Teo Chee Hean avoids TOC, Michael Palmer almost gets away

Today is a day of firsts. First time I visited a People’s Action Party (PAP) rally as a reporter. First time I saw my current Member of Parliament (MP) and former MPs. First time I got to ask them questions.

First time I was evaded by a Cabinet minister.

Tonight’s rally was graced by Dr Ahmad bin Mohd Magad, Teo Chee Hean, and Michael Palmer. During the rally, Palmer said in his speech that the PAP would carry out upgrading projects in the area if he were elected. After the rally, he descended from the stage to greet his supporters, shaking their hands across a security barrier. My photographer, Kirsten Han, and I went to doorstop him.

Kirsten got to him first. She asked, “Mr Palmer, we would like to ask you a question.”

A PAP volunteer swooped in, tapping Palmer on the arm. She said something the lines of “It’s time to take photos”.

Palmer nodded, and turned away. He actually turned his entire upper body away from Kirsten. In body language theory, this means that he is actively trying to avoid her.

He didn’t go to take photos. Quite the contrary. He stuck around, shaking hands with a few more residents, and pointedly avoiding Kirsten.

I walked up to him and used my trump card.

“Mr Palmer, I live here and I have a question for you.”

I live here. Three magic words. He turned his entire body to face me and smiled.

He did not walk towards me, though. He did not extend his hand. He remained an arm’s length away from me.

“Hi, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Benjamin,” I said. “I’ve a question for you.”

He continued smiling, and nodded. I leaned forward, bracing against the barricade. My voice tends to be rather soft and high-pitched, and I wanted to make sure he could hear me.

“If the opposition were elected in Punggol East, would the PAP still carry out its upgrading plans?”

He replied, “The opposition would take charge of the Town Council.” The implication was that the opposition would implement their upgrading plans instead of the PAP’s.

I nodded, and said, “Thanks.”

Kirsten stepped in. “Will the government provide funds for upgrading?”

Palmer turned to face her, still smiling. “Funds for local upgrading projects will be controlled by the Town Council.”

The questions we asked weren’t particularly controversial. They were one of the many questions the opposition had asked of the PAP. The PAP had historically linked promises of upgrading projects to votes: return the PAP to Parliament, and your constituency will be showered with upgrades. Conversely, vote for the opposition, and the government will reprioritise funds to constituencies that have supported the party. The people of Potong Pasir and Hougang have always received the lowest priority for funding of upgrading projects because they have continued to return opposition members to Parliament. In addition, Palmer’s campaign seemed to run entirely on promises of upgrading projects if he were elected. This was a sticking point raised by every single opposition party in every single rally I have covered. A clarification, or at least a comment, on this issue would help voters decide whom to vote for.

Kirsten thanked him, and the PAP volunteer led him away. I wanted to confirm if this were the PAP’s official stance, so I approached Teo Chee Hean. He was shaking hands with other supporters, and posing for photographs. I approached him and said, “Mr Teo, I live here and I have a question for you.”

He nodded, keeping his smile intact. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Benjamin Cheah, and I’m from The Online Citizen.”

“Where do you live?”

I pointed in the appropriate direction. “Over there.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Online Citizen.”

“Thank you for identifying yourself.”

He turned around and walked away.

“Mr Teo!” I shouted.

He continued walking.

This is the first time I have seen Teo Chee Hean in the flesh. The same man who was the anchor minister in my GRC from 2006 to 2011. When the electoral boundaries were redrawn earlier this year, Punggol East was separated from Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The flat I had lived in for the past 5 years became part of Punggol East constituency. During Palmer’s speech, Palmer said that the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council had been running Punggol East, and that if the people of Pasir Ris-Punggol and Punggol East return the PAP to power, this arrangement will continue. This effectively makes Teo my current and possible future Member of Parliament.

If anybody had the right to ask him a question, that would be me. A former resident of the constituency he represented, and a current resident of a constituency he had helped to run.

