Momentous evening yesterday for two reasons.
First was the Cricket World Cup Final where India met Sri Lanka in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. I am not a cricket fan, nor am I an Indian citizen. But I am married to a man who grew up in India and loves the sport. It is hard to remain immune in the face of the sort of enthusiasm that organises a party at home complete with fellow India fans, drinks, food and instantly-uploaded-to-Facebook-photographs. We all got caught up in the spirit of the match, and my house sported a world cup logo pattern in chalk at the doorway, while all my guests painted their faces in the orange, white and green of the Indian flag. Quite an experience. Even for someone who does not understand the details of cricket, a final match fuelled by cultural affinity even if not patriotism proved to be an irresistable draw.
The second reason was the political forum organised by Channel News Asia where two PAP representatives, along with representatives from some of the opposition parties, discussed issues and alternatives. I was full of hope that something positive would come out of this forum. It was a first in many ways and I really wanted to see what the opposition candidates had to offer. So I broke away from the cricket match (when Sachin Tendulkar was batting, by the way!) and sequestered myself upstairs. I am, after all, first and foremost Singaporean, and this was my country’s future that was being discussed.
Intensely disappointing. The moderator was not skilled in smoothly moving the discussion along. I’m sure this was not intended, and it is easier to criticise than to be the one on the spot, but I presume she was selected to moderate for a reason. It is just not clear to me what that reason was. Sharp breaks, a haughty demeanour, the inability to form links between what participants were saying, to forge either a sense of common purpose or a battle worth fighting, a lack of respect for some participants as well as the audience – these are things that may have been unintended, but that it how I perceived them.
The participants were also a disappointment. Of all of them, Tharman (People’s Action Party) clearly knew what he wanted to say (as well he should), his fellow party member Josephine Teo was well-rehearsed with all her glib analogies and cliches ready. Clearly neither needed to prepare as much as they thought they did, because there were no real issues discussed at any great depth (contrary to what some have said online, I don’t think this worked to anyone’s advantage). The format of the forum simply didn’t allow for it and the result was that everyone came across looking insipid, uninspiring and politically immature. Gerald Giam from the Workers’ Party made a few good points, but I got the feeling that the real gems would have emerged if he had had enough time to unwrap them. Nuanced political discourse is tough with such a restricted format. The Singapore Democratic Party’s Vincent Wijeysingha was the only one who seemed to thrive on the time limit, confidently interjecting when he thought a point needed to be made and optimising the tiny windows rationed out to make some credible statements. Lina Chiam of the Singapore People’s Party was clearly out of her depth. Someone online said she looked like a deer caught in the headlights, and I thought that was a perfect analogy. The SPP really should have sent someone more articulate. A passion to serve is one thing, but representation in Parliament is about being able to speak up about issues that matter, and I came away from the forum singularly unimpressed by the SPP. The Singapore Democratic Alliance’s Mohd Nazeem Suki may have had some good ideas but he didn’t seem to be able to get them out. I was torn between pity and annoyance as I listened to him struggle.
To be fair to the opposition parties, this was not the usual political forum. They were not just fighting to get elected, they were fighting to justify their existence in the first place. It is an uphill task. But that is precisely why they need to be able to frame their ideas coherently when given this sort of opportunity. Have you ever seen school students preparing for debates? They practise not just what to say, but how to say it in the limited time they have. I don’t understand why last night’s participants didn’t do this.
I don’t want to be too harsh in my criticism of CNA. That they managed to get this forum together at all (if indeed it was their idea) is a new direction in the local media scene, and I am sure they were working under many restrictions. But I do have some suggestions for next time:
(1) Resist the pressure to control whom the parties send to represent them. Tell them to send their most articulate because that is what Singaporeans deserve on national television (even though we hardly ever get it, not even from presenters).
(2) If you are pressed for time, split your forum over multiple sessions and pick one topic for each session. Or allow each party to have a slot for itself prior to a final session where they all meet.
(3) If last night’s ridiculous format is all that your superiors allow you to run with, then shape it such that there is no pretence of delving into important issues. You know this is impossible anyway. A format like this does not make for a main meal that is satisfying, but for an appetiser that teases. And that’s okay too. Let it be a forum for showcasing charisma, creating enthusiam about the political process, drawing viewers and participants together as Singaporeans who are engaging in creating a vibrant public sphere together.
(4) Whatever format you finally end up with after negotiating with your higher-ups, pick a moderator who is fluent enough in the nuances of the language to keep the discussion going smoothly. Poise, grace and confidence. These are the hallmarks of a good moderator. Last night’s moderator displayed none of these.
It’s time to up the game. I was so depressed after the forum that it took India winning the World Cup to lift my spirits. But there is still hope. Every step forward is a step in the right direction, and as long as all of us remain open to new ideas, I think we will be able to create the sort of political atmosphere that energises and inspires.