The Art of Political Apophasis

October 22, 2008


The parliamentary debate over the unlocking of the reserves for government spending was covered rather strangely by The Straits Times today. In the 22 Oct 2008 edition, on page 12 was the bold heading “Don’t turn elections into auctions”. This was attributed to PM Lee Hsien Loong who warned against populist calls for greater spending. PM Lee cited Norway and Australia as countries having to deal with electorates demanding more monetary incentives from their governments and made clear that this was not the way to go.



[Note: The PM also exhorted the ills of ‘pork barrel’ politics conducted in Australia, apparently forgetting the way the PAP links votes to estate-upgrading].


However, on the facing page, page 13, the Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was quoted as saying, “…I’m glad that the whole tone of the members’ [of parliament] comments was to underline the importance of not overspending on the basis of expected returns…”. It’s clear that MPs were against overspending. No one was calling for greater capital redistribution from the state.


So why the sensational headline on page 12?


Very often when the occasion calls for it, The Straits Times, takes it upon itself to propagate the PAP’s mantras. This time it was the mantra of fiscal conservatism. The motion to use capital gains from our national investments comes after the GST increase from 5% to 7%. The rationale for both is so that the government can pursue R&D projects as well as to meet the medical needs of an aging population.


The Straits Times’s sensational heading quickly disabuses readers of any belief that the PAP government is becoming soft on welfare. It tells Singaporeans that they should not expect handouts or a dependency culture. In an economic climate where banks are crashing and people’s savings are vanishing faster than you can say “credit crunch”, it would be very churlish and illogical for the PAP government to ask for greater spending powers to meet the needs of Singaporeans and warn against welfarism in the same breath.


So you have the ever reliable Straits Times to bring home the second part of the message. This makes the PAP government look good. It asks for more money to help Singaporeans, and the papers take it upon themselves to tell Singaporeans not to expect too much. The ultimate good cop, bad cop routine.    


Or, if you want to get all intellectual about it, this is political apophasis at its best. Apophasis is the strategy of mentioning something by saying you won’t mention it. For example a politician might say “I want to run an honourable campaign based on national issues and will not stoop to mentioning how my opponent is an alcoholic and a womanizer”. Or the statement “I’m modest by nature so I don’t want to talk about my $1 million donation to charity ”. Some literary scholars have akin it to referring to the hole in the donut by only mentioning the dough.


Political apophasis is not new. Any government that co-opts institutions is well-versed with it. Given the close relationship between the PAP government and the national media, political apophasis is a well-practised means of governance and policy making. There are some problems when you do not recognize it for what it is. You may believe that objective truths are being presented to you when you fail to see the strategy behind it. You may believe that certain scenarios present to you are logical consequences of certain actions when they are in fact mere speculative peeks into the future.


Political apophasis should be identified and called out. It should be seen for what it really is.



4 Responses to “The Art of Political Apophasis”

  1. wayangparty Says:

    What an astute observation. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. We live, we learn.

    Thanks for teaching this Grandpa some.

    The power that is has been playing the ‘good cop bad cop’ since they got into power and they are not letting up anytime soon.

    We’ll see more of it in this current financial hulabaloo.

    Thanks again for adding “Apophasis” to my vocabulary.

    We live, we learn. Each passing day, I learn how insincere the the power that is is.


  3. sushibar Says:


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