OPINION | Do eloquence, wit and oratorical skills matter in Singapore’s political landscape?

The ability to eloquently express oneself, debate policy, and articulate the concerns of the country are the hallmarks of a successful politician in a fully functional democracy. How do our local politicians fare in this department, and how important is this for Singaporeans?

Singaporean politicians (bar a few) are perhaps not best known for their wit or oratorical skills. There have in fact been quite a few embarrassing gaffes – the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Heng Swee Keat’s now infamous “East Coast Plan” speech comes immediately to mind. While Mr Heng’s slip-up became the inspiration for multiple memes, voters still voted for him despite him changing constituencies at the last minute (from Tampines Group Representative Constituency (GRC) to East Coast GRC).

Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has been criticised for being a poor public speaker, while former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was once called “wooden” (although this did not hamper his ability to remain PM for many years).

Does this mean that in the Singaporean context, the ability to think quickly on one’s feet is not a quality prized when it comes to general elections?

Yet, less than a year later, Mr Heng issued a surprising letter saying that he would no longer be considered for Prime Minister, citing age as a reason. This in turn led to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong staying on as PM despite being older than Mr Heng. It seemed bizarre that age would be the reason given. After all, Mr Lee is older than Mr Heng!

Was Mr Heng ousted because he had underperformed, and had his election speech faux pas contributed to this turn of events?

Live TV debates are a normal feature of election campaigns in many democratic countries. In Singapore however, this has never been the case, bar for the lead-up to the general election in 2020 where we saw some semblance of a debate between the various contesting candidates, although it is important to note that the PAP’s Vivian Balakrishnan had more allocated time than any other party. Despite this, it was the Workers’ Party’s (WP) Jamus Lim who stole the show.

Mr Lim did end up winning a seat in Sengkang GRC, but is this a result of his stellar performance in the televised debate?

While there may be a correlation between one’s oratorical skills and one’s political success, there is simply not enough data to form a view on the matter. After all, our current Prime Minister has never taken part in an election debate and has been PM for nearly 20 years! And, is in fact staying on past age 70.

While one’s ability to be charismatic may play a central role in a fully functioning democracy, Singapore’s political climate is such that there are limited opportunities for politicians to showcase their oratorical skills.

As social media continues to play a vital part in modern life, this provides a platform for those with a message to showcase their ability to effectively reach an audience. But yet again, this ability might be curtailed by the strict rules that the PAP-led Government has put in place. Legislation such as Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) which are ostensibly put in place to protect Singaporeans from fake news and the country from foreign aggression respectively, do have the effect of dampening public comment and free speech (unwittingly or otherwise).

It would seem that even private Facebook posts are not spared, with the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Li Shengwu being found guilty of contempt of court and fined $15,000. It would appear that despite paying the fine, Mr Li still feels that it is unsafe to return.

The court case is technically over. However, I assess that there’s a substantial risk that my uncle, the Prime Minister, would find an excuse to imprison me were I to return to Singapore. He likes to relitigate old disputes.

My uncle has a habit of suing his critics in Singapore courts”.

With these restrictions, how do up-and-coming politicians showcase their abilities and talents? Is the only way to join the ever-dominant PAP? And is this a good thing for Singapore? No matter the fact that the PAP has made great contributions to Singapore in the past, it cannot be for the long-term good of Singapore if everyone has to sing from the same song sheet forever?

Opposition politicians such as Lim Tean utilise Facebook Live to share their message, and Mr Lim’s videos are generally popular with thousands of views. It is also noteworthy that Jamus Lim’s performance in the 2020 general election debates boosted his profile. While we cannot be sure that it led to the WP taking Sengkang GRC from the PAP, it is clear that the debates helped make Mr Lim into a household name.

Given the dearth of opportunity, it is not immediately clear how much Singaporeans value gripping debates between their politicians. Some may claim that the lack of debates has not affected the PAP’s ability to win, but, this may well be due to a lack of exposure. With the age of social media, it has become clear that effective oratorical skills do make a difference. Times have changed.

Will POFMA and FICA deprive the Singaporean rank and file of reaping the benefits of the internet age politically?


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