Andrew Loh

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday that the current downturn Singapore is facing is nothing quite like what the country has experienced before.

Speaking to the Singapore media at the end of his visit to Latin America, Mr Lee said that while there is still bitter medicine to be taken, the Singapore government has put a bit more sugar coating on the pill. (Channel NewsAsia). 

The above report was on the 28 November 2008, less than two months ago. The Prime Minister was seeking to assuage Singaporeans’ concerns about the worsening economy and particularly about job losses. In the last few weeks, several companies have already started to lay off staff, including DBS and Panasonic.

The PM, as reported in CNA’s report above, even spoke about Singaporeans having to accept “ bitter medicine” in these bad times.

Thus, it was with much regret, to say the least, when two reports came out in the Straits Times on Tuesday. The first was about the former CEO of Seksun Corporation, Mr Felix Ong, who spent $50,000 of his own money in having calendars made for himself. The calendars had pictures of him assuming various personas. He had also employed models for the calendars. (See picture below).

The second article in the Straits Times, perhaps, is the more controversial one. It was a piece written by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), Mr Tan Yong Soon. In it, he described his attendance of a cooking class in Paris, at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu, as part of a 5-week holiday. The basic course, which he signed up for, costs 7,750 euros (S$15,500).

Perhaps a little too self-engrossed, he said:

Taking five weeks’ leave from work is not as difficult as one thinks. Most times, when you are at the top, you think you are indispensable. But if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer.

While not many Singaporeans can afford to take 5 weeks off work to go on a holiday, or afford the price tag for such a holiday (especially to a place such as Paris), one would not normally chide the rich for doing so either. After all, they do work hard for their success and rewards and are entitled to enjoy them. However, Mr Tan is no ordinary, rich Singaporean. He is a senior civil servant. And he is one of those who just had his pay cut in the recent announcement by the Public Service Division.

In short, he is seen as part of the governing elite – and one who would be able to empathise with ordinary Singaporeans who are going through tough times. Indeed, the PM is preparing Singaporeans for some belt-tightening and ‘bitter medicine’.

Mr Tan’s revelation, in a national newspaper, at a time of anxiety for most, is insensitive, to say the least.

And this coming on the back of the People’s Action Party town councils’ nonchalant attitude towards the loss of millions of dollars in investments in discredited financial products.

Perhaps it is true – in fact, I feel it is – that the rich in government has lost touch with Singaporeans and lost it totally. For anyone who has any sense of empathy for the average working person struggling to survive would not be splashing his story of luxurious holidays in full spread in a national newspaper. Least of all a senior civil servant.

While I applaud the government for the pay cut, I cannot but be entirely disappointed that, as Mr Tan has shown, it is only cosmetic.

How else can it be if one is willing to spend thousands on a cooking course on a 5-week holiday and then boast about it in a national newspaper?

Where is the empathy and sensitivity among our elite for the average Singaporean?

Finance Minister Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, when asked about whether civil servants would lead by example and take a pay cut, said, “We are not here to grandstand.” (Straits Times

One can only hope that someone will tell Mr Tan that while it may be true that “if you are a good leader who has built up a good team, it is possible to go away for five weeks or even longer,” Mr Tan should realize that sometimes a little empathy and sensitivity goes a longer way.

Ditto Mr Ong.


Picture from Straits Times report.


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