I’m going to try and make the case for having televised political debates in the upcoming general elections. More so in Singapore than anywhere else, our politicians come under heavy criticism for being technocratic automatons. It’s not hard to see why – once every five years, they emerge from their musty offices to shake a few hands and deliver a few customary speeches penned by their trusty team of scriptwriters. And then they retreat back into the rarefied atmosphere of legislative deliberations, occasionally popping back out to grace a charity dinner or scholarship ceremony with their presence. (Plus, who really pays attention to parliamentary debates anyway?)
Let’s first talk about the generic advantages of a political debate. In a democratic society where people vote for the rules they want, sound policy-making has to be accompanied by effective communication. For someone to have a meaningful choice at the ballot box, politicians must be able to clarify their party’s stance in relation to that of their opponents’. And a televised political debate allows for policy suggestions and party visions to be presented, criticised, and defended. A debate allows voters to compare political axioms side-by-side, and make a more informed decision when voting.
More importantly, a televised debate would potentially be in everyone’s interests. It would give the PAP a chance to rehabilitate its image of being out of touch, and come back strongly on the most damaging of opposition attacks. It’s very convenient for the government to ignore criticism on issues like immigration until it is too late – as seen by how the PAP tightened immigration regulations only after they lost seats in 2011. A debate forces the government to immediately deal with the sharpest and most damaging accusations hurled by the opposition. By directly responding to these concerns in a way that seems authentic and unscripted, the PAP can win back the middle ground. The opposition stands to gain as well. A televised debate (or debates, as it were) gives them another platform to transmit their message and policy stances to the electorate. This is really important because the government receives quite an outsize share of mainstream media coverage on an everyday basis. For a ‘larger’ party like the WP, matching up to PAP representatives in a televised debate would also be a massive boost to credibility. If they were able to do this on a consistent basis, it would seriously boost their credentials as a check on the ruling party.
In 2011, we had something that came very close – Channel News Asia hosted “A Political Forum on Singapore’s Future”, which was billed as an unprecedented opportunity for government and opposition representatives to cross swords over their vision for Singapore. And it was actually pretty good. My grouse, however, is that “Singapore’s Future” was such an insanely broad topic to discuss within the space of an hour. Considering that the issues debated jumped from immigration, to housing, to standard of living (and GST), to differences in political ideology, and finally to long term policy suggestions, the forum felt really schizophrenic at times. The fact that representatives from the SDA, SDP, SPP, WP and PAP were all present in the same programme definitely didn’t help. Politicians on all sides could easily evade difficult questions by making vague rhetorical statements, or returning to prepared texts because there was just no time to have an in-depth debate about any one of these topics.
My suggestions? Hold a number of debates each focused on a single issue rather than one giant “let’s get this over with” forum. It would be fitting, too, to see the Minister for Manpower be the PAP’s representative in a debate over immigration policy, and the WP’s youth wing leader be their representative in the education policy debate. Obviously, the specific topics for discussion don’t have to be set in stone – they can change depending on the controversial issues of the day. Also, trim the participants in each debate. As the BBC already does in the UK, feature the best performing parties in the last elections. In this case, I think the top 3 parties in terms of vote share would suffice – the PAP, the WP, and the SDP. Then, as Election Day draws near, have a forum that features the political leader of every party, with a broad focus on party ideology and stance.
Before I end this post, just wanted to address one criticism of political debates that doesn’t sit too well with me. And that’s the notion that these debates are shallow, and are more about the spectacle than the substance. Why are we so averse to making politics, you know, actually interesting? If you want politics to be all about pouring over thick tomes of policy papers and bland Q & A sessions with ministers that cover the same questions from the same angles over and over again, then don’t you dare complain that not enough people pay attention to local politics these days.
By cultivating a climate of political passivity where limp consensus is preferred to bold confrontation, we make it harder for crucial demographic groups like youth to become interested in politics. Just look at the thousands of people who throng WP rallies every time election season comes around – not everyone is going to vote WP, but people clearly want their politicians to deliver impassioned speeches about issues that hit home. We want our politicians to stand up for the values that we hold dear, and refute others who disagree. If this comes at the ‘cost’ of the occasional snide remark or cheap joke during a debate, then fine. I would argue that these things are great.
This leads me on to another thought – the reality is that appealing to hard facts and logic doesn’t work all the time. People want to be moved as much as intellectually challenged. The human mind instinctively responds to well-crafted rhetoric. Here’s the problem – if we manufacture a political environment where persuasion and confrontation is secondary to a politician’s job, then one day an ultra-charismatic demagogue who is actually good at this debating and public speaking stuff may end up winning an election. You create a scenario where voters are forced to choose between reason and passion, because you refuse to accept that the two are complementary rather than exclusive. Radical or fringe politicians shouldn’t have a monopoly on rhetoric or the ability to turn a figure of speech on its head in an instant. Competent and moderate politicians need to develop this skill as well. In other words, having televised debates forces our politicians to become more eloquent and charismatic. This, in turn, is instrumental in convincing people to vote for the ‘better’ policy. Anyone who believes politics shouldn’t involve an element of theatre should go and be ruled by a team of philosopher kings.
So, yeah. Politics should be about the heart as well as the head. And even if it shouldn’t, that’s the way it is and our politicians should adapt to this reality. What better way to synthesise the two than televised political debates during the next General Election?