Singapore politicians are tactless, but our system allows it.

Okay, I know many of my readers want me to respond to the latest gaffe by Josephine Teo about having enough space for sex. I am not taking the bait – but I will address the wider issue of the problem with the political situation in Singapore. The problem seems to be that politicians in Singapore tend to be rather tactless – it’s not one party or another that is guilty of this but all Singaporean politicians tend to lack the finesse and class of some other politicians in the West. Now, I’m sure many Singaporeans will react by pointing out that Donald Trump has said some pretty awful things and he is a politician as well – but allow me to respond by pointing out that two wrongs do not make a right. The awful things that Trump has said about women for example, isn’t going to help him win the support of female voters – in fact, it would only alienate him from that section of the electorate. So why do we have this problem in Singapore then?

Should politicians who make gaffes be allowed to get away with it?

Now firstly, the PAP will always win every election – the margins may vary from election to election but there’s no risk of them ever losing an election. Now imagine if you had an exam which was so easy you knew you were going to not just pass, but get great results every time, why would you bother even trying to study for it? Contrast that to an exam which you knew you needed to pass but it is going to be a very difficult exam – you would then put in so much effort into preparing for that exam. By that token, the PAP has very little incentive to bother putting in much effort to win the next election if they know that the result is a foregone conclusion. Thus PAP politicians are not eloquent, articulate, smooth-talking and charming because they don’t need to be: they can be tactless, inarticulate, blunt and make gaffe after gaffe because they are not punished by the electorate for doing so.

Think about a child who misbehaves – say if a student refuses to put his mobile phone away in the classroom and even goes as far as to send texts during the class, the teacher’s reaction would pretty much determine whether or not this behaviour continues. If the teacher snatches the phone and chucks it out of the window (okay, that’s a bit dramatic, if the teacher confiscates the phone) then you can be sure the student (and others in the class) would never dare to take their phones out during the class again. But if the teacher merely says something lame like, “please put it away, you know you’re not supposed to take your phones out during class, okay?” Then the students will realize, oh there are no punishments, no consequences even if you get caught. I’ll just keep on using the phone in class when the teacher isn’t looking and even if I do get caught, it is really not a big deal. So it is not a question of the PAP politicians being unaware that their gaffes are bad or wrong, it is simply that there’s no penalty or punishment for these gaffes.So like the naughty students in the class, they will keep on using their mobile phones in class.

Would a student get away with using a phone in this class?

Josephine Teo is not going to apologize for having caused offence with her remark – but what do you think happens in other countries when a politician causes offence like that? Okay first we have to go to Japan where Ryutaro Nonomura’s apology in 2014 has well and truly gone viral. I think most people who have seen the video on social media have no idea what he was apologizing for but were just baffled by the sight of a grown man crying like that. Why was he so repentant (in sharp contrast to Josephine Teo)? Well, he lost his job and was subsequently investigated for fraud – in short, there were consequences for his actions and like a child caught doing something wrong, he must have realized this and cried out of fear of those consequences. In Japan, you don’t get away with shit like that just my bowing deeply and making a public apology, the public do hold politicians to account when they make mistakes like that. Contrast that to Singapore, where Josephine Teo’s comment would become yesterday when the next politician makes another stupid gaffe – this creates a culture where blunt, inarticulate, tactless politicians become the norm.


What about in America – oh there has been so much controversy in the current Presidential election with Trump making so gaffes. But let’s look at the case of Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas when he was forced to apologize “for saying he might back Trump even if he condoned rape”. Now we all know two things: Trump is a controversial figure who is anything but politically correct and he has pretty strong backing from the Republican Party (otherwise he wouldn’t have won the nomination in the first place). In the interview where the gaffe occurred, Farenthold didn’t publicly endorse rape or the culture of rape, he was simply an inarticulate person who couldn’t come up with an appropriate answer when faced with a difficult question. He was clearly stumbling badly and it was a terrible interview for him. However, the issue of rape is clearly offensive to many people and he faced a backlash from even his own supporters – so he quickly issued an apology on Twitter afterwards. Though what I suspect is that someone wiser had told him the moment he finished that interview and said to him,”do you realize what the hell you’ve just done? Quick, you must apologize to contain this before people accuse you of condoning rape.” In short, someone (be it Farenthold himself or one of his advisers/aides) realized there were serious consequences to his disastrous interview and he had to do some damage control urgently.

Well, I could go on listing other politicians who have hastily apologized for their silly gaffes, but you get the idea. Politics is the ultimate popularity contest and a gaffe that goes viral could easily damage a politician’s popularity. So why isn’t Josephine Teo worried that her many gaffes would affect her popularity in Singapore then? Well, I think there is a combination of two factors in Singapore. Firstly, Singaporeans suffer from political apathy. They are simply not that interested in whom their politicians are or what they say, thus do not bother to hold them to any kind of standards when it comes to their conduct. Secondly, there is simply a lack of awareness of what goes on in the rest of the world and how politics is done in other countries – I call this the ‘island mentality’. After having spent the last two decades in the UK, I am shocked at how inarticulate Singaporean politicians are – but never mind that, before they even say a word, I am just shocked at how extremely badly dressed they are. Perhaps it is because I work in sales that I am always very conscious of presenting myself very well to the client. I accept that there’s a certain kind of left-wing politics that deliberately wants to go against the grain of that kind of smooth, sleek politician – but even if Corbyn dresses like a factory worker, he is still extremely intellectual and articulate unlike someone like Josephine Teo who both dresses like a factory worker and speaks like one. But who cares? She will still win any election as a PAP candidate regardless of how she speaks or dresses.

