Serve the nation, and not the political appointees, please

by Han Lang

Most of us would probably not have heard of one Lim Yuin Chien – until 5 June 2018 when he decided to “speak up” on behalf of the Government who must have felt insulted by The Straits Times’ Editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang’s hard-hitting commentary titled “Ministers, please speak plainly to the people“.

Before I share my views about Lim’s points, I note with amusement that he had signed off his letter as “Press Secretary to the Minister for Finance”.

Within the civil service, there is in fact no recruitment campaign for “Press Secretary” to any Ministers. Instead, the norm is that the Director of Corporate Communications of the Ministry also doubles up as “Press Secretary” to the Minister. In addition, the Director of the Corporate Communications is typically seconded from the Ministry of Communications and Information.

If Lim is attempting to rebut Han’s points which the former felt had hurt the image and workings of the Ministry of Finance, he should then have signed off in his capacity as Director of Corporate Communications, MOF, since he is representing the Ministry. But is he?

Lim must have known that Han’s commentary did not impact the MOF. Instead, it had hurt the reputation of his boss, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, and hence he decided he needed to send a message across to Han and perhaps to ST.

But why did Heng not pen off the letter himself – if he had felt slighted by Han’s commentary?

Anyway, back to Lim’s letter.

First, Lim did a really poor job in seeking to rebut Han’s points. Lim selectively used one (and the only one) particular point – on retirement – and placed it in the context which Han never intended to. Lim wanted his readers (and probably his boss too) to believe that Han had wanted the Government to assure Singaporeans of a free lunch.

That is far from the truth.

Any average reader, which I assume Lim is, would conclude that Han is asking the Ministers to speak in simple layman’s terms with the aim of assuring them that the Government understands what they are going through.

In short, Han is asking the Ministers to stop their usual practice of using fanciful language who does not allow the average Singaporean to relate to.

Just why Lim only used the example of retirement – and using it in the wrong context – to rebut Han’s commentary is only known to himself.

His comments remind me of a certain question asked by one politician many years ago: “Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”

Such comments clearly show that the “unfeeling” touch of a human being – not to mention any politician.

But just who is Lim speaking up for? His boss, Heng Swee Keat? Or their top boss, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong?

Wouldn’t it be more impactful for a Minister – perhaps a 4G leader, especially one who is in charge of the civil service – to rebut Han via a forum letter? Didn’t Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary earlier issue a ‘thesis’ rebutting Han’s commentary on the grilling of ThumPing Tjin?

Look, even Grace Fu, as Leader of the House, signed off a simple forum letter on parking at Parliament House earlier this week. So what’s stopping Heng or any of his cabinet colleagues to issue a strong rebuttal if they felt Han’s commentary was skewed?

In all likelihood, Lim would have scored points with his boss, and perhaps with the higher decision makers as well.

But please, Singapore can do without such a politician – if he’s also aspiring to join politics via the route of Ong Ye Kung who also served as Press Secretary during the early stage of his career.

At least Ong is known to have the intellect.

As for Lim, well, I am sure we can draw our own conclusion based on his shallow “argument”.

It is understandable if a civil servant, in particular the press secretary, issues a letter to rebut unfair criticisms or misleading statements about the Ministry’s policy. But to have a “press secretary” issuing a letter with the aim of deflecting criticisms against the Ministers’ style of speaking says a lot about the level of impartiality in the Singapore system.