First impressions count. This is the first time I have seen Michael Palmer since I moved here in 2006. It seemed to me that he was avoiding Kirsten. He did not avoid me – and earlier in the rally, guest speakers praised him for listening to the residents and working hard to solve their problems. I think he addressed my question simply to preserve his reputation.

First impressions matter. This is the first time I have met Teo Chee Hean since I moved here in 2006. He avoided me the moment I said I was from TOC. Never mind that I live in the area; the words ‘The Online Citizen’ seemed to repel him like shadow fleeing from light. And the words “Thank you for identifying yourself” have very sinister overtones.

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. It saves us the trouble of hunting you down ourselves.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. The police will come for you shortly.”

Like, “Thank you for identifying yourself. Our lawyers will send you a letter very soon.”

This is Singapore, after all. The Internal Security Act empowers the State to detain anybody with impunity. The ISA has been used to destroy the Barisan Socialis, the most powerful opposition party in Singapore’s history, and arrest 22 Catholic socialist workers for conducting a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. The People’s Action Party is also fond of suing people who have ‘defamed’ members of the government. Words like ‘Thank you for identifying yourself’, seen against this historical backdrop, looks like a thinly-veiled threat.

Earlier today, Mr Goh Chok Tong said, “When you go to TOC, just be careful that that site is an anti-establishment site.” TOC is not an anti-establishment site. TOC has never been anti-establishment. TOC has always been pro-Singapore. TOC’s mission has always been to tell the stories of ordinary Singaporeans. These stories – homelessness, abuse of foreign workers, poverty, censorship, human rights – have been entwined with government policies. The lives of ordinary people are inextricably linked to the policies of the government in power. If policies fail, people suffer. People are suffering, so something must have gone wrong. TOC strove to uncover what had gone wrong, and did. And that is why TOC seems critical of the government.

Teo and Palmer might be under instructions not to talk to TOC. Maybe the PAP thinks we will twist everything around to make the party look bad. But that is not TOC’s job. TOC’s job is to report on the elections. Candidates and parties will rise and fall in the eyes of our readers by their strengths and weaknesses. Our job is just to make sure our readers get the complete picture. Nothing more than that.

By evading my question, Teo has made a grave insult to TOC. He has insulted TOC’s professionalism. He has insulted TOC’s ability. He has insulted TOC’s integrity.

And he has insulted me. A resident of Punggol East, formerly Pasir Ris-Punggol East.

Teo Chee Hean is no mere Member of Parliament. He is both Minister for Defence and Deputy Prime Minister. He does not merely represent the people of his constituency. He represents the interests of all Singaporeans. As Minister for Defence, he prepares the armed forces for war and peace, and directs the military to aid friends and deter enemies. As Deputy Prime Minister, he is Singapore’s second-most powerful politician. Everything he does carries the weight of the nation and the power of the State. What he did could well be seen as the government’s official position on The Online Citizen, and citizen journalism.

Is he saying the government refuses to recognise TOC? Is he saying the government refuses to engage people who criticise them? Is he saying the government will continue to snub citizen journalists, bloggers, and activists? Is he saying the government will not listen to the people? That is how his action will be seen in the eyes of our readers.

A Member of Parliament is supposed to listen to the people. He is supposed to answer queries from the people on local and national issues. He is the conduit between the people and the State.

Palmer answered TOC’s questions, but only after he had established his reputation and only after I had identified myself as a resident. Teo didn’t even wait for me to ask. Palmer listened only to a resident. Teo failed to listen to me and failed to answer my queries on local and national issues.

They have failed their jobs.

I came to the rally as a reporter. I came to report everything that happened. I did not come to destroy the PAP’s reputation. I did not come to conceal the truth. I came to tell the truth.

And I left the rally a reporter.

I am a reporter, and this is the truth.

Update (5th May 2011, 1216): Kirsten Han gives her account here.

