The leaked audio clip of a closed-door dialogue session, held by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) with a group of local business leaders organised last week, has gone viral in Singapore due to controversial statements made by the Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.
In the dialogue, Mr Chan is heard describing the incident of Singaporeans clearing out supermarket shelves as they stock up on rice, instant noodles, hand sanitisers as “xia suay” or “disgraceful”. Mr Chan said, “We embarrass ourselves, disgraceful, we disgrace ourselves.”
People in the room laughed as he made the comment.
The event mentioned by Mr Chan, took place on the evening right after the country’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level was raised to Orange after Singapore saw four cases of coronavirus infection that could not be traced to previous cases or recent travel to China.
Mr Chan added that he was “ashamed” at the behaviour of some Singaporeans who were stocking up on so-called essential items in fear that the country would run out due to supply chains being affected by the global outbreak.
He went on to say that he was reaching the limit of his patience, “cannot tahan”, and wanted to “scold people” for their behaviour.
He noted his incredulity of Singaporeans panic buying not only for food but also things like toilet paper. He noted that people were doing that here because they have seen that people in Hong Kong were also stockpiling toilet paper.
At one point, he said, “If we behave badly, people think our society is like that one. We lose our brain one. We cannot be steady. Got anybody want to do business with us or no?”
He added that when society starts to panic, suppliers will use that opportunity to raise prices.
“Already got people trying to raise the price. Then you all behave like idiots, the foreign supplier lagi raise their price,” he noted.
Mr Chan then reiterated, “So some of us, just a small group behaving like idiots will kill all of us. It will kill our current price negotiation strategy, it will kill our future business opportunity.”
The minister went on, “Every country can behave like idiots, Singaporeans must not behave like idiots. Then we behave properly, then we show the world how different we can be. Then people will have confidence.”
Mr Chan then warned his audience, “If we continue to behave like that, the virus won’t kill us. Our own behaviour will kill ourselves.”
Now, many would agree what Mr Chan said during the 25 minutes of audio recording makes sense. In fact, I also agree too. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say how this prove that Mr Chan is the right person to take up the job as the Trade and Industry Minister. Let us not forget Mr Chan, who was a Chief of Army, never held a job that required him to be in charge of an operation to make a profit prior to his political career.
And while some have lamented on Mr Chan’s use of Singlish in his dialogue with the business leaders, others praised it as being down-to-earth and being close to the people, highlighting that Mr Chan could speak proper English when the occasion calls for it just as he does for Parliament speeches.
Over the past few days, there are people trying to put a positive spin to the comments made by Mr Chan and indeed, some are convinced that the audio clip makes Mr Chan seems better than how he is being portrayed in public as a politician. However, such individuals seem to miss the troubling points revealed by the leaked audio.
Double standards in communication
Making fun and laughing at the behaviour of those who cleared the shelves and filled their shopping carts with daily essentials is hardly the kind of behaviour one would expect a politician to do in public.
Although this is a closed-door dialogue as stated by the SCCCI, and it has gone about to condemn how disturbing it is for the content of the dialogue to be leaked, nothing mentioned in the leaked audio is considered state secret or sensitive business information.
What is damaging for the Minster is the different stance he took when explaining the issue of face masks.
Mr Chan said at a press conference on 30 January that the country has enough masks for residents if the supply is managed “appropriately”.
Mr Chan said, “Whether we have sufficient masks or not will depend on three factors: How much we have in our physical stockpile, our usage rate, and our resupply quantum and frequency.”
“We will have enough if we manage these three factors appropriately,” he asserted. Along with the narrative that there are sufficient masks for everyone, the government states that there is no need to wear masks if one is not sick.
But to the business leaders in the dialogue session, Mr Chan said that if Singapore follows Hong Kong’s leader, where political leaders appear at events wearing a mask, that would cause panic among the people and subsequently lead to a severe shortage of masks as everyone would use it “like tissue paper”.
Mr Chan explained, “If every Singaporean uses a surgical mask, one day we will burn five million masks, if not more. Since we don’t know how long we got to fight this war and the supply line has [been] cut already, [we must] conserve the surgical mask to make sure our medical system can still work.”
While both statements from Mr Chan are true, the issue from the public stance of the government is that they have a false sense of security because the government has said that there is no need to wear masks if they are not sick.
Note that at no point in the leaked audio did Mr Chan mention that there was no need for masks if people are sick. His point was simply that if people started to wear masks daily, there would not be enough for everyone – depriving face masks from the frontline officers.
Four medical practitioners in Singapore then found the need to issue a letter, advising people to wear face masks when they leave home to control the spread of Covid-19. This is because they believe by having a culture of wearing masks, people will change their behaviour such as less mingling and touching their faces.
Speaking to one of the medical practitioners, she shared how a kid of a doctor she knows refuses to wear a mask because of what the government instructed.
If the government does not have enough masks for everyone to wear daily, then just be frank with it. It is simply irresponsible to be telling people that there is no need to wear a mask so as not to incite a situation where people would be clamouring to get masks.
Of course, one can see this as a political decision because the government would be blamed for not forecasting such a situation or having enough stock for the entire population despite having 17 years to prepare since SARs. Particularly since General Election is around the corner.
