Early birthday cake for US President Donald Trump (Photo from Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Facebook)

Series of PR gaffes even as SG tries hard to impress

by Serene Ong

Based on events and incidents that took place within 24 hours of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un’s arrival in Singapore on Sunday afternoon, there are indeed lessons the Singapore Government needs to learn – and may they quickly do so.

The first gaffe occurred shortly after Kim was introduced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a Singapore delegation at the Istana on Sunday evening, which included Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs as well as Defence Maliki Osman and Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information as well as Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann. Immediately after he had shaken the hands of the Singapore delegation, Kim introduced PM Lee to his North Korean delegation who were standing just two metres away.

Shockingly, as camera footage showed, Sim Ann decided to take a seat but quickly stood up after PM Lee and Kim walked towards the front of the room. Even then, any polite host would have waited for his guest to take their seat before placing his or her butt on the chair – but not the Singapore delegation. The moment PM Lee and Kim reached their seats, the Singapore delegation immediately sat down even though their counterparts from North Korea were making their way to their seats. Where is the art of graciousness, Singapore?

Another gaffe: While Balakrishnan and Ong represented the Singapore government in welcoming Kim at the airport on Sunday afternoon, Balakrishnan was the only Cabinet minister who extended a welcome to Amercian President Donald Trump a few hours later. Why so? Anyone taking lessons in PR would learn one of the so-called rules: Be consistent and fair at all times, and be seen to be doing so.

More severe than these gaffes is PM Lee’s decision to host a working lunch for US President Donald Trump – after speaking no more than 20 minutes with Kim the evening before. Lest one forget, Trump and Kim are here specifically for a summit. While Lee’s supporters may praise him for “capitalising” on the opportunity to seek a deal or two with the US delegation since they hardly make a visit to Singapore, is that fair play?

Who is to state that the 2-hour spent by Trump with Lee would not give the US any “advantage” over the North Koreans – in terms of knowledge or information gained? Even if no info is gained, is there not a psychological advantage having the host country prepare a “working lunch” for the Americans? Most importantly, what can’t this lunch be held after the summit? If Trump also values Lee the way he seems to value the former, the US president would have extended his stay in Singapore just by a few hours so as to “talk business” with Singapore after the summit – the event which he is specifically here for.

If something negative turns out from the summit, should the Singapore government bear part of the blame?

How many gaffes will continue to be made at the international level? We can keep repeating the phrases of thanks and gratitude from Kim and Trump but is the reality such that these thank-you expressions are primarily because of the $20 million bill?

By offering a birthday cake to Trump – 3 days before his birthday, we are openly acknowledging how hard we are trying to get into the international media. Has any foreign leader even showered Lee with hugs and cake during an overseas trip at a time near his birthday?

But at least one thing is positive: Lee’s handshake with the two leaders finally resembles that of a real leader, of a real man.