] was broadcasted on 3 April 2011. Not so long ago, it appeared that such a televised forum would be unattainable. For many years, the ruling party has ignored debate challenges from the opposition political parties. Parliament remained the only platform in the public sphere where the ruling party and the opposition to exchange arguments, effectively leaving out opposition parties that has zero parliamentary presence.

Looking back, it seems a major milestone has been achieved in the domestic media scene and Singapore’s electoral history when MediaCorp broadcasted the GE themed dialogues. But the crux of the question is whether this represents an incremental change or a paradigm shift. An incremental change is defined as a gradual addition while paradigm shift refers to a complete change in mindset that allows the creation of a new condition previously thought impossible or unacceptable. Certainly it must be incremental change considering from the angle of competition among New Media, foreign media and the government-owned media to stay relevant to the electorate.

Feeling left out, opposition political parties with zero parliamentary presence to engage the ruling party begin to embark on a series of public outreach to engage the government. The National Solidarity Party and the Reform Party used the Speaker’s Corner to speak on Budget 2009 and Budget 2010 respectively. What was unreported about these political parties in the government-owned media was made up by Youtube video posts and reports by bloggers. Qatar-based Al-Jazeera provided further competitive pressure on government-owned media when it begun hosting Opposition politicians and social activists to discuss issues relevant to the Singaporeans. Eventually, Talking Point, the flagship current affairs discussion program of Channel News Asia, started hosting discussions involving politicians from the ruling party and the Opposition camp. The final nail to the coffin had to the The Online Citizen’s Face to Face (F2F) Forum that was held last December. F2F, being the first multi-party public dialogue organised by the blogosphere, represents a serious challenge to the relevance of the government-owned media to the Singapore audience.

Paradigm shift? During the British GE last year, the televised debate [see below] between the 3 key party leaders (David Cameron of the Conservatives, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, Gordon Brown of Labour) had unexpectedly propelled the Lib Dems ahead of Labour in the polls. “Sad political junkies should watch the UK election debate on YouTube. 90mins that may have broken the duopoly that is UK politics,” Khairy Jamaluddin, Youth Chief of Malaysia’s United Malays National Organisation, tweeted. Nick Clegg was given equal billing to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron during the televised debate. For the first time, the Liberal Democrats are seen as the potential next government. Today, Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain. It remains unclear if any paradigm shift that was manifested during the British GE was replicated in Singapore.

Comparing the British experience to Singapore’s, there are notable differences. The British debate provided an opportunity for the electorate to compare the manifestos of the 3 key political parties. The manifesto of each party is comprehensive. They cover issues ranging from healthcare to public expenditure, defence and foreign affairs to revitalisation of the British economy, trade & industry policies to energy & environment. The policy coverage of each key political party is as wide as the responsibility of the government of the day. Out of the 652 seats in the House of Commons, each party had put up candidates to contest 651 seats. This means every party’s election machinery was in action at every constituency, communicating the manifesto and canvassing for votes on the ground.The electorate was certain that each party aspired to be the next government. Therefore an enhanced media presence of Nick Clegg was bound to boost the Liberal Democrats’ chances.

In Singapore’s case, the GE themed dialogues do not provide the electorate the opportunity to compare election manifestos. With the exception of the Reform Party, no political parties have published an election manifesto. Even if they have published an election manifesto, none of the political parties (except the PAP) would have walked every constituency to deliver the manifesto to constituents. Hence, the legitimacy of each party’s election manifesto as the national agenda becomes questionable. The comprehensiveness of the election manifesto is especially important. Such dialogues bring the election to the viewer, so that party leaders spent a considerable amount of time debating issues which were important to the public can refine the manifesto to points that are relevant to the view’s decision-making process. Without a comprehensive manifesto (in terms of breadth and depth), it would not be possible for the party leaders to articulate a consistent policy stance on random issues raised by the public and debate among each other.

The opportunity to be on television is double-edged. If delivered well, it enhances the party’s public standing. If delivered terribly, it damages the party’s reputation. Prominent blogger Alex Au has commented on this aspect, so I would go no further but to refer you to his blog post “Quick thoughts on TV debate between political parties”. In the English edition, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party and Mr Gerald Giam of the Workers’ Party did extremely well in articulating and defending the position of their respective parties. In the Chinese edition, Mr Sebastian Teo of the National Solidarity Party and Mr Koh Choong Yong of the Workers’ Party were articulate and steadfast in their delivery and arguement. The intensity of the engagement between the ruling party and these 4 individuals reflects the lack of robust evaluation and intense debate that goes on in the Parliament. Clearly, these 4 individuals had capitalised on the incremental role provided by the GE themed dialogues.

Overall, the Opposition failed to capture the imagination of the electorate. The Singapore Democrats has worked very hard on the fiscal front. It published the Shadow Budget Report prior the launch of Budget 2011 in Parliament. But more importantly, no opposition political party has made any impression on the electorate on its capability to manage the economy. Parliamentary debate is also lacking severely in this area. The ruling party depends on the credentials of its MPs and candidates, who have experience in administrating and regulating different sectors of the economy, to give an impression to the electorate it is capable of setting the direction for the economy. Indeed, if this coming General Election is going to be a watershed one, considering the new Opposition candidates consist of entrepreneurs and business consultants from the private sector, then a paradigm shift might take place when the Opposition candidates begin to challenge the ruling party on the direction of the economy.

Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam has a point. In a letter (5 April 2011) addressed to the Straits Times Forum, he wrote:

The main point I made, in response to a question, was that in the context of Singapore, honest, reasonable people are unlikely to differ much on what are the best policy choices for the country, given its size and geo-strategic situation.

And K Shanmugam isn’t wrong. How the new Opposition candidates must challenge the ruling party is not disagreement-in-principle, but along the line of execution, monitoring and prioritisation of policy objectives. All eyes are on the Opposition to turn the coming General Election into a watershed one! In case anyone had failed to notice, the most important topic for the British General Election was how to save the British economy.