Mr Tharman, please don’t lecture us about character and integrity

During the dialogue at the inaugural Majulah Lecture at the Nanyang Technological University, Mr Tharman was asked by an audience member whether he agreed with the PAP’s tactics of engaging in gutter politics and character assassination in recent elections, including the Bukit Batok by-election which was held in May last year. Photo: Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam's Facebook Page

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Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Secretary-General Dr Chee Soon Juan wrote an article in September 2017 where he asked then-Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam to stop lecturing Singaporeans about character and integrity.

This was in response to Mr Tharman’s denial of the People’s Action Party (PAP) having engaged in gutter politics during the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election.

Dr Chee wrote that nothing is beneath the PAP when it comes to destroying its opponents.

“As its stands, the credibility of Mr Tharman’s words stands for all to examine when he insists that his party did not engage in gutter politics in the Bukit Batok by-election – and, presumably, in politics in general,” he stressed.

Dr Chee stated that Mr Tharman’s claim that what “defines the PAP is its insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans” is as believable as the Ku Klux Klan saying that it loves black people.

This is what he wrote in full:

MR THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM denies that his party engaged in gutter politics during the Bukit Batok (BB) by-election and defended the mainstream media that his party controls.

Let’s get to the veracity of both of these claims.

The PAP’s by-election gameplan started with Lianhe Wanbao publishing the photograph of a smiling Mr Murali and contrasting that with an unflattering picture of me. When we protested the uneven-handed reporting, a Mr Lim Zhan Ting from the newspaper emailed to request for an interview with me to smooth things over and “help both sides understand each other better”.

On good faith, I accepted.

The headlines that emerged shockingly quoted me saying that I was proud of my “wild and colourful past” – words that I did not say. When we wrote to protest the report, Mr Lim replied that its online version had been amended and mention of the quote had been omitted. Of course, the print version was circulated.

Right on cue, Mr Lee Hsien Loong pops up in Bukit Batok, picks up the headline and says: “[Chee says he] is proud of his record, he is proud of his crazy history…” The stable of SPH newspapers ran with the story, of course. So no, the problem of fake news did not start in America.

That Mr Tharman can say with a straight face that Singapore should keep going with “the mainstream media as responsible players in our democracy” requires extraordinary ability.

With Mr Lee’s declaration of open season on gutter politics, the ministers jumped in. Ms Grace Fu chided that I had not “held a steady job for many years”. I may not have a 9-to-5 job but that doesn’t mean I don’t work and earn my keep.

I make a living by writing books – books highlighting the need for democracy in Singapore, and books proposing alternative policies for our nation. Admittedly, I make no where near what the ministers pay themselves but it’s an honest way to make a living and it puts food on the table for my family. I can say, hand on heart, that I am proud of the work that I do.

It was unworthy of Ms Fu to use the matter as an attack point. Minister after minister, including then Speaker, now President Halimah, came out to hurl vitriol. Mr Tan Chuan Jin even found time to poke fun at my use of Hokkien. It was gutter politics in all its hideous glory.

For obvious reasons, none of them addressed the pressing issues our country faced that my colleagues and I raised. It was full-on Operation Distraction.

The PAP’s modus operandi has always been to, to use football parlance, play the man, not the ball. Mr Chan Chun Sing said that I was a “political failure”. Mr Goh Chok Tong vowed that he would “annihilate” me. I have even been diagnosed as a “psychopath”. (On this point, I have offered myself for examination by any psychiatrist – including anyone that the PAP might care to appoint. But so far, the offer, which by the way still stands, has not been taken up.)

Such character assassination is not confined to me. Mr Francis Seow, a candidate in the 1988 elections, was branded a “womaniser” and accused of being an agent for the USA.

Mr Tang Liang Hong, a candidate in the 1997 elections, was labelled a Chinese chauvinist who was anti-Christian and anti-Islam even though his daughter was Christian, he spoke fluent Malay and could perform – quite competently, I might add – the Indian classical dance. (He once did it in front Francis and me after much persuasion when we had gotten together).

