by Augustine Low
Dr Goh Keng Swee is known as a visionary, reformer and economic architect of Singapore.
He was also a stickler for plain English, urging civil servants to communicate in no-frills, non-verbose style. In a speech in 1979, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shared that Dr Goh used to “give every officer whom he thinks is promising and whose minutes or papers are deficient in clarity, a paper-back edition of Gower’s Complete Plain Words.”
The Press Secretary to the Minister for Finance is probably not acquainted with the book. Written by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1954, Complete Plain Words was intended as a guide to the proper use of English for the civil service. It soon became an international bestseller and has since been never out of print.
Gowers urged: Be short, be simple, be human.
How did Press Secretary Lim Yuin Chien make such a mess of his forum letter, intended as a rebuttal to a commentary in The Straits Times calling Ministers to speak plainly to the people?
Lim asserted that speaking plainly does not only “mean using simple language that people understand.” But it jolly well is!
He basically equated plain speech with “populism and pandering.” Goodness gracious, where did that come from?
Over the years, efforts have been made to get civil and public servants to speak and write plain and simple English. For example, a book published by the Institute of Public Administration in 1999 gave tips on getting rid of tired, well-worn motherhood phrases.
Today, we have Ministers like Chan Chun Sing talking about “global mindsets” and “global skillsets” to “transcend our constraints” and placing “tomorrow’s unemployed into tomorrow’s jobs.”
Is it intended to communicate or to confuse?
Dr Goh Keng Swee would have squirmed at how senior civil servants and Ministers speak and write today.
Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.