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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Virally speaking

Your network of friends can’t be very wide if you haven’t at least heard about a leaked audio tape featuring Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. It’s been making the rounds of social media, particularly on WhatsApp messaging groups. Some alternative websites have picked it up and this led, predictably, to a chorus of laments and imprecations levelled at the minister.

Since no one has denied the provenance of the audio clip and the leak can’t be described as an offence under the Official Secrets Act, I am going to stick out my neck here to write about it. Heck, even the South China Morning Post has reported it. 

The background:  Mr Chan was speaking to businessmen from the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Feb 10. As is the fashion these days, it was behind closed-doors. It seems that whatever injunction to keep the discussion of the meeting private wasn’t heeded, a move that the SCCCI has lamented as “regretful” and “disappointing”.

In any case, Mr Chan, to put it mildly, really “gave it’’ to those who complain about not getting their hands on more masks and those hoarding rice, instant noodles and toilet paper when the DORSCON alert turned orange on Feb 7. In a mix of English and Singlish, he made his feelings known: They were stupid. Idiots. Suckers. Disgraceful or sia suay (as he put it in Hokkien). They would drag down the image Singapore has a nation of sensible people and a place to do business. He wanted to scold people but, in public, he had to maintain his composure and be polite, he said.

In fact, what he told reporters at an earlier occasion was rather mild:  “Many countries are facing the same situation, and everybody is also looking at how the respective countries respond to the situation… If (we do not respond) collectively, we will undermine the international confidence in our system and in our society, and that will have long-term ramifications.’’ 

Frankly, I was mesmerised by the recording. This is straight-talk, Singapore style, not mealy-mouthed platitudes by a politician who wants to play safe with various constituencies. Watching ministers talk about how they “understood’’ what motivated the panic rush to supermarkets exasperated me. In my view, an idiot is an idiot. 

But Mr Chan’s monologue during the dialogue wasn’t merely a rant. He also explained how the G came to the decision to give out four masks to each family. It was a “gamble’’ to calm nerves. Unloading the stockpile at once would leave hospital workers in danger of going without one.  The trouble, he said, was that people look at what other countries are doing to contain the Covid-19 virus and ask why Singapore isn’t doing the same.  In my view, he was trying to lay out the difficulties in decision-making.

He also  tried to put reason into people’s irrationality. He believed that people here were clamouring for toilet paper because those in Hong Kong were doing so. Except that the Hong Kongers were doing so because the toilet paper factories in China, their source, was being converted into mask makers. Singapore, however, gets its toilet paper from Malaysia and Indonesia. In other words, silly people. (Also my words) 

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Yes, he got impolitic at times. He referred to the confusion in Hong Kong where leaders initially turned up for press conferences on the virus outbreak masked up. If Singapore had followed in Hong Kong’s footsteps “without thinking”, he said, “I can guarantee you, today our hospital system would have broken down”. “There will be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because …all used up like tissue paper.”

Mr Chan did not refer to the leaked audio in a Facebook post on Feb 17, when the decibel was escalating, beyond saying that “ trust and confidentiality’’ will be critical in the sharing of sensitive matters behind closed doors. But he was clearly unapologetic about the tone and the words he had used. He does not mince his words when he’s asked for frank assessments, he said. The subtext is that the  fault laid with the whistle-blower. 

This isn’t going to go down well with those who thought he came across as crude and arrogant towards the people who elected him to serve. Some even mocked his language skills.

 I would go easy on him. I think honesty and candour are better attributes than hypocrisy and platitudes. Also, if he thought engaging in colloqualisms would put his message across better, why not? Obviously, he can “channel switch’’ to standard English if he saw the need for it. 

While I emphatised with his exasperation, what disappointed  me was how he didn’t seem to think that any misunderstanding on the part of the populace ( or even a segment of it), could be partly attributed to the Government. (Unless he did speak about it but it wasn’t captured in the leaked audio) 

I recall National Development Minister Lawrence Wong throwing the blame for the food-run when the orange alert came on, squarely on the shoulders of the people. They had misunderstood the messages despite the G’s “best efforts’’, he said. He even threw news editors who attended briefings under the bus, when he implied that they had “misunderstood’’ it too. 

A misunderstanding? Or a mis-communication? I would call it “under communication’’. The fact remains that people were/are unsure about what the various colour coded alerts mean, especially if, as we are now told, some measures from different alert levels could also be in place.  I covered the H1N1 outbreak and even I had problems recalling what the alerts translated to in practice and more importantly, how it affected the psychological preparedness of the people.

(It’s like the public warning signal that we all heard on Saturday, Total Defence Day. Was it to test the signalling equipment or to test the people’s consciousness?  Do we know what those sounds meant? And if this was a “real’’ signal, do we know what we’re supposed to do? ) 

I am firmly behind the G’s efforts to contain the virus. Even if I have reservations about its actions, I would refrain from saying anything immediately because I know that the G would have a lot more information than I do and make a better informed decision than I ever can. It should make its decisions in peace. 

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But it doesn’t seem to have good instincts about people. Did it really not think that some people would leap to the conclusions that masks are in short supply because it was being “rationed”? It’s much-vaunted grassroots network is great at “doing” but seems to be failing at “sensing”. And who among the G leaked the orange alert news before a full explanation can be given? This seems to me to be more egregious offence (OSA!) than the leaked audio file which the SCCCI actually said it was “investigating”.

I believe most people trust the G to make decisions, and they are usually the right decisions. But over-explaining a decision  is better than expecting that everyone will follow just because. Even  as people wait for instructions, you cannot expect that they would not keep a watch on what other countries are doing. This is not about reading fake news, but real news. You cannot expect them not to compare – and to ask why.  

I didn’t mind Mr Chan’s straight talk at all.  But I wish that he had also demonstrated some humility – that the G, despite its best efforts, isn’t perfect too. 


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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