Teo Chee Hean avoids TOC, Michael Palmer almost gets away

24 thoughts on “Teo Chee Hean avoids TOC, Michael Palmer almost gets away

  1. Hi, I saw your FB note, maybe you could unprivatise that note to allow likes and comments? If you are willing to that is.

    1. I set the privacy settings to ‘Everyone’. I’m not sure what, exactly, you’re seeing. Are you able to like and comment on it? If not, do you know how to change the settings for that note?

  2. I’m a fan of TOC and think that it balances out the mainstream media, which are quite openly biased towards the ruling party — not surprising since they can’t bite the hands that feed them, even though some reporters are really good.

    I believe TOC has played an important role in Singapore’s history this election, reporting on things that would otherwise remain covered up and be unknown to voters, and by asking some right questions.

    I also think TOC does a better job editorially compared to TR, for example, by ensuring proper copy editing most of the time, and by trying to sound balanced in its reporting. But my impression of this impartiality was marred when I saw in a recent FB update how TOC’s editor in chief openly supports a particular opposition party and member, and wants him to be PM.

    That may be his personal view, which he’s surely entitled to, but I think it has no place in the publication or its FB page. For that reason I’ve been made to rethink a donation I planned to make to TOC, because I’m not for the radical, say-anything-you-want-and-get-away-with-it-cos-this-is-a-free-country democracy that that party stands for. Anyhow, this doesn’t diminish the good work you and your colleagues have done so far, so thank you all!

    1. Thanks for your feedback and support. I’ve seen the post in question, and to the best of my memory it was only on his personal Facebook account. A member of TOC’s staff also said the same thing. Could you please confirm if the message was indeed posted on the official TOC Facebook page?

      1. Okay, I’ve looked into this. The TOC member made the comment in his personal capacity. Someone reposted it on the offical TOC Facebook account. I’m still trying to figure out what happened. But on TOC’s behalf, I apologise. It was supposed to have been a personal comment, and it should have stayed that way. That comment did compromise TOC’s reputation for fairness and objectivity. It’s not something journalists should do, not even amateurs like us. I hope you would still consider donating to TOC, and I thank you for supporting us so far.

    2. If you stay in Punggol East, how can you be staying in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. You have always been a resident of Michael Palmer’s ward. He answered your question. If you are not satisfied with his answer to you, then you are free to do so. However, don’t skew the facts and insert your opinion on the things that Palmer said to skew the thoughts of your reader. What you have just done can be best called an opinion. YOU WERE NOT REPORTING ON THE RALLY AND FACTS. Palmer did not make any threats against you, but in your “article” you insinuated that.

      As to Mr. Teo’s reaction to you, I think that he could have reacted to you better and in a more positive way. But Teo Chee Hean did not ignore you. He even THANKED you. He just does not want to be interviewed. Any HUMAN BEING is entitled to choose whether he wants to be interviewed or not. In your article, you clearly admit that you are part of TOC which criticizes the PAP. Hence, you are definitely not reporting on the facts and truth but writing an opinion piece.

      Your “article” is the kind of bullshit that makes TOC and TR a good light-hearted read.

      1. I’ve been living in the same flat for 5 years. From 2006 to 2011, I was in Pasir Ris-Punggol. After the electoral boundaries were redrawn, I was in Punggol East. I mentioned this earlier. Please read again.

        You said I skewed the facts by inserting my opinions. This is not a straight-up report. This is a personal recount of events. That means writing about my reactions and opinions. And since I was the aggrieved party here, people would want to know how I felt and what I thought.

        It’s Teo’s prerogative to grant or deny questions. But he walked away the moment I said I was from TOC. He could have said that he wasn’t in a position to answer questions at the moment. That would have been polite. He just ignored me.

        As for thanking me, see his words in context. He is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. After he thanked me, he just turned around and walked away. Here is the man who commands the military and a high-ranking member of the government. A government that has historically used force to suppress dissidents. I would see his words as a threat to use force in context, and I wanted to point it out to my international readers.

