Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen is the most disarming of Ministers. He is solemn and straight talking yet quick to turn the tables on anyone in his path.
Replying in Parliament to Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, who said that in the light of a spate of training deaths, the SAF’s zero-fatality goal was unrealistic, Dr Ng said:
“Which mother, shall we say, can lose her son?”
This response of the Minister was splashed across the front pages of newspapers like The Straits Times.
But what kind of a response is that? Why does it warrant maximum coverage?
While it sounds heartrending, it is as good as a non-answer, it is merely stating the obvious.
Yes, no mother can lose her son, but the rejoinder is that numerous mothers have in fact tragically lost their sons while they were entrusted to the SAF and MINDEF.
The follow-up question to the Minister then is: Can Ministers afford to lose their jobs.
The answer, too, is obvious.
Former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow put it this way: “When you raise Ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollars, every Minister – no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever – will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him.”
No one has said it better.
Each time we encounter a Minister trying to fend off questions and eschew accountability, just remember what Ngiam Tong Dow said.