TL;DR – Play the ball, not the man.
Former presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock applied to Court to determine whether the legislation that specified President Wee Kim Wee’s term of office as the first term to be counted was unconstitutional. The High Court has dismissed the claim.
While it wasn’t surprising that the High Court ruled to dismiss Dr Tan’s claim, what was surprising was what the Deputy Attorney-General, Hri Kumar Nair, said about Dr Tan:
“(Dr Tan) is advancing a strained interpretation of the Constitution so that he can apply to stand as a candidate in the coming (PE). His motives are purely selfish and he has shown no regard for the principle of multiracial representation which Parliament intended to safeguard.”
Dr Tan’s response
Dr Tan responded to the outcome of his application on his Facebook:
Dr Tan reminded us that he had championed multi-racialism long and illustrious political life, and continue to do so.
When he was an MP, he took care of a constituency comprising 27% Malay constituents. He highlighted that he served well together with his Malay constituents and grassroots leaders. With their support, he managed to consistently achieve “record high election percentages including 88% in 2001”.
In addition, Dr Tan called out Mr Nair’s comments as “hitting below the belt, highly inflammatory and encroaches into dangerous racial politics”.
Dr Tan highlighted that the case is not about race. It is about process and procedures. It is about upholding the Constitution. He urged us to keep it that way.
Mr Nair’s personal attack unnecessary
What value does Mr Nair’s accusation add to the government’s case? We can’t see any.
And apparently, neither did the judge who heard the case. As Dr Tan pointed out, Justice Quentin Loh did not entertain this submission anywhere in his judgment, presumably because that submission was irrelevant to the case. We agree with Dr Tan’s assessment.
After all, Dr Tan has served selflessly and with dedication as an MP for decades. As an MP, Dr Tan never shied away from speaking up stridently on important issues. Even if Dr Tan wants to be President, it’s farfetched to think that he wants to do so for some selfish reasons. So Mr Nair’s personal attack on Dr Tan is baseless and totally unnecessary.
The government definitely has the right and duty of detailed public reply to Dr Tan’s application. However, as a government official, Mr Nair hold intimidating positions of power and asymmetric information. His words can shut down, stifle, or mislead public debate.
Why is that important?
Open and high quality public debate is a vital public good. It means that citizens are responsibly and reasonably engaged in the policy and nation building process. That is why the government and all its officials, including Mr Nair, have the responsibility to encourage high quality public debate.
If that’s too much to ask, the government and its official should at least not do anything to stifle public debate. And that means insisting on mutual respect, keeping to the material facts of the discussion, and staying away from personal attacks and insinuations. Mr Nair’s baseless accusations distract from the actual issues that do need to be discussed responsibly.
We hope that the government and its officials will raise their standards, keep to the issues and stay away from personal attacks and insinuations. That’s the only way they can maintain the moral high ground. That’s the only way we can cultivate an engaged citizenry, that is actively participating in responsible discussions for nation building.