Wong’s Last Word

May 16, 2009

693By now everyone would have read DPM Wong Kan Seng’s interview on religion, politics and civil society. If we’re truthful, it was less of an interview and more of the PAP government trying to have the last word on the AWARE saga.

Knowing the precise moment to have the last word is, of course, an art. You speak too early and your words will be drowned by the on-going row – the impact is lost. Speak  too late and everyone would have moved on – you become irrelevant. Just as timing is vital for comedians, so too for politicians. 

It’s an art that the PAP government has long mastered. With the aid of a compliant press, Wong’s rhetoric is uncritically accepted as the government’s “genuinely centrist positions on such matters” (The Straits Times, editorial, 16 May 09). The problem is not whether the government is centrist or not. I think it is, but saying the PAP is centrist is like saying vanilla is ‘ok’ – true but hardly earthshaking. The question of whether this “centrist” rhetoric is riddled with internal contradictions begs to be asked, and without a critical press we are left mired in analytical poverty.

Wong made three key points in his “interview”. Firstly, religion and politics don’t mix. Secondly, the government does not respond to lobbying. Thirdly, the local media’s coverage of the event was too “extensive and breathless”.

The first point was blunt to the point of being meaningless. We already have laws that prevent religion from mixing with politics – the 1991 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the ban on religious-based political parties. With these laws, pulpit politics and religious politicking are outlawed so the point is a non-starter.

The AWARE saga was not about religion mixing with politics but with civil society. It was about a religious agenda hijacking a secular-liberal NGO. And this is where things get murky for there is surely nothing wrong with religion playing a part in civil society since, as Wong himself admitted, religious groups may be a force for social good for the community.

Beyond this, it’s highly unrealistic to expect a firewall between religion and politics. Reality is more complex than that. After all, our political views are influenced by a variety of elements like our class, ethnicity, as well as religion, if any. The real question is how religious folks can translate their religious-political views into secular terms such that people of different faiths as well as free thinkers can engage with them. So, instead of saying that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so, they should say the majority of Singaporeans are conservative and many are not ready to see these alternative lifestyles paraded in front of them. Only then can there be dialogue and reason-based argument.

Wong’s second point on lobbying is puzzling. Of course, like any severe father, the PAP government doesn’t like to have its authority challenged. Fathers don’t like whining children, patriarchal states don’t like lobbying. But wait a minute, isn’t the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme an institutionalized process of procedural lobbying? The NMP scheme began in 1992 but when the response was disappointing, Wong himself, then leader of the house, suggested that different constituencies could nominate expert individuals to speak for them in Parliament. These constituencies are divided into business, arts and culture, academia and so on. This is lobbying in all but name.

Furthermore, Thio Su Mien and her lot have shown that lobbying has worked. Initially dismissive of her accusations that the Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) programme promoted lesbianism, the MOE has now suspended AWARE as an external vendor of CSE. Wong may be strong in his anti-lobbying rhetoric but the reality shows that not only does it take place but, more encouragingly, it also produces results!    

Lastly, Wong believes that the press was excessive in the AWARE coverage. Personally, I think the wide coverage was justified given that the whole episode contained several crucial themes that served as signposts for where the country was heading but I can understand how someone totally uninterested in the saga may see it as excessive. However the fault lies in the fact that we have no press diversity.

If we had press diversity, we would have had alternatives to turn to if we had found the AWARE saga overblown or tedious. Moreover, press diversity would also have served as a check against the biases of newspapers.

But instead we have a homogeneous ‘nation-building’ press. And as we have seen, such a press, without any viable competitor, runs the risk of excessive coverage and unchecked ideological bias because it has no idea of what people want beyond what it can offer. The government encourages competition in every sector but the press and it’s just delightfully ironic that the government is complaining about something it has nurtured.

The problem with wanting the last word is that people tend to have the time and space to dwell on it. And if you don’t say something smart or pertinent, it really shows.


7 Responses to “Wong’s Last Word”

  1. auntielucia Says:

    Dear Groundnotes: u and yr coterie are doing a decent job at putting our “homogeneous ‘nation-building’ press” on its toes. In fact, besides personal bias/agenda of certain leading lites in the press in the Aware saga, I think S’pore’s MSM just didn’t want to lose face against the likes of u, the WPC, TOC, MWSS etc etc… so because they aren’t 24/7 and have to rely on newsprint space and rostered broadcast times, they oversaturate where they cldn’t be always up to the minute!

  2. sushibar Says:


  3. Project Lucy Says:

    “…the fault lies in the fact that we have no press diversity.”

    Nope. The fault is not press diversity. It is the lack of a code of practice for journalists in Singapore. One newspaper should never need another to be the check and balance.

  4. visaisahero Says:

    what would we do with press diversity anyway? the average layman would be befuddled by conflicting reports.

    the fault goes much deeper than that- we need to develop a community of critical thinkers.

  5. smallvice585 Says:

    Haha. I like the title…

  6. MayRulersBeRighteous Says:

    To politicians, there is only ‘politically correct and politically wrong’ so “Wong’s Last Word” definitely is politically right. They are not really interested in the ethic of the issues debated, just how their politcal interest can be best served by the outcome of the issues of the day. That is why “Wong’s Last Word” is timely and politically correct.

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