      2. @I am Disappointed, 05/05/2011 at 12:32

        I am disappointed with YOU. Your comment has no substance and is the one that is bullshit. It is clear you came in here to heckle TOC and its writers. Please leave if you don’t agree with the views in here. No one is forcing you to come here. It would make for a better experience for the rest of us.

        It is MY opinion that TOC’s fair and balanced journalism is of a far, far better quality than our state-controlled MSM.

        And what is WRONG with criticizing the PAP? Yes, the PAP and people like you have deemed it a crime to criticize the PAP, right? A crime which, in the PAP’s and your eyes, warrants the use of the ISA to incarcerate the speaker indefinitely without trial – just for giving one’s opinion on the PAP.

        Benjamin Cheah has every reason to receive TCH’s cold, sarcastic ‘thanks’ in the way he did. After all, HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of Singaporeans have been incarcerated under ISA just for giving their opinion on or ‘criticizing’ the LKY or the PAP.

        And I, as a citizen of this country and a former PAP constituent, have every right to know what happened when BC approached TCH and MP to ask a few simple questions. Stop trying to censor for me the info I want and need to know! Your ‘policing’ is unwelcome and quite annoying!

  3. Ben, good reporting.. for us citizens not able to attend the rally…. there will always be people who will support the PAP irrespective of what they do… the PAP just laid claim in the last few days through so many of its ministers that they are NOT arrogant… and PM syas they are servants of the people? servants my foot.

    The behaviour of Teo Chee Hean is probably unacceptable to most Singaporeans except the ones that support the PAP irrespectiv and will find reasons, excuses fr that matter for thir incorrigble behaviour. Thank you did he? Did he really mean to thank you? Is this how a servant of Singaporeans treat their masters. At the least you were upfront and identified yourself before asking him any questions, unlike most of the MSM journalists when they corner an opposition member. Perhaps that’s why Teo is worried that TOC is behaving like their ow MSM, with all the “dirty” tricks that they pull, including balatant reporting like the two TNP reporters, who until today is still in denial.

    Like Nicole Seah asked the PM in one of her rally speeches, we should also ask Teo Chee Hean: who is paying your million dollar salaries.

  4. If you are indeed professional reporter; why don’t you identify yourself as someone from the media asking bona fide questions; instead of identifying yourself as a resident, and asking a question that is to be reported in the media? You want to be treated professionally, behave professionally in the first place.

    1. @Another Reporter,

      Please read the conversation again. I said I was from TOC. I said ‘I live here’ because it seemed like the only way to get Teo Chee Hean’s and Michael Palmer’s attention. Note how Palmer ignored Kirsten, but didn’t ignore me. Also, we were right in front of him taking notes during the entire speech, but separate with the rest of the mainstream media – that would have marked us as bloggers or citizen journalists. Especially since the ‘real’ reporters were clustered in the media area.

      And by the way, I make no claim to being a ‘professional’ reporter. I don’t draw a regular salary from what I do at TOC. I don’t have any formal journalism training.

  5. Just want to clarify the appointments of Ministers. The appointment should read as: “Minister FOR *whichever Ministry*”, i.e. Minister for Defence, Minister for Health, etc.

  6. If there is anything anti-establishment, it is how upgrading is purposefully and deviously used as a serrated blade for non-PAP wards. Some might even say this is ‘blackmail’ or ‘bribery.’

  7. Interesting exchanges at your meeting. To an onlooker they’ll have looked like conversations with accessible politicians, rather than, to some extent, you being fobbed off.
    And the “thank you for identifying yourself” does sound odd/sinister, but I suppose could be small talk/polite?

    1. Don’t give up Benjamin. A reporter is made of steel. TOC is doing a great job. Just keep your head down – to avoid the bullets – and continue on your path of seeking the truth. God bless you and TOC.

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