The past few weeks have been instructive in how the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) under the current leadership might not have what it takes to chart a new course for Singapore, going forward.
Several incidents in recent times showed how the PAP Government is still struggling with communicating with and inspiring Singaporeans.
President Tony Tan, in opening the new session of Parliament on 16 May, spoke of how we should “embrace one another as fellow Singaporeans”, and he promised that the Government has heard the voices of the year-long National Conversation.
"We will give substance to these voices,” the president said, “and set out a new way forward for ourselves and our nation."
3 days after the president’s speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued a letter of demand to blogger Roy Ngerng over an article in Mr Ngerng’s blog.
Mr Lee’s action, lodged in his personal capacity, did not surprise many who reacted with cynicism at Mr Lee resorting to the “ways of old” in trying to right what he sees as a wrong.
Indeed, some were calling it an act of bullying – in first demanding a removal of the allegedly offensive post, and an apology from Mr Ngerng, plus a demand for Mr Ngerng to make an offer of compensation.
Several days later, Mr Lee’s lawyers made further demands, namely for Mr Ngerng to remove an additional 4 articles from his blog, and warned that Mr Lee might seek aggravated damages from Mr Ngerng.
Mr Ngerng complied with all the demands – but Mr Lee dismissed them and on 30 May commenced legal action.
Shortly after, Mr Ngerng was fired from his job at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, with the Ministry of Health issuing a statement in support of the hospital’s action.
The entire sorry episode shows how a lack of wise leadership allowed one single blog post to erupt into a lawsuit, the loss of a livelihood for Mr Ngerng, an unprecedented show of public support for Mr Ngerng when S$90,000 was raised in about a week for his legal defence fund, and a further polarizing of our society.
A good leader would have dealt with it differently - and more beneficially for his countrymen, instead of this divisive and vindictive witch hunt for blood and a pound of flesh.
In short, the episode, more than anything else, showed up the small minds of our leaders – and how they were unable to deal with a perceived wrong in a less polarising manner.
9 days after Mr Lee’s legal action was started against Mr Ngerng, PAP Member of Parliament Indranee Rajah launched another of her attacks on the opposition Workers’ Party (WP).
This time, Ms Indranee’s anger was directed at the WP’s press statement on the changes made to the Medishield Life scheme which was announced by the Government 2 days earlier on 7 June.
Specifically, Ms Indranee, who is also the Senior Minister of State for Education and Law, took umbrage with this part of the WP statement:
“Many of the recommended enhancements to the MediShield health insurance scheme have been articulated by Workers’ Party MPs in Parliament as well as by many Singaporeans over the years.”
In a rather pedantic Facebook note, Ms Indranee accused the WP of “claiming credit” for the Medishield Life changes.
"The implication is that MediShield Life happened because they (WP) spoke up in Parliament. No credit is shared or given to anyone else,” Ms Indranee said.
Ms Sylvia Lim, not unlike many, expressed puzzlement at Ms Indranee’s nitpicking.
"We have stated the fact, which was that these are some of the areas that we have been looking at for quite some time," Ms Lim said, adding that she did not know why Ms Indranee accused WP of claiming credit.
Ms Lim said she did not find Ms Indranee’s post "particularly constructive".
Many would indeed agree with Ms Lim – that the Senior Minister of State was engaging in destructive political nitpicking, instead of the “constructive politics” of which her party claims to subscribe to.
Ms Indranee’s behaviour, as with that of her party leader, shows once again the small minds within the ruling party.
And this smallness, this inability to rise above the petty, among PAP politicians was once again demonstrated on 4 June.
PAP MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Hri Kumar, had posted on his Facebook page about a public forum on the CPF issue.
Mr Kumar said that he was “glad to say that the response has been good, with even Singaporeans from outside the division signing up!”
What followed was a little bit of a farce, really.
You can read about the sequence of events here: “Hri Kumar’s CPF forum – an honest farce”.
Non-residents of Bishan-Toa Payoh and Thomson (the ward which is also under Mr Kumar’s charge), asked to attend the forum – and these included Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of the Reform Party, and Mr Ngerng, who has written extensively on the CPF.
