Papers Full of Nonsense

Lucky Tan recently posted an article,  “US Presidential Debate: High Stakes, High Drama…” in which he says, “[i]n the US, they don’t do “conversations”, they debate.” In an article that makes no reference to Lucky Tan or his blog post, the article “Fiery Debates? I’d rather have boring politicians” by Jeremy Au Yong in The Straits Times also compares political discourse in America and Singapore. Predictably, Au Yong favors “conversations” over debates. It is as if the paper is on auto-pilot mode to help the PAP engage the people by praising the status quo with remarkable feats of illogic.

As a start, Au Yong describes the Obama-Romney debate with seemingly innocuous and almost positive words such as “fiery”, “exciting”, “fireworks” and “fiesty [sic]” without actually making any reference to the contents of the debate. He even compares the debate to sports. The purpose is clear. The descriptions are a sneaky way of discrediting and trivializing the debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, making it appear as spectacle sans substance.

Au Yong then makes an odd, if not downright ridiculous, comparison between the debate between the American presidential candidates and a forum attended by both opposition politicians and PAP MPs. While he is certainly entitled to prefer the forum to the debate, he frames the issue as one of two forms of politics involving two types of politicians: the first being the fiery American politics and politicians, and the second being the apparently polite Singaporean politics and politicians. It is like comparing a Windows notebook with an iPad instead and saying that one is better than the other when they are not meant to be comparable.

Clearly, the fact that there are debates between American presidential candidates does not mean that American politicians cannot be at other times behave more like Singaporean ones too. Neither does the politeness between politicians in the forum in Singapore mean that politicians do not sometimes (or at the same time) resort to mudslinging and unsubstantiated claims, especially when one party has every local newspaper presenting its twisted representations of reality as immutable truth.

If Au Yong’s article is not a display of plain ignorance about the different natures of debates and forums at work, it could simply be a devious disregard of logic, semantics, and context for the sake of supporting political insipidity while demonizing other practices that could lead to a freer flow of ideas. Au Yong is evidently not blind to the difference. This is obvious when he says:

The comparatively sedate nature of the discourse between Singapore’s politicians does lead suggestions – every once in a while – about holding an American-style debate here.

Au Yong does know that just because local politicians attend forums, it does not mean that they cannot also debate with one another. It is obvious that having supposedly “American-style” debates in Singapore does not mean that it is the only way discussions are going to be conducted in Singapore. This does not matter to Au Yong, however. As far as I can see, he believes that the mere existence of debates between politicians as one of the various modes of political discourse is bad for Singapore politics:

But is a televised live debate good for Singapore’s politics?

To answer that question, it is perhaps worthwhile to first understand how such a debate works.

What the audience sees is a 90 minute face-off between two articulate people who effortless [sic] shoot off insults and attacks at one another.

In Au Yong’s eyes, the debate between the American Presidential candidates is nothing more than a trading of insults without any actual arguments about policies. He must have watched an different cut of the debate from the rest of the world. Indeed the trading of insults is a taboo in Singapore where only the PAP is allowed to insult others while the press helps to publish and circulate these insults. When others insult the PAP, it is called defamation. God forbid that politicians from different parties be allowed to insult one another in Singapore! Insulting opponents is the prerogative of the PAP, which is made up of really polite people who will never label their opponents as cheats, liars, sociopaths, chauvinists, etc.

Au Yong must have totally forgotten about debates in the Singapore Parliament, where PAP politicians would offer rigorous “rebuttals” to what severely outnumbered opposition politicians are saying, even when the rhetoric of the dominant party is full of fallacies. No, I am just kidding. He has not forgotten anything; he just thinks that politicians here are very polite to one another:

In Parliament, MPs generally remain polite even when they are pushing for something they believe in passionately.

Perhaps he is right. There is probably a limit to how rude politicians here can be, even if they are PAP politicians. After all, when the opposition is threatened by the specter of repressive laws and severe consequences, they tend to be careful with how they argue with the PAP. With a relatively tame opposition, a PAP politician would have to be infected with rabies before he gets as heated up as Obama or Romney when he is speaking to an opposition politician. In Singapore, face-offs are rare. Insults, when one is entitled to the prerogative, tend to be behind the back or below the belt.

Au Yong believes that the “American-style” debates are all about style and not substance:

Given the cut and thrust nature of the debate, it is impossible to verify instantly if everything said by either side is true. And as such, winners are rarely determined by whether they had the best facts, but on whether they had the better style.

Fact checkers do run through the points raised in the debate, but the results of these come out well after the viewing audience has already decided in their minds who won.

While Au Yong may well be justified in having reservations about political debates, the concern applies to all other modes of political discourse. It may be true that facts may be misrepresented and the audience misled. If the person with more sophisticated rhetoric has an advantage, it really does not matter whether it is delivered in a debate or a forum. Is the apparent politeness itself as something more credible not also a rhetoric move in politics? Where Au Yong has a valid concern, his distinction between the debate and the forum proves to be spurious, if not cunningly deceptive.

If the problem of debates is ultimately that the audience may be misled by articulate but less than truthful speeches during a heated debate, there is also a worry that the audience is misled by speeches in apparently polite exchanges. The problem is, in fact, aggravated in Singapore where the ruling party enjoys unfair advantages and the mainstream media helps to circulate the rhetoric of the ruling party while misrepresenting ideas from the opposition. At least there are different newspapers taking different sides in America, even if there is a lack of truly objective papers. In Singapore, there is only Singapore Press Holdings and the publications that offer dead trees as sacrifices to the PAP gods. If Au Yong is concerned about the audience being misled, he ought to be paranoid about the potential effects of this particular article of his, and the very paper he works for.

Au Yong seems to acknowledge his partiality at the end of his article, but not without throwing more misleading claims at his readers:

Look across Parliament and you will likely see many who would not otherwise do well in a debate format but have useful contributions to offer.In fact, in many ways I am partial to boring politicians.

Because there is a good chance these people won because of their track record and what they can do, rather than how good they were at talking about those things.

While Au Yong has been careful not to clearly favor the PAP for a large part of his article, preferring to support the way politics is conducted in Singapore instead of overtly supporting the way the PAP conducts itself, his final remark makes his political affinities clear. He is saying that in the PAP-dominated Parliament, many of the politicians won their seats because of their good “track record” (this echoes the PAP’s claims during elections) and trivializes any verbal gaffes they may have committed. Politicians win not because of the unfair GRC system, not because the media help the PAP generate propaganda, not because of how opposition politicians have been bankrupted with defamation suits, and certainly not because they have misrepresented anything to the people since they are such polite people.

In reality, politics in Singapore is not at all polite and benign. In many ways, it is worse for Singaporean politicians than for American politicians – unless one happens to belong to that one very powerful party in Singapore. While not everyone would agree that Singapore should emulate America, the political scene in Singapore has to change if are truly concerned about preventing the public from being misled. The change needs to come from politicians as well as the state apparatuses that have been built over decades to ensure political unfairness.

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