Tin Pei Ling’s baptism of fire: Should bloggers have lit the match?



March 30th, 2011

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 because, after all, shit happens. “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 do to others.

I got thinking about this as I read about the current online storm over would-be PAP 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 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 skeptical when Eunice Olsen was put up as an NMP. 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.

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 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 can 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.

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