New PAP faces stunned by online vitriol
But they say they will focus on working the ground for elections
NEW People's Action Party (PAP) candidates may have been prepared beforehand for a frosty reception in cyberspace, but the speed and malice with which some of them are being picked apart online have come as a shock.
Within days and sometimes hours of their introduction to the media as PAP candidates, private pictures and even court documents have been dug up and disseminated online, and forums lit up with debate and speculation.
Although the new candidates admit that the sound and fury of cyberspace has taken them aback, they say they are trying to tune out the most vicious comments and focus on working the ground for the coming general election.
The two female candidates introduced thus far have been the subject of the most intense scrutiny online.
Pictures from the Facebook account of the PAP's youngest female candidate, 27-year-old business consultant Tin Pei Ling, showing her posing with a Kate Spade shopping bag or with her husband on holiday, were posted on various websites and blogs.
Netizens have also raged over her young age, and alleged that her being fielded was due to her husband's position as principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In the case of Ms Foo Mee Har, the Standard Chartered banker, an application for a bankruptcy order against a Mr Bernard Chan, who netizens claim is her husband, has spread to various forums.
The fact that she became a Singaporean only in 2008 has also come under heavy fire online.
For Dr Janil Puthucheary, another new candidate whose status as a new citizen has also ruffled feathers, what surprised him was 'how readily people are willing to make stuff up'.
'If the forums are to be believed, I have betrayed both my 'Malaysian' wife and my 'dead' father,' he quipped.
For the record, he pointed out that his wife is Singaporean, and his father, former Internal Security Act detainee Dominic Puthucheary, is still alive.
The latter was detained in 1963, before Singapore became independent. The Internal Security Council then comprised representatives from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain.
During Dr Puthucheary's introduction as a new candidate last week, he told the media that he once promised his wife not to enter politics, but later sought her permission to do so.
As for criticism that he did not serve national service, as he became a Singapore citizen at the age of 35, the paediatrician said he has been in public service: 'I've spent the last 10 years saving kids' lives.'
Both female candidates told The Straits Times that their focus is on their grassroots work and reaching out to residents.
Ms Tin has now made her Facebook pictures private.
Ms Foo did not want to respond to online comments about her husband, Mr Chan, apart from saying that he works as a general manager at an information technology firm.
Separately, a Straits Times check revealed that Mr Chan has never been made bankrupt and that the bankruptcy order against him, brought by Standard Chartered Bank, was later withdrawn.
Political observers interviewed by The Straits Times were split on whether the online firestorm is par for the course in politics, or has crossed the line.
Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong, for example, spoke out against the personal attacks on Ms Tin, writing on his blog that 'this is not what I want Singapore politics to be like'.
He told The Straits Times that the 'unfounded insinuations' made about her 'are quite offensive and to my mind beyond the pale'.
However, he defended the role of socio-political websites and Internet forums in subjecting political candidates to rightful scrutiny of their public statements and track records.
Some online have justified the attacks on Ms Tin and other new PAP candidates as mud-slinging which is to be expected in politics, in Singapore or elsewhere.
It has also been pointed out that the PAP itself has a rich history of lobbing verbal grenades - and worse - at selected political opponents.
But Mr Siew argued that the two are separate matters: 'The PAP has been and will be judged by those actions. Many do not agree with those actions and accordingly take a negative view of the PAP. But those of us on the Internet will also be judged by our actions.'
As for any actual impact that the cyberstorm may have on the new candidates or the PAP at the polls, Nanyang Technological University associate professor Cherian George believes that there may be none, as the Internet could just be 'making visible what was being said in countless conversations in elections past'.
'We can probably trust in Singaporeans' ability to distinguish relevant arguments from cheap shots,' he added.
This is not what I want Singapore politics to be like
by Siew Kum Hong
Mar 31, 2011
The People's Action Party (PAP) recently unveiled 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling as a potential candidate in the coming elections. What has been happening on the Internet (especially Facebook) since has been nothing short of disgusting.
Ms Tin is reportedly a business consultant at a big accounting firm and apparently is married to what would seem to be a high-flying civil servant in a position of some importance. From the news reports I have read, she had been volunteering with grassroots organisations since she was 21.
Some folks seem to have taken it upon themselves to dig up what they think is dirt on her personal life, in an effort to put her down and besmirch her reputation. These efforts have included personal photos apparently from her Facebook account, before she removed or privatised them (and here is an object lesson to the PAP and indeed all parties: Tell your candidates to privatise their online presence before announcing them!), insinuations about who she is married to and how and why she married him, and claims about her purportedly extravagant lifestyle, so on and so forth.
This is essentially a young woman who has taken a huge leap into the unknown by stepping forward as a potential candidate. Her motivations are still unknown (other than what she has publicly stated), her competence and suitability as an MP remain to be seen, and she has not said much about her policy positions. In short, she is still pretty much a complete unknown.
