When the proposal for a second Singapore conversation was raised in Parliament, I tried hard to be optimistic. I wrote a column about how we should hear out the 4G leaders and start a new relationship between the government and the governed. I said we should put behind whatever misgivings we may have about G policies in the past and forge ahead with a new group of leaders. I concluded by saying that I would hold Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to this promise in his speech:
“The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’
In a second column, I suggested that the conversation be aimed at measures to reduce social stratification which would mean a re-examination of all types of policies which might be hindering this.
I am beginning to think I was too optimistic.
With all humility and respect, I think the 4G leaders are “losing it”. I refer to the responses to commentators who have tried to give constructive views and raise questions. There was, for example, ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong’s column about “parking”. In the light of the bigger problems facing the country, like a stunted High Speed Rail project, it’s a small issue. But the policy to do away with free parking at schools for teachers seem to have taken on a life of its own.
Ms Chua did a good job debunking some of the myths circulating online about free parking for grassroots leaders and Members of Parliament. The Clerk of Parliament said that MPs park for free at Parliament House.”Members of Parliament (MPs) do not have offices in Parliament House and do not require full-time parking here. As authorised persons to Parliament House on sitting days or when they are here for meetings to perform their official duties, MPs park their vehicles at the restricted carpark at no charge.”
She concluded by suggesting, politely, that “it might be more equitable to have MPs pay for hourly parking at Parliament House”.
After its publication in the Sunday Times, there was a next-day response from Leader of the House Grace Fu. It was an exercise in obfuscation. First, she appears to contradict what the Clerk had said:
The article, “Do MPs and grassroots volunteers pay for parking?” (June 3), creates an impression that MPs get free parking at Parliament House.
You expect then to be told what parking fees are being levied. But you get this:
Elected MPs who drive pay for an annual permit that allows them to park in Housing Board carparks, in order to do their constituency work.
This payment, which Parliament deducts from the MPs’ allowances, is deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House to fulfil their duties.
Political office holders, like civil servants, also pay for parking at their ministries and agencies. This payment generally covers the occasions when they visit other ministries and agencies on official business; and if they have to pay for public or commercial carparks in the vicinity, they are reimbursed.
Applying the same principle, teachers now pay to park at their primary places of duty. But no one is suggesting they pay again when they visit other schools to attend meetings.
I am flummoxed at her conclusion. What has a minister’s parking spot in his ministry to do with his parking spot in Parliament. Is she saying that if political office-holders (she seems to have forgotten that many MPs aren’t) pay for both sets of parking, teachers who visit other schools would have to do the same?
I think she would have done better to clear this mis-impression in the column – that Parliament House carpark is not open to the public and intended only for staff and MPs. Because what comes to mind are plenty of empty spots on prime land, since Parliament sits so infrequently.
It appears that while Ms Fu had read the piece on parking, she failed to see the piece in the same newspaper on plain speaking. But Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat evidently did, going by the missive his press secretary Lim Yuin Chien wrote to ST Forum Pages.
It is a disheartening piece of prose, reminiscent of the response that two other 4G leaders Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary had penned a month ago – to the same commentator, ex-ST editor Han Fook Kwang. Both pieces seem intent on misinterpreting the message.
So Mr Han laments the use of abstract terms when talking about issues that affect people
What does equipping Singaporeans with a “global mindset and skillsets” mean to someone worried about holding on to his job or who has just lost it. What does an education system with “diverse pathways and multiple peaks of excellence” mean to the parent struggling to help her children cope with school work?
He suggested some down-to-earth methods of sending the message, which will demonstrate empathy and re-assure people. Instead, Mr Heng has misinterpreted it as encouraging “pandering and populism”:
Mr Han begins by urging ministers to speak plainly – to use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to ministers to make sweeping promises.
For example, he wants ministers to assure people that if they had “a full working life in Singapore, in any job… when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life”.
“We will make sure it happens,” Mr Han urges ministers to say, “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it.”
Mr Heng said that plain speaking must also include telling ‘hard truths’ (a Lee Kuan Yew phrase), such as how old age needs will go up and people will have to work longer, save more while working or have less to spend in retirement. Journalists and commentators must also speak plainly, he added.
Then there is a plug for the People’s Action Party which Mr Heng said never flinched from giving the truth and a swipe at Opposition MPs for preferring to engaging in a debate over the proposed rise in Goods and Services Tax during elections, rather than in Parliament.
I admit that I was surprised at Mr Han’s advice about “telling people not to worry about the details or how we will do it”. This is not because I suspect he prefers populist government but I have always held that it would be better for a government to tell all – and in plain words too – instead of taking on a nannying role. There is, however, no shame in the G making promises. After all, political parties are elected based on their manifesto – which is a bunch of promises.
The letter ends this way:
Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken.
Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately, voters or their children bear the cost.
The easiest five words to utter in politics are: “I promise you free lunches.” But that’s not plain speech. That’s pandering and populism.
I don’t know many readers saw Mr Han’s column as a call to pandering and populism. I certainly didn’t. The 4G leaders seem to be seeing shadows everywhere. They are coming across as prickly and thin-skinned.
Why couldn’t the letter have been written this way:
I thank Mr Han for his column on plain-speaking. It is correct that politicians should phrase their messages in simple and empathetic terms for the layman. We do try, and we acknowledge that we don’t always succeed. I wish to add that Mr Han neglects to say that plain speech also means telling the full truth. It is easy to make promises but the electorate would also have a part to play in fulfilling it. I doubt that they will be satisfied with “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it”. The 4G leadership wants to forge a new relationship with the people, which must also mean alerting them to the pitfalls and hard work ahead. We intend to do so – and yes, in plain words.
I think that would be a nice way to get a point across, rather than the hectoring/smart-alecky way demonstrated by the two letters. If respected MSM columnists who are not unknown to G get this kind of opaque and befuddling response (in Ms Fu’s case) or a blistering lecture (in Mr Heng’s case), what more lesser mortals? Is the 4G leadership taking a hard line to show that it can’t be bullied? Or to destroy the credibility of well-read columnists whom it considers members of a “vocal minority”?
It doesn’t seem to me that they are listening “with humility and respect”. Nor are they keeping an “open mind”. Not even communicating the reasons for its decisions clearly.
Wherefore the next Singapore Conversation? Or would it be at the ballot box?
PS. I used Mr Heng’s name because I don’t think his press secretary would have written the piece without his go-ahead.