Several Facebook ‘friends’ recently shared a news article from the Straits Times, with comments along the lines of “Here we go again, a minister scolds citizens for criticising the PAP government and not helping them out”.
Following the link, I was led to a fairly prominent article which reported a speech made by Tan Chuan-jin to his own civil servants at the Ministry of Manpower:
Singaporeans who are not happy with the country should try to improve things instead of running down the country, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said on Monday.
“Singapore is not perfect, no society is perfect,” he noted.
“There may be things we are unhappy about, things can always be better, but that is very different from running down our own people, our own society.”
He pointed to two letters from Singaporeans that were published online last week on Yahoo News. He did not name their writers.
A check online, however, shows the letters were written by operations manager Brian Vittachi, 56, and public relations consultant Wang Su Lin, 40. Mr Vittachi had asked his sister not to return to Singapore from Sri Lanka. “Singapore has sold its soul,” he wrote, while Sri Lanka has natural beauty, culture and character.
Ms Wang said she is not ashamed of being gay but ashamed of being a Singaporean. She has emigrated to Canada which she felt was more welcoming and tolerant.
Mr Tan said he wished them well but hoped the duo would also “find it in themselves to contribute and help build Singapore”.
— Straits Times Breaking News, 6 August 2013, Help improve things if not happy with country: Minister, by Toh Yong Chuan
The newspaper also carried a remark by an unnamed civil servant from Tan’s ministry who was quoted as saying “It is not just the country, but policies are also not perfect, but what is important is that we identify what is wrong and fix them, instead of just complaining.” Perhaps she was helping the Straits Times grasp the chief point of Tan’s speech?
I decided to see if Today or Channel NewsAsia carried a similar story. Channel NewsAsia did in video form, but the content of its story was very different. Firstly, the headline was “Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said there is a need to look out for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) as they will be affected as businesses restructure” (Link) with no mention of anything like ‘stop complaining and help out instead’. Rather, it highlighted what Tan Chuan-jin said about
- needing to restructure the economy and workforce
- that growth is important but needs to be sustainable
- and that the aim should be to moderate labour growth “because there is a genuine strain on our infrastructure and social fabric.”
The angle of the story being so different, I went to the Ministry of Manpower’s website to retrieve the full text of his speech, to form my own opinion about it.
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* Did he depart from the prepared text?
I note that the Straits Times quoted him as saying “There may be things we are unhappy about, things can always be better, but that is very different from running down our own people, our own society.” Yet, this sentence is not in the text as uploaded onto the ministry’s website.
I can’t say I’ve come to any firm conclusion. At first glance, it appears that the Straits Times overplayed that angle. Tan’s exact words (at least in the prepared text, I don’t know if he departed from it*) were much less blunt:
Truth is, no one writes our stories but ourselves. Collectively, our stories add up to the story of Singapore. We also choose the lenses through which we view our world and our lives. Do we want to be happy? Sad? Positive? Energised? It depends on how we want to look at things. As individuals, we have to make a choice. There are many Singaporeans who choose not to be a victim of their circumstances, but to step up to shape their own lives and the lives of those around them.
As a society, made up of individuals, the Government, institutions, organisations, we also choose. It is the choices that we make that shape our society. No society is perfect, including ours. However, I see a lot of heart and a tremendous amount of soul in our people. I see that in many of you here, in what you do. We should not short-change ourselves. We shouldn’t run ourselves down. I know many are unhappy with things as they are, they can always be better. The key thing is, what can we do about it? I know many of you have stepped forward to join the public service to make a difference.
I see many volunteers who do their part. Many of you also put in time in volunteer work. It is usually not glamorous work. I see my volunteers on the ground, putting in time, unseen and unheard. But, they do so because they believe that their efforts can make a difference.
And we see this in various forms: lunch distribution, cleaning of flats, local merchants contributing groceries and vouchers. We see this all over Singapore.
And I see so many Singaporeans in public service seeking to make a difference. Our Home Team, our SAF, our colleagues in our Ministries and agencies across the government. All of you here, working hard to make things better for our people. You know that you can make a difference.
There are so many uplifting stories. Most are untold.
He then goes on to talk about the employment situation and his ministry’s directions.
The thing is, Tan has made similar points before — about volunteering and helping out. It seems to be a tune he likes to sing. It is also typical of the tone he likes to adopt — attempting to sound empathetic and inspirational but often coming across as simulated.
But it seemed to me that it would take an extremely acute ear to hear in it the frustrated demand implied by Straits Times’ headline “Help improve things if not happy with country”. Did the Straits Times divine (and report) a bluntness to his speech that really wasn’t intended or warranted? Why would it do that? One begins to wonder whether the newspaper itself has an agenda: does it feel itself tasked by powers even greater than Tan Chuan-jin to convey this brute message to the peasants? Is it seizing this opportunity presented by Tan’s speech to ram it home?
If so, it is hardly doing him any favours. People react to the Straits Times negatively. What the government’s mouthpiece thinks it is conveying is not what people hear. The ‘lesson of the day’ is heard as ‘another admonishment again’.
In the last twelve months, Tan’s stock has been on the decline. That’s something that is easily gathered speaking to people. He’s acquiring a reputation as an arrogant, inflexible person who pretends to listen, but is incapable of doing so. His relatively mellifluous speaking style is beginning to be treated as insincere, if momentarily beguiling, prater. A friend even said to me not long ago that “he’s proving so ‘old-guard’, even the clown prince Chan Chun Sing is looking good by comparison.”
She added, “At least the latter is entertaining.”
But this example of reporting of Tan’s speech triggers a thought: Might it be possible that when ministers’ moderate language is hyped up to bite-sized sloganeering, the Straits Times is doing the People’s Action Party (PAP) government no favours? With its preachy style and zealous berating of Singaporeans for their perceived shortcomings, the newspaper has made the PAP government such a turn-off that even prosaic remarks are heard as castigation.
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On the other hand, perhaps the message was intended. Perhaps it was no accident that an unnamed civil servant was on hand to sharpen the point for the newspaper’s reporter.
If so, then Tan Chuan-jin deserves the opprobrium that went with the Facebook sharing. It takes a certain deficit in self-awareness to not know that people generally do not want to help bullies. No amount of sweet words is going to change this intrinsic sense of counterbalancing fairness we have in us.
One cannot expect people to distinguish clearly between helping country and community on the one hand, and supporting the government on the other, when the government insists on being so dominant. In any system with an overdominant power, when anything goes wrong, blame is nevertheless attached to the hegemon. This is so even when it’s not its fault. In such circumstances, it is very hard for any party to step forward to help fix the problem without feeling (and being seen) as if stepping forward to help the hegemon.
Singaporeans are not going to compartmentalise what they know of the PAP government’s overbearing behaviour, skewed and insensitive policies, and its politicisation of what should have been independent institutions, from their thoughts and feelings about this place. It should hardly be surprising that many people will calculate that if the country can never really be theirs, then why bother to invest in it?
It’s like this big guy who insists on occupying the armchair, asking others to help make it more comfortable. Come on, get real.
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Yet, for every one who gives up on Singapore, there is at least another who cares. The problem is that the same government does not recognise their caring or suggestions as “constructive”. It only wants people to help refine the policies that they themselves have laid down, and will not entertain any contrary ideas.
Again and again, they will say that they are open to all ideas, but decades of all-too-obvious resistance more than reveal where the truth lies. Moreover, heavy-handed actions are taken to stop its critics from promoting alternative solutions. Their credibility has been shot to pieces — by their own actions.
Once again, it should hardly be a surprise that people may be coming to realise that the only way to re-upholster the armchair is to first get Big Frank out of it.