And that is precisely my point. I would like politics in Singapore to be about the candidates and their views and their competency/suitability as MPs and office holders. I would not like politics in Singapore to become an exercise in gutter journalism. If and to the extent that a politician makes morality and virtue part of his/her platform or public persona, then that becomes fair game as well - but only then, and not before.
I would like Ms Tin to be given a chance to show what she would be like as an MP, instead of digging up all this personal stuff - things which, frankly, to my mind have been overblown and do not say anything about her suitability as an MP, or even her as a person. She is a 27-year-old professional, not a nun.
I find what has happened to be quite offensive and reprehensible. It is almost as if people, in their antagonism toward the PAP, are willing to overlook and ignore what is right and what is dignified.
The consequence of all this, is that people will be deterred from joining politics, even more so than before. I for one will openly admit that I have thought about it and decided against taking the plunge, in part because of these things. I have been a victim of these whispers. It is not fun. It is not right. It is not what I would want Singapore politics to be like.
And so I will not "like", comment on or share these stories and articles. I will lose, and have lost, some respect for those who pile in with their derisive comments on Facebook (some of whom I had respected before). I will choose to publicly express my disagreement with what has happened and is happening, and my sympathies for Ms Tin.
I sometimes feel like we have the government that we deserve. Well, through our actions, we will also get the politics that we deserve. Let's think about what we really want Singapore politics to be like.
Siew Kum Hong is a corporate counsel. This article first appeared at siewkumhong.blogspot.com.
TIN PEI LING'S BAPTISM OF FIRE
Should bloggers have lit the match?
By Cherian George
THERE'S an old saying, attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, that goes something like: 'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.'
There's an older and more famous saying: 'Thou shall not kill.'
These two different takes on adversity are, of course, not really contradictory. The quote from Nietzsche advises us to raise our threshold for pain.
'To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering,' the 19th century philosopher also said. Or maybe it was Maya Angelou. Or Oprah Winfrey.
None of these self-help gurus would go on to say that we should help those around us get stronger and find meaning in life by inflicting pain on them. That's where the universal golden rule comes in, that whatever we wouldn't want for ourselves - including near-death experiences - we shouldn't want for others.
I got thinking about this as I read about the current online storm over would-be People's Action Party candidate Tin Pei Ling. It's not a life-and-death story worthy of airtime on Oprah's final season, by a long shot, but it does raise some ethical issues for journalism and election coverage.
Never mind that Ms Tin (unlike most high-flying PAP candidates) has several years' grassroots experience; sections of the online community have dismissed the possibility that someone so young - she is in her 20s - could serve in the highest forum in the land. (I recall feeling similarly sceptical when Ms Eunice Olsen was put up as a Nominated MP. She proved me wrong and I have learnt not to prejudge.)
That is nothing, though, compared with the attack by Temasek Review, the anonymously run website with lofty ambitions 'to foster an informed, educated, thinking and proactive citizenry'.
The website delved into her personal life - even questioning her motives for marrying her husband - to present her as a materialistic, social-climbing monster. Such attacks have also been flying around social media.
Former NMP Siew Kum Hong, hardly a PAP apologist, has had the intellectual honesty and moral courage to come out swiftly in his blog against this distasteful turn of events.
However, some others have argued that election candidates should expect such a baptism of fire. One blogger, while agreeing that the incident was 'unfortunate', said with Nietzsche-like logic: 'If Ms Tin is made of sterner stuff, she'll live through this. If our future political leaders don't have the tenacity to look past the Glee-like slushies and take the hit for the citizens of Singapore, then I don't think they deserve my vote in the first place.'
I agree that how Ms Tin and her party leaders respond to this episode will say a lot about their preparedness for the new terrain.
This, however, doesn't really excuse those who have chosen to corrupt that terrain.
Some online posters have argued that the PAP is just reaping what it has sown: It has made life ugly for those who dare to enter opposition politics, deterring many able individuals from joining other parties; now it's payback time, time for the PAP to get a taste of its own medicine.
Certainly, the online world should help to level what is undoubtedly a tilted offline playing field. This imperative is what motivates some of Singapore's best online journalism.
But, there are surely some limits. Websites that say they want to help raise the level of Singapore's political discourse shouldn't go lower than the politicians themselves.
And the truth is that the political parties have been more civilised than they've been given credit for. Think back to the Workers' Party's calm under fire when attacked by the PAP over the so-called James Gomez affair. And consider the restraint that the PAP showed over the sensational revelations about one opposition leader's penchant for photographing himself in the nude.
What they may say in private is another matter, but what's contributed to the stream of public discourse should meet some basic level of civility.
Rational politicians know they shouldn't totally poison the waters in which they swim. Perhaps it's time for Singapore's citizen journalists to start making similar calculations.
The writer is an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. The article is from his blog journalism.sg