I don’t know who Heng Swee Keat is — is that my fault?
By Christalle Tay
ILLUSTRATION: LIANG LEI
The first weeks of my journalism course last semester were spent with a dimmed laptop screen.
It was a political reporting class and I was way out of my depth. My better-read classmates would periodically mention unfamiliar names, which I frantically googled, with my laptop strategically angled away from prying eyes. Some weren’t intuitive to spell — I typed in rough guesses, scanned through search results and prayed my confusion wasn’t apparent. Heng Swee Keat – was that “keat” or “kit”?
A journalism class is not a place where you are comfortable admitting ignorance. After all, how can you aspire to be a journalist — admittedly, an occupation with the nosiest people — without having heard of the key players in politics?
It wasn’t a matter of accessibility, but a lack of interest. I had all the phone apps for local news outlets and had subscribed to their accompanying Telegram channels, but there were better things to do on your phone than reading news — much less political news. Notifications of headlines from news apps were enough to satisfy me and would live in my notification centre for days. I occasionally clicked on them, only to abandon the article after a few paragraphs to reply to a text message or watch a show. Why be depressed by the news when you can be entertained?
Casting my memory to a time before I was writing articles on political parties, it wasn’t that I was completely ignorant about current affairs. I had a vague grasp: before class began in August last year, economic tension between the US and China was escalating, Hong Kong students were protesting in the streets, and Singaporeans were crucifying Hua Wei for its $54 phone promotion.
When I actually paid attention to the news, what caught my attention were the wild or dramatic stories; those you would find trending on social media. Like when MP Lee Bee Wah uttered si gui kia, or ungrateful children, in Parliament last year.
I probably knew more about Monica Baey and Jacqueline Wong than I did Heng Swee Keat or Ong Ye Kung.
Political news was to me just a politician talking about some policy that was far too entrenched for me to start caring about. Retirement adequacy, housing and other bread-and-butter issues — all riddled with figures, jargon and acronyms (read: CPF, BTO, Vers and Sers) are things to care about when I actually had a job, car or a prospective hubby to buy a house with.
Just a few months ago, I read up on housing for the first time as a 22-year-old — only because I had to. Madam had instructed me to write an explainer. It was a painful experience, as I battled my way through acronyms and eligibility criterias, scanned dozens of how-to-BTO guides, and dug into archives to see what has been said about certain policies.
Was I really to be blamed? Maybe it was symptomatic of being a digital native: people who grew up with so much information at their fingertips, had the privilege — and curse — of picking and choosing information. A polytechnic study that polled 802 youths aged 15 to 35 in 2018 showed they were most interested in breaking news (78.8 per cent), entertainment and celebrity updates (48.4 per cent), and lifestyle topics (47.5 per cent). Political news did not even make the cut.
Our own survey of 100 first-time voters between 21 and 26 years old, showed most of my peers shared my poor knowledge of local politics. Only 23 per cent knew what Non-constituency MPs are and just 13 per cent knew what an MP does. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong was known to 26 per cent of respondents, when the survey was conducted between September last year and this February, before the Covid-19 health crisis struck. Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh was slightly better recognized, at 35 per cent.
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Now that I wasn’t just skimming through articles but really reading them, it surprises me how I could have missed those names. So I fully understand when my classmate jokingly chastises me for not knowing who Heng Swee Keat was:
“How dare you,” he said.
I had asked Sean, one of the aforementioned “better-read classmates” and a prolific letter-writer to newspapers, why he was surprised that I didn’t know the Prime-Minister-to-be.
“It is surprising given his high portfolio,” said the political science major. He later suggested this could be because people only noticed names when “things screw up… when things screw up, you will identify and pinpoint the culprit”.
“I’m sure people recognise ministers like Khaw Boon Wan and Lui Tuck Yew for obvious reasons,’’ he added. Mr Lui was the past Transport minister while Mr Khaw is the present one. Their names fly off the tongue whenever the public transport system fails. I know them now, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my first memories of Mr Khaw were memes of him and his celebrity look-alike, Henry Thia, and not because my train failed to arrive on time.
But the Government is no dummy to the fact that Singaporean youths know little about politics. In what seemed like a last-ditch attempt to get young people to watch the Budget, the Finance Ministry (MOF) in 2018 paid social media influencers to promote it. It drew media attention but the lack of influencers parading Budget hashtags around in the years after suggests the response was lacklustre. And the attempt also suggested that the Government had a poor understanding of why youths weren’t interested in politics.
It wasn’t because politics was not cool. “It’s just not relevant yet,” said my 21-year-old brother. “Political news is something that requires more effort, like you need to force yourself to do.”
I don’t miss the fact that I’m only politically informed now because I spend most of my time in the political reporting class. I wonder — if I had not started writing political articles, when would I have started to buttress my knowledge of current affairs? At the other end of the world, 17-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, has become a household name for climate change activism, spitting out statistics and calling out countries. If relevance was a threshold I had to cross to be politically concerned, how high was it? Was it right to peg it to an age or a phase of life?
Being up to date on political knowledge has its benefits. I’m now seen as the repository of current affairs at family dinner time conversations and my opinion carries weight. I hold my own in conversations that take a political turn with patrons at the bar where I work, and watch them revise their assumptions of my intelligence. It has been deeply satisfying.
But part of me thinks it’s pointless to be politically concerned, and wonders if I would still keep myself informed when the class is over and if I don’t end up in the media industry.
Much of the point of keeping politically informed is to react when the Government introduces measures that affect you, particularly if you disagree with them. But most times, it feels like public concerns go unheard by the Government, left to be swallowed by the next news cycle.
Take the reserved presidency of 2017, for example, where constitutional changes made the year before meant the seat could only be contested by Malay candidates. It was widely seen as a move by the incumbent to block presidential hopeful Dr Tan Cheng Bock from the position and shore up its political power. As angry as Singaporeans were, former PAP MP Halimah Yacob went on to be the first female president, with no contest.
Or the changes to Singapore’s electoral boundaries published on March 13. For a series of articles, I had analysed parliamentary reports that laid out boundary changes to electoral divisions. Explanations for why certain wards were created or subsumed had become more and more scarce in reports from recent decades, an opinion held by many in and outside of politics. Surely, I had thought in my naivete, if so many people thought this way, the Government would account for it this time.
But when the single-seat wards of Punggol East, Sengkang West and Fengshan, where Workers’ Party had narrow losses, were subsumed into other constituencies with no explanation, I felt incredibly disappointed. And helpless. What, then, is the point of political commentary if it goes unheard or responded to with platitudes?
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Why bother with reading about the twists and turns of politics if I had little control over the policies that come into effect?
Maybe the onus is on me to keep apprised of political happenings, but in true Singaporean fashion, I would like to curse the world and curse the Government. The world for flooding my senses with information, and the Government for creating a climate of individual powerlessness.
One consolation I have is that the next time someone brings up Mr Heng, I can say that he is the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance — and name the rest of the 4G leaders while I’m at it.