Poor Han Fook Kwang.
The former editor of the main broadsheet in Singapore has found himself – once again – on the receiving end of a scolding from a vindictive, hypersensitive and irrational government. And I use all 3 adjectives deliberately and accurately. They apply to this present government, whether they are made up of 2G, 3G or 4G ministers.
So, what is it that Mr Han has done that has so tormented the political leadership that it feels it had to give him a dressing down in public?
Poor Mr Han. All he did was to offer his two cents worth of advice to the multi-millionaire ministers, after witnessing their speeches in the recent opening of Parliament.
In truth, it was a pretty heartfelt, sincere and rather commonsense piece of advice which no sensible person in a leadership position would find fault with.
But ours is no ordinary leadership (which is why they pay themselves the big bucks, remember), and Mr Han’s honest counsel drew blood, instead of understanding, from a resentful government.
Mr Han, for example, had suggested (really, that was all he actually did) that ministers should speak plainly if they wanted to establish a connection with the man in the street. Ministers should, he said, avoid speaking in the abstract.
“When problems and issues are cast in these terms,” he explained, “they lose the human connection and become hard for the ordinary folk to relate to.”
In other words, spare the people the high-falutin rhetoric.
Cut to the chase.
Come down from your high horse.
Take the lift down from the Ivory Tower.
Speak in human tongue.
You get the gist.
“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?”, asked the current editor-at-large of the Straits Times.
“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?”
Indeed, what does it mean to the average struggling Singaporean worker to hear his manpower minister pontificate about how he is going to “prepare people for tomorrow’s jobs with tomorrow’s skills”?
By the time he is done readying himself for tomorrow’s job with tomorrow’s skills, his family may have already starved to death.
That, in a nutshell, is what Mr Han is saying – speak in real terms, so your struggling citizen can relate.
But no. Mr Han’s sensible advice was taken as insult, as that of a young upstart speaking out of turn to an elder. In the infamous words of one George Yeo, Mr Han had shown a “boh tua boh sui” (disrespect of an elder) attitude.
And so in came Mr Heng – yes, the same Finance Minister Mr Heng who just 3 weeks earlier had declared to the entire nation that his government was going to hold a national discussion with Singaporeans and would “listen with humility and respect” – that same Mr Heng sent in his press secretary with a dreadful attempted smackdown of Mr Han.
If you can’t bear to know what Mr (or is it Ms?) Lim Yuin Chien, the aforementioned press secretary, wrote in her letter to the Straits Times, it basically said: “Oh bugger off, Mr Han!”
But if your tolerance threshold is higher, she in fact accused Mr Han of “pandering and populism.”
“Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies,” he said, “lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately, voters or their children bear the cost.”
He forgot to add that also our women will become maids in other countries, investors will run away, the ground will open up, and apocalypse will descend on all of us like a ginormous fart of fetid hot air.
But Mr Lim was not done.
“Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken,” he preached, dragging out the half-dead bogeyman behind his tail.
Wait a minute. All Mr Han asked for was a simple, general, assurance from the government to the struggling Singaporean. Is that too much to ask? Well, let’s visit what and how exactly Mr Han phrased his suggestion. He actually wrote down word-for-word how a minister might actually say it to the person if he (the person) was standing in front of the minister.
The minister, Mr Han wrote, could say to the person:
“I promise you that if you have had a full working life in Singapore, in any job, whether you are a cleaner, a security guard, a taxi driver or a waiter, when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life. We will make sure it happens – don’t worry about the details or how we will do it. The only thing we ask is that you must do your part and be serious about your job.”
Reasonable. Thoughtful. Sober. Relatable.
Back came the gnashing of teeth from Mr Lim, who spat out (yes, it is possible to gnash and spit at the same time if you’re angry enough) this rebuttal:
“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.”
Poor Mr Oliver Han. He didn’t even ask for free food or for seconds. He only requested assurance that there will be food on the table when we are old. He was also willing to work for it, and all his life too.
Kidding and sarcasm aside, if this is how the new leadership is going to respond to well-meaning, heartfelt advice and suggestion, then Singaporeans should not be interested in wasting their time attending any “national conversation” events.
The leadership seems to only want to hear what they want to hear.
Mr Han’s advice, to anyone who read his entire article, was not written with the dripping ink of malice, but with the concerns of someone who has, in recent times, raised pertinent issues which affect many.
Yet, each time he is beaten down by the ministers. (See here.) (As an aside, Mr Han should take it as a compliment that it is ministers who respond to what he says. He should start collecting the feathers for his cap. He might need a big one soon too.)
And let’s also say this plainly to Mr Heng: You cannot in one breath say you “will listen with humility and respect”, and in the next lambast someone (anyone) who take you at your word and offers his sincere advice and suggestions.
You would be a hypocrite.
And no one likes or trusts hypocrites.
Neither would they like to discuss anything with such a person.
So, tell your press secretary to stuff it, save his (or is it her?) venom for real agitators, and realise that condescension is a poison which will kill trust between your government and the people.
If you are serious about listening – with humility and respect – you would not have instructed your henchman to put out such a spiteful response.
Consider making an apology to Mr Han, and truly listen and hear what well-meaning people are telling you, Mr Heng.
As for Mr Han, we hope he will continue to speak plainly, and speak often and honestly. He should not let these ministers intimidate him into silence, or worse, become fatalistic.
An arrogant and condescending government is, in case we forget, a government we should vote out. And the sooner the better, for our country’s sake.
Unless they humble themselves before the people and realise that it is the people they work for, and not the other way round.