Mr Kumar had replied to one Mr Abdul Malik who asked if non-residents could attend the forum. Mr Kumar replied by telling Mr Malik that he could participate in the forum, which was billed as an “honest conversation” on the CPF.
Mr Malik said he was from the Tanjong Pagar GRC constituency.
Mr Kumar asked him to accept the online / Facebook invitation – presumably this meant clicking “going” on the event page.
Mr Kumar did not reply to Mr Jeyaretnam’s post on the same Facebook page where he also indicated that he had done the same as Mr Malik – by accepting the online invitation.
In the meantime, to avoid any misunderstanding, Mr Ngerng emailed Mr Kumar to confirm that he would be allowed to attend the forum as well, since he was a non-resident.
Mr Kumar replied that he never said that the forum “is open to all Singaporeans”.
To cut a long story short, Mr Kumar’s latest remarks on the matter – posted on his Facebook page on 13 June – are regrettable.
He adopts a dismissive and condescending tone towards those non-residents who had wanted to attend the forum.
Without naming names and referring only to “some people”, Mr Kumar seemed to be referring to Mr Jeyaretnam and/or Mr Ngerng when he posted:
“[My] direct response to a request from a non-resident, Mr Malek [sic] appears to have been understood by some people as an “invitation to all Singaporeans”. This is odd. Surely, the polite and proper thing to do is to ask whether you can attend and only claim to be invited when you receive a positive response?”
He then went on and said it was “odd” (again) that “some” would think that his remarks that non-residents had signed up for the forum is an “invitation to all non-residents to sign up.”
He claimed that his remarks stated “no more than the facts.”
And then he took a pot shot at “opposition politicians” and said that they “should organise their own forums.”
Mr Kumar’s note concluded:
“I know some people are itching for the opportunity to run me down. That’s ok – that’s how they understand politics and they are welcome to take their best shot. I will go on serving my residents to the best of my ability. Ultimately, it is their opinion which matters.”
All these from a question of whether non-residents could attend a forum where Mr Kumar will be speaking?
And Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Ngerng were in fact entirely respectful and polite in their communications with Mr Kumar.
Why then the need for the MP to adopt such a dismissive, combative and condescending tone in his post?
Is it really so hard to make such a simple thing clear?
Why, for example, at no time during the entire saga did he not simply explain, clarify or reiterate to his readers that the forum is only for residents?
I mean, as an MP you can't even handle such a simple thing in a friendly and clear manner?
Couldn’t the MP have said something along these lines:
"I apologise for the confusion. The forum is intended for my residents only. However, since so many of you have indicated interest, which I appreciate, I will see if we can accommodate you tomorrow. Please come back here for an update which I will provide soon as I can. Thank you for your support. I look forward to a very interesting and robust dialogue."
To this writer, the MP’s behaviour shows the mind of a little man – for he forgets that there are genuine Singaporeans outside his constituency – besides Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Ngerng – who would like to attend his forum.
A simple – and polite - clarification would have suffice – and done the MP a lot of good, instead of this needless and infantile wiggling out of a corner, preferring to cross swords over semantics than to display a genuine welcome of debate and discussion on an issue which many Singaporeans are concerned about.
Indeed and alas, Mr Kumar’s behaviour is one of a man with a small mind.
This is how the PAP is being dragged down – by those whose action, behaviour and words say more about them than about those they are attacking.
In the Straits Times on Saturday (14 June), writer Andrea Ong hit the nail on its head when she called on our politicians and political leaders to “elevate political discourse beyond a tussle over credit and discredit.”
I second Ms Ong’s call.
She called for a change of mindset – for our political leaders to “be comfortable with the fact that narratives and contributions can co-exist.”
I would also add that politicians should rise above the petty partisan politicking, especially the PAP which seems to take umbrage at the slightest perceived misdemeanour by others, as in the examples of Ms Indranee and Mr Kumar.
Perhaps it is time PAP MPs do some self-reflection and ask themselves if they are MPs ready to embrace their fellow Singaporeans, as the president urged; or are they no better than men and women of small minds who prefer to slither in the cesspool of destructive political nitpicking over inconsequential matters.
Think about it – our MPs, paid millions of dollars, nitpicking over “claiming credit” and who can attend a public forum.
Surely we did not elect them to bicker over such things?