“I and, I believe, other Singaporeans prefer our leaders to stick to substance over style when it comes to elections” (Election Debates On TV All Style And No Substance, So Not For Us, Mr. Dennis Tan).
I comprehend the concerns about election debates in Singapore raised by Mr. Dennis Tan in his letter, “Election Debates On TV All Style And No Substance, So Not For Us” (May 3, 2010); but strongly disagree with the contentions he has highlighted.
Style and substance are not mutually exclusive notions: and in the rapidly evolving global political landscape, the “style” factor has proven to be extremely important, has illustrated by Tony Blair and Barack Obama. Charisma and poise have proven to be extremely beneficial for national policy-makers in the greater international community. “Style” goes beyond the mere rhetorical abilities; it is about how politicians are able to convince the populace on policy matters and pertinent socio-economic programmes. Election debates provide a plausible platform for honest discourse on individual party ideologies and manifestos; and while the administration can point to parliamentary sessions as a form of political exchange, they definitely lack the intensity and continuous flow of ideas. Beyond the prepared scripts, these debates would require quick-thinking and strong abilities to go on the offensive and defensive.
The televised debates in Britain have drawn millions of viewers; and it has indirectly gotten young voters interested in politics. There is a general recognition that politics per se goes beyond mere legislature and policy-formation; and that is encompasses the day-to-day aspects of the man-on-the ground. From education to transportation, the intense debates have spurred many to read up more, and learn more about the various potential implementations. Debates in Singapore would certainly yield the same benefits in generating heightened political consciousness, inadvertently granting Singaporeans an enhanced sense of ownership over matters.
Furthermore, the British debates have allowed Nick Clegg, leader of the previously little-known Liberal Democrats, to take centre stage. Should the same be done in Singapore, opposition political leaders would have the opportunity to expound on their plans and express sound perspectives on various aspects of Singapore. Make or break: it boils down to the eventual performances put up by the participating politicians.
No one is contending that the substance of politicians should be negated. While Nick Clegg has amazed his countrymen with his outstanding performances, it remains imperative for him to prove that his initiatives are substantial and workable. The same rule of competency would apply anywhere in the world. In essence, Singapore’s organisation of election debates would only bring about positive benefits for the parties, politicians; and most importantly, the people.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.