There was never an issue of raising price for essentials
As mentioned above, Mr Chan opine that when society starts to panic, suppliers will use that opportunity to raise prices.
But what Mr Chan failed to note as Trade and Industry minister is that Singapore does have control on pricing over essentials such as rice, sugar, salt, etc.
Furthermore, Mr Chan himself pointed out that the country has been stockpiling rice since 1970 and the risk of running out is low. Supermarkets such as NTUC Fairprice has also shared how much stocks it has, and told people not to worry.
Therefore, despite two continuous days of frantic buying and clearing the shelves of rice, instant noodles, and toilet paper, there has not been an increase of prices.
Demand is seldom the single cause of price increase but scarcity when there is high demand as shown in the case of face masks. Prices for essentials can be kept under control because there are various suppliers who can keep up with the demand; and the reason why people are able to jack up prices for face masks is because there is demand but no supply.
So if you think about it, while what Mr Chan said makes sense, but the scenario will simply not happen. That is to say, panic buying will lead to increase of prices. In fact, I would rephrase that as panic buying when there is no stock will lead to increase of prices, and again, the government can and will step in if suppliers withhold essential stocks such as rice.
As for the behaviour of the citizens who went on a buying spree, we can only say that those involved pretty much over-reacted. But to say that these people are idiots, given the above points, is simply for the purpose of demeaning them.
Sure, we can laugh at these people because nothing happened in the end. But if there is really a disaster, these are the kind of people who will be well-prepared because they react fast and think far ahead. Unless, Singapore’s total defence means people should just chillax and trust the government will take care of all their needs. Fair to say, one should not laugh at people who plan for the worst.
What happened to the model public servant during the dialogue?
Mr Chan Chun Sing said in the Public Sector Transformation Awards event July last year that public servants need to have three traits in their DNA in order for Singapore to thrive in the next 50 years.
The three traits are:
- One is a heart to understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of Singaporeans.
- Two, strive to constantly do better, but with a slight “tweak”.
- Three, spend time and effort to pre-empt tomorrow’s challenges, and not just be happy to do better today.
The most damaging part to me about the leaked audio is how Mr Chan perceives the public — particularly those who were part of the mob that went to clear the supermarket shelves of goods.
If you listen to the audio clip, the disdain that the political leader hold for these people is clear. Mr Chan said how they disgraced Singapore with their actions.
“Xia Suay” or “disgraceful” as he puts it.
People forget that this is a private meeting and not a public announcement by the Minister. Even if this is a closed-door session, it does not excuse the attitude held by the Minister towards the citizens. And I would argue that this may be his honest view of voters whom he pledge to serve.
And let us not forget, whatever Kiasu, Kiasi mentality that Singaporeans possess are the results of decades of social engineering conducted by the People’s Action Party (PAP). The Singaporeans who lived back in the 1950s and 60s were people who lived through World War II, and they would go on the streets, donate to build schools and hospitals, and share their belongings with their neighbours. Resilience is in our blood.
So why don’t Mr Chan try to understand why the hoarders do what they did as he states as the first trait of a public servant? But instead, he went on calling them “idiots”.
One might say, there is nothing wrong calling the hoarders or those who were carried away by the panic buying as “idiots”.
But in that same line of thought, can teachers refer those who fail to pass their exams or do well as “idiots” or “retards”? As parents, would you accept such behaviour from a teacher and trust him or her to take the best care of your kid?
Of course you will not.
So can we trust a politician who is so quick to judge another, to be patient with citizens with problems from family and medical conditions to face the growing demand of society?
Reality tells us that it is not so simple as people being stupid when they do things. Students fail to perform well for various reasons, such as family problems, no interest in studies, poor teaching methods, bad teachers, etc.
The same goes for people who went to buy food and necessities. These people might be worried the food would go out of stock based on the rate that they are disappearing off the shelves, or they have no confidence in the government to ensure that there will be enough food for all, just like how they cannot buy any face masks despite being assured that there will be enough face masks for all.
Or they simply did not understand or mistaken what the code Orange was about.
And this relates to the third trait of a public servant that Mr Chan spoke about. Prior to the announcement, there had been no mental preparation for the public that DORSCON might be increased and what does a heightened level means to the ordinary citizen. So when the news was released about the raised DORSCON level, many did not know how to properly react to the news.
Based on what Mr Chan said about him looking at the viral photos and videos that evening, even he himself did not anticipate the kind of reaction from the public.
This raises the question of how far does our current political leaders see in the future or plan ahead. Do not use the stockpiling as an example because it has been a policy since the formation of Singapore. So far, reactions from the political leaders seem to be knee-jerk reactions.
A few examples that can be cited here.
- Banning of Chinese nationals after a public petition calling for the ban goes over 140,000,
- Issuing of four face masks after many complain that they cannot buy masks,
- Enhancing the restrictions on Leave of Absence after finding that people are still moving around despite on LOA
Basically, what this episode tells us about our local politicians is that you cannot really trust them to give the 100% truth, expect them to see into the future to prepare for the inevitable like our founding ministers and most of all, think themselves as servants to the citizens but rather as natural aristocrats.