Singapore and Populism


A newspaper columnist who deigned to lecture government ministers for speaking over the head of common folk was, in turn, chided for appealing to populism that is anathema to the ruling People’s Action Party, as it smacks of politics of free lunches. “Ministers, please speak plainly to people” was the thrust of Han Fook Kwang’s article published in the mass circulation of The Straits Times in June. “When you speak plainly you are compelled to be clear in your thinking about what you intend to do. There should be nowhere to hide behind unnecessary verbiage.”
The columnist posed the following questions: “What does equipping Singaporeans with a global mindset and skillsets mean to someone worried about holding on to a job or who has lost it? Or (What) ‘diverse pathways’ and ‘multi-peak culture’ mean to parents who are trying to help their children cope with their school work?”
In layman’s language, they should be saying: “(if you had) a full working life in Singapore in any job…when you retired at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life. We will make it happen; don’t worry about the details on how we will do it.” And such a clear message should be consistent with Singapore’s first-world status, he added. “It is unacceptable for a city with one of the highest per capita income in the world to have too many people retired after working all their lives without adequate retirement security.”

The government could also assured the people that “a child who has completed 10 to 12 years in primary and secondary school should be able to find a place in tertiary institutions.”
Columnist Han’s comments drew a sharp rebuttal from the Minister of Finance, Heng Swee Kiat, for daring ministers to make sweeping promises to Singaporeans. Through his press secretary, the minister asserted that plain speaking consist not just in using simple language but also in speaking ‘hard truths’. “This is what the PAP government has been doing for close to 60 years (It has been in power since 1959),” he said. “Ministers and Members of Parliament spend considerable time on the ground hearing from citizens, answering their questions and explaining policies.”
Mr Heng cited the proposal to raise the Goods & Services Tax in the government’s next term during his Budget speech and explained the need to do so. He added: “The easiest five words to utter in politics are ‘I promise you free lunches’. But this is not plain speech. This is pandering and populism.” The exchange between Mr Han and Mr Heng has helped shed light on the way the younger team of ministers react to public criticism. Mr Heng is one of the front-runners to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who plans to step down by 2020.
The columnist’s tip was that the younger ministers could connect better with the electorate by being more straightforward and plain in their speeches. But this has turned into a debate on populist poliitics. Mr Heng has joined the debate to show that he and his colleagues, like the PAP old guard, reject populist politics.
“Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experiences which happened when unrealistic election promises are broken,” he said, alluding to populist politicians who swayed voters emotionally with soft options to solve their problems and needs.
In contrast, PAP leaders has always believed in telling voters the ‘hard truths’ of Singapore’s vulnerabilities as a city-state without natural resources and thriving on its people’s ingenuity and hard work. Given its track record, the PAP leaders ride the moral high horse in highlighting its role as the trusted guardian of the state’s immense national reserves which, it warns, a populist government could fritter away by spending freely to honour its pledges. In such an unfortunate scenario, the losers would be many.
“Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility and faith in democracy is undermined and ultimately voters and their children bear the cost,” said Mr Heng. In other words, plain speaking is ok; simple promises are not ok.

By Ivan Lim

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