The reprehensible tactic had set Mr Tang and his family up as targets for religious nutjobs. Following the barrage of highly charged smears during the elections, he received letters that read: “Death Sentence. God’s will.” “We know where you work, we know where your children study. So think carefully.” “We will know how to deal bastards like you.” “May you be damned until your dying days which shall not be far off.”

Of course, there’s also Mr J B Jeyaretnam who was called a “mangy dog” and who would be made to “crawl on his knees and beg for mercy”.

Nothing is below the PAP when it comes to destroying its opponents.

As its stands, the credibility of Mr Tharman’s words stands for all to examine when he insists that his party did not engage in gutter politics in the Bukit Batok by-election – and, presumably, in politics in general.

At the minimum, his claim that what “defines the PAP is its insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans” is as believable as the Ku Klux Klan saying that it loves black people.

Destroying lives

The PAP’s attacks were not restricted to mere words. Countless Singaporeans and their families have been destroyed by its deeds. Mr Chia Thye Poh was incarcerated for 23 years and placed under house arrest for another nine without being charged of a crime. He continues to be monitored till today. Lim Hock Siew and Said Zahari were imprisoned and subjected to unspeakable cruelty for merely being in opposition to Mr Tharman’s party and its ideas.

The detention of activists in 1987 is another blight in the PAP’s long history of undemocratic rule. The detainees were tortured – physically and psychologically – by their captors and made to confess that they were part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The front page of the Straits Times on 27 May 1987 screamed: ‘Marxist plot uncovered’. Again, talk about fake news.

Upon release, some of detainees issued a press statement to counter the government’s taunt that they were well-treated. The ISD promptly re-arrested them.

In Round Two of imprisonment, the hapless and helpless detainees were told that if they wanted to secure their freedom, they would have to sign a Statutory Declaration repudiating their charge in the press statement that they were abused.

No party, save perhaps for the one in Pyongyang, would countenance confessions extracted under torture, and then lay claim to the virtue of character.

Interestingly, Mr Tharman, prior to his joining the PAP, was questioned by the ISD over his involvement with the activists. He is on record saying that he doesn’t believe his friends were Marxists out to subvert the government. Yet, he chose to join a party which had committed such injustice to those whom he knew. Compare this to former cabinet minister S Dhanabalan who voiced his opposition to the arrests and resigned his post.

Straddling two boats

The DPM tries to assuage Singaporeans by making the observation that society has become a “vastly different and more liberal place compared to what it used to be.” The subtext is that the PAP has, with the passing of time, benevolently opened up political space in this country.

Let’s be absolutely clear. With the advent of social media, the PAP has had no choice but to accommodate the disruption of its control of information in this country. Netizens and activists now have the platform to ask the hard questions, and in so doing drag the the PAP to where it does not want to go. (To be certain, it has not given up the ghost: the government still prosecutes and sues commentators and closes down unfriendly websites.)

Character? Integrity? No gutter politics? A fair and independent mainstream media? No. Mr Tharman’s comments cannot go unanswered, not with such an abysmal history of political oppression in Singapore.

At the risk of asking the obvious, if the PAP is as upstanding – and, by extension, popular – a party as the DPM makes it out to be, then why does it continue to control every newspaper, TV channel and radio station in Singapore? Why does it use the People’s Association for its own narrow political ends? Why does it have to reserve the Elected Presidency for Ms Halimah Yacob?

An ancient Chinese proverb says: One foot cannot stand on two boats. The allegory tells of someone wanting to have things both ways, a position that is ultimately untenable.

That is what Mr Tharman seems to be doing. He puts one foot in the first boat defending his party’s character and places the other in the second boat hedging that he doesn’t agree with all the tactics his party mates employ.

I’d like to caution the DPM that when the boats start drifting apart as they inevitably will, you end up getting dumped in the water.

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