Where is the junzi, gentleman?

ccsOnce upon a time, PAP leaders spoke of how ministers should be junzi, gentlemen.

“Dr Chee has stood for elections thrice – and lost badly all three times, once receiving just 20 per cent of the vote,” the Minister of Social and Family Development (MSF), Chan Chun Sing, wrote in his letter to the Huffington Post on 15 January protesting that the US-based website was giving “considerable but undeserved attention and space” to Dr Chee.

Mr Chan then went on to list Dr Chee’s alleged shortcomings, dating back more than 20 years, and haughtily concluded:

“It is because of these and other failings that Dr Chee is a political failure.”

Mr Chan’s remarks deriding Dr Chee’s supposed “failure” as a politician have been met with equally derisive reactions from the public towards Mr Chan – they point out that Mr Chan himself is “wet behind the ears” politically, having only entered politics in 2011 through a non-contest in the Tanjong Pagar GRC, helmed by former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

Some say Mr Chan should not be making fun of Dr Chee when he himself “has not won a single vote”.

Be that as it may, Mr Chan’s definition of what constitutes “political failure” is interesting.

One of the qualifying criterion, Mr Chan’s letter makes clear, is the lack of electoral victory.

Mr Chan points to the fact that since Dr Chee took over the helm of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the party hasn’t won a single seat. But such an argument is quite strange – for the failure to win any seats is not only limited to Dr Chee. In fact, besides the Workers’ Party (WP) and the SDP under Chiam See Tong, no other political party, save the PAP, has won any electoral seats in the last 50 years.

Does that mean that all these political parties and their politicians are “political failures”?

Is winning the only criteria in what defines success, even in politics?

Dr Chee’s contribution to Singapore’s political landscape also includes that outside of electoral politics, no?

But let’s stay with Mr Chan’s definition of a “political failure”.

If winning elections is a criteria, wouldn’t the label of “political failure” then apply to Mr Chan’s colleagues in the PAP as well, those who have failed to win in elections.

For example, Desmond Choo who has lost twice in Hougang. It is a fate which also befell Mr Choo’s colleagues in the PAP such as Andy Gan and Kenneth Chen.

Are these men also “political failures”?

What about those PAP MPs who have “coattailed” more established and senior ministers in GRCs and went on to win? Are they “political success” stories?

And what about those who spent their entire political career, or at least a major part of it, as MPs without ever having won a single vote outright in an electoral contest?

In fact, Mr Chan’s predecessor MP in his own constituency of Tanjong Pagar is one such example.

Koo Tsai Kee entered politics at the 1991 General Election. His first foray was a no-contest. ksk1991 His team, led by Lee Kuan Yew, was declared victors by a walkover. It was the same outcome in the next elections in 1997. ksk1997 In fact, it was the same for the next two elections.

2001: ksk2001 2006, when Mr Koo “contested” the elections for the last time: ksk2006 Would one consider Mr Koo, who did not win a single vote outright in any election throughout a span of 15 years, a “political success” story?

Mr Chan’s own first foray into electoral politics was also in Tanjong Pagar GRC, and it was also a walkover, no-contest, “victory”: TP2011 What then really defines success in politics? While we ponder on that and ask ourselves if Mr Chan’s attacks make sense, let us also remember that there is an (unspoken) gentlemen code of ethics, if you like, which is encapsulated in the maxim: don’t kick someone when he is down.

By Mr Chan’s own derision of Dr Chee, the former clearly holds the view that Dr Chee is no “weighty political figure in Singapore.”

In fact, Mr Chan said that Dr Chee “is nothing of the kind.”

Yet, if that were so, should not Mr Chan then be the gentlemen and not kick someone whom he himself (Chan) already sees as a “failure”? Why kick someone who is already down?

Mr Chan’s letter of personal attacks and condescension is thus regrettable. Indeed, it is most unbecoming of a minister.

And also, lest we forget, it is also unbecoming of a minister, writing in his official capacity as a leader and representative of Singaporeans, to write to a foreign media outlet to launch such personal attacks against another Singaporean, even if he disagrees with him.

Mr Chan’s letter to the Huffington Post, in case we have not noticed, says nothing of the things which Dr Chee’s articles to the same website spoke of – income inequality, for example.

In short, not only was Mr Chan’s letter an attempt at knocking someone who is already down, it is also going for the man and not the ball.

If this is how our future leaders are going to behave, then I am afraid they are not going to inspire a new kind of society – one where failures of any kind are not derided, or used to score cheap political points.

Dr Chee’s response to Mr Chan’s hubristic letter is a mature one. (Read it here.)

“It is disappointing that the younger generation of ministers like Mr Chan has not set a new direction for the conduct of politics in Singapore instead on relying on that of a bygone era,” Dr Chee said.

Yes, very disappointing indeed.

You really have to drag Dr Chee’s name through the mud again all because you feel Huffington Post was giving him too much space because it published two articles from Dr Chee?


Singaporeans who look up to Mr Chan as a potential future prime minister may go away with the idea that winning is what defines success. Thus, Mr Chan’s letter of derision may not do any damage to Dr Chee, but to Singapore society.

And that is entirely regrettable.


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