03 August 2015

Conversation with the Prime Minister: Just a conversation?

How Minilee thought he'd appear on TV last night:
as an FDR conducting a folksy fireside chat

Without much warning, Minilee appeared on national TV last night, hijacking both Channel 5 of Mediacorpse and ChannelNewAsia of SPH at the same time. As the CGI title animation helpfully informed, this was A Conversation with the Prime Minister. Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Dr Chan Heng Chee sat across Minilee for the next half hour, asking him questions on "population growth challenges", a looming identity crisis, and whether we could afford to slow down.

The immediate reaction of the blogosphere has been to point out the inconsistency between Minilee's message of yesterday and his policies up to yesterday, as well as the inability or unwillingness of Chan Heng Chee to ask difficult questions. These are valid concerns, given that the conversation may be read as a defense of the public policy of Minilee's decade-long administration, and the calibre of the lively intellectual salons that Chan is reported to have hosted during her tenure in Washington.

It is appropriate to feel disappointed, perhaps even cheated, that given the academic credentials of Chan, Minilee got away with howlers in his conversation like this.

I do not owe hundreds of millions of potential foreign workers from around the world an obligation. I owe Singaporeans a responsibility.

A sharp, honest conversation partner might've looked askance and replied thus:
"But your government has signed binding agreements with foreign nations to give visas to their workers and employ them in various sectors of Singapore's economy, with no questions asked, no limits imposed. And then gives out subsidies to displaced PMETs so they can have mediocre retraining and skills upgrading courses, one suspects because the government and WDA assumes they deserved to lose their jobs. Your government's policies would suggest you owe hundreds of millions of potential foreign workers from around the world a responsibility, and Singaporeans a mere obligation."

Dr Chan Heng Chee said no such thing. She made no answer, and continued to the next set of softballed questions. And so it was for the entire "Conversation with the Prime Minister".

What Minilee looked like on TV last night
Thinking as a sociologist, it is very difficult to accept last night's broadcast as merely a conversation. A sociologist would not take too much issue with the content of the broadcast but instead ask what it took to produce the broadcast.

As a mere conversation, the fact that it was simultaneously broadcast on two major television stations signals its political importance.

In addition, the programme lacks credits. We do not know who produced it, who the director was, who was behind the camera, who wrote the script (for surely it was a scripted interview), who were the team behind the makeup, lighting, the animated opening credits, the entire production. No responsible broadcaster would run a programme that lacks credits. It wasn't even a Mediacorpse or SPH production. The Office of the Prime Minister was not credited. No state logos were used, so one cannot even attribute this programme to the PMO or the state. If one read the news reports, one would've been none the wiser because the newspapers seem to insist the interview came from nowhere, fully formed, and happened to be broadcast on national television.

The programme's lack of credits is an indication of a manufactured media event. That is, a clearly partisan party political broadcast and an election speech dressed up as a televised conversation, held before formal dissolution of parliament and declaration of a general election.

In the 2015 UK general election, there were 4 live telecast debates between the party leaders
All were conducted according to strict, nonpartisan rules
Is this "conversation with the Prime Minister" a deliberate attempt to circumvent a formal political debate? Even a political scientist might easily say yes. A political scientist might even add that a formal political debate would've presented less pliant conversation partners who would've checked his assertions and challenged his policy presentations, and perhaps a moderator who may not have let him get away with his glib answers.

But there is a good reason why Obama or Cameron wouldn't do this even though clearly it is a very clever idea. In the USA and UK, there are ethics committees with oversight on electioneering. Ofcom and the Federal Communications Commission have rules that would haul the broadcaster and the party to task for running an unapproved party political broadcast, or a programme attempting to circumvent its status as a party political broadcast before the elections.

If Minilee tried to pull off "A Conversation with the Prime Minister" in the UK or USA, there would be a public outcry, an investigation, and protestations and condemnations from members of all political parties, as well as the heads of the traditional media, and from the alternative media itself.

Or, ethical issues aside, perhaps Minilee has set a precedent for online bloggers and vloggers to broadcast their own "interviews" with leaders of various political parties?


Anonymous said...

Bravo. A perceptive piece. A wonder that none of the opposition raised these issues. The whole SG 50 exercise falls within the same genre. And the taxpayer funds it all. There are two sets of rules, one for them and the other for the opposition and the critics. This brazen display of unethical behaviour has its roots in that horrible man's declaration that he is entitled to two eggs and the rest to one in his char kway teow because of who he is - an natural aristocrat. He got away with it and it is time for the citizens to put a stop to its continuance.

akikonomu said...

We'll also have to keep in mind that the opposition is busy or distracted this week with multiparty talks to avoid 3-cornered contests.

You're right that this is brazen behaviour from Minilee. This conversation even breaks with the "conversation with the PM" format of the previous years, where the Feedback Unit brought various ministers and the PM to be 'interviewed' by a wide selection of Singaporean voices in the television studio.

Bumiputra said...

Perceptive? Paranoid? Or blinded by hate? What is wrong for the PM to address these issues? Are these not issues that Singaporeans are grappling with?