What will happen if this lot will never lose an election?

People like Josephine Teo will continue to get away with gaffes like that in the absence of a credible opposition who can actually take on the PAP. Oh that’s just the tip of the iceberg – it’s not just gaffes they will get away with, but serious mistakes involving large sums of taxpayers’ money. You know there was a time when I was a fervent supporter of the new opposition parties in Singapore, but now I am just cynical when I look at the quality of some of these opposition parties and some of the very poor ideas they come up with. There needs to be a credible opposition in Singapore to provide a viable alternative to the PAP, so people like Josephine Teo will start worrying about the consequences of her gaffes – in the absence of any credible opposition, people like her will continue to get away with mistake after mistake. I have seen some glimmers of hope amongst the opposition parties (Chen Show Mao of the WP stands out as well as ) but then I look at others like Low Thia Khiang (also of WP) and I just shake my head in utter despair because his brand of politics just screams 1980s – it is woefully out of date. 

The challenge that the Singaporean political scene poses is the huge generation gap between the older section of the electorate and the younger section. The older generation are probably non-English speaking voters (or at least those who prefer to speak in their mother tongues rather than English) and respond to a different kind of message, whilst the younger generation speak English as a first language and are very social media savvy. You need two completely different approaches to these two very different sections of the electorate and whilst the older generation are probably better catered for (given that the older politicians like Low Thia Khiang can communicate better with them), I tend to identify with the younger generation and cringe at how badly catered for they are in Singapore. The problem seems to be an unwillingness to try to look to the West and copy what they do there, despite the fact that there are many things you can learn simply by studying what works well there. That is probably why I went with my gut instinct and left Singapore – change comes very, very slowly in Singapore and it was just easier to leave than to try to convince the opposition parties that they need to improve their tactics.

What is the right way to take on the mighty PAP?

What would it take to change the situation then? Well, I know of this Singaporean lawyer who works behind the scene supporting one of the opposition parties – he has a very successful law career and having spent time studying and living abroad, he has a brilliant understanding of how politics works in other countries and yes, he shares my opinion that Singaporean opposition parties have a long way to go if they want to offer a credible alternative to the PAP. I did ask him a few times why he hasn’t considered running as a candidate but he hasn’t really considered it – my gut instinct is that he has too much to lose, having established a very successful law career. Or maybe the tiresome task of entering what is a popularity contest is way too tiresome even for a successful lawyer like him so he feels like his skills are better served behind the scenes, supporting an opposition party that way. But if just one charismatic opposition MP leads the way and people would realize, oh why aren’t more MPs like this new guy who is eloquent, tactful, understanding and articulate? It takes just one person like that to truly raise the bar for the rest and change may come fairly quickly at that point – but until then, well, one just wonders why people like that brilliant lawyer I know still stay away from frontline politics in Singapore.

So that’s it from me on this issue. What do you think? What will it take to hold Singaporean politicians when they make gaffes like that? Who do you think should hold them responsible – netizens on social media, journalists or the electorate at the ballot box? What do you think Singaporean politicians could learn from their counterparts in the West? Leave a message below please and let’s talk about it – many thanks for reading.



Limpeh Is Foreign Talent is a former Singaporean who has worked in over 10 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

One Reply to “Singapore politicians are tactless, but our system allows it.”

  1. First of all, I agree with you. I like the analogies you used to point out the reluctance of the general population (at least 70%) to take the politicians, especially, the PAP politicians to task for the very many mis-steps, mistakes and sometimes downright follies committed. Why, some even rose to defend the indefensible or choose to turn a blind eye. The agenda of the 70% voters is a selfish one since they chose to look elsewhere when the ruling party did wrong; they forget or are as you said ignorant of progressive politics practised particularly in the western world. But then, all this isn’t a natural progression of things. Far from it, it is in fact an environment carefully nurtured and engineered by the PAP through the manipulation of a SINGLE decisive entity – the fifth estate, i.e., the press.

    It is through the absolute control of the mass media that the PAP relied very heavily on to perpetuate its stranglehold on political power. This is a very well known factor locally among Singaporeans who can think. It is a respected fact in democracies the world over that in spite of the extremes that some newspapers are capable of, it is by far the best way that democracy, the contest of different, differing politics and opinions of groups are best safeguarded. LKY knew this early in his rule and we have him to thank for the toothless and emasculated national service press that we have in Singapore today. Without a real measure of freedom of speech, nothing other than the government propaganda can prevail over the general mindset of the average Tan, Lim, Teo or Lee.

    In fact any true revolutionary worthy of the name would make it a point to target such mass media as a matter of priority, in order to make any headway with their own ideas of society.

    It is because of the government controlled mass media that people of the ilk of Josephine Teo can talk rubbish, speak with arrogance, behave badly, and still get away with it, without fear of any real retribution for careless and fat-headed and irresponsible remarks – for they would NEVER EVER be put on the spot by the mass media. Too often the very REVERSE would happen as the mass media here would characteristically and compulsorily refuse to report, ignore, pretend not to know, and often even put positive spins, become the defacto spokemen of the government, for the benefit of the government in general and PAP politicians caught with foot-in-mouth, in particular!

    It may seem like a contradiction, but my POV is that in order to level the political playing field for competing ideas, the press here has to be utterly destroyed, as a prerequisite.

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