After making a mess of it, Today helps MP Lee Bee Wah clarify statement on civil servants
The political non-battle of 2018.
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In the end, Today had to clean up the storm in the teacup it helped amplify.
The newspaper got Lee Bee Wah, the MP for Nee Soon GRC, to comment on Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s response to her recent interview comments on civil servants.
Lee’s latest comment was that DPM Teo’s response was “fair”.
Lee also reiterated that MPs or civil servants are “all here to serve our country”, and while one cannot expect everyone to always agree, each can push the boundaries while respecting each other’s views at the same time.
Okay, what happened last weekend?
On Feb. 4, Channel NewsAsia carried a well-conducted and well-circulated interview by Bharati Jagdish.
The interview, which was shared earlier as a podcast, covered almost everything under the sun regarding Lee, including her family history, her childhood and her parliamentary record.
As Lee got comfortable during the interview, she mentioned something in particular that made one sit up and take notice.
Even if you are not a civil servant.
I’ve got a reputation
Sub-headed, “Don’t Ministers want honest feedback?”, Lee spoke of her supposed reputation among the civil service:
“Among civil servants, she has quite a reputation too.
“They told me that those who are the ‘can work’ types, love to work with me because I can make decisions very fast. Those who are the ‘cannot work’ type are very scared of me.
“I even have friends who tell me, ‘Bee Wah, when you step down, then you will know, these civil servants will get back at you’. So be it. If I’m afraid then there’s nothing much that I can do, right? So if you really want to serve, don’t be worried.”
Does she ever tire of coming up against roadblocks with the ‘cannot work’ types?
“No. I take it as a challenge and whenever I manage to solve some of these roadblocks I feel that it is an achievement.””
Enter DPM Teo
The comments on the civil service elicited a response from DPM Teo, who is the minister-in-charge of the Civil Service.
In a statement released to selected media outlets on the night of Feb. 4, following media queries, Teo said that it would be improper for either MPs or public officers to “get back at” each other due to disagreements over work.
While Teo acknowledged that MPs and public officers may not always see eye-to-eye, he said:
“When this happens, they should resolve whatever issues that may arise professionally, through reasoned discussion and objective analysis. The government expects public officers and MPs alike to conduct themselves in a proper manner. One can disagree while respecting the integrity and point of view of the other party.
“It would be improper for either MPs or public officers to ‘get back at’ each other because of disagreements over work. If anyone knows of either public officers or MPs using their position or authority to act in this improper way, he or she should raise the matter with me with the facts, and I will have it investigated.”
No mention of Lee.
Compare the headlines of CNA, ST and TODAY
First, we look at CNA, which is likely one of the first sites to carry Lee’s interview.
CNA quoted one line from its own story, the one about the gossip that Lee’s friends have shared the following on social media:
“I even have friends who tell me, ‘Bee Wah, when you step down, then you will know, these civil servants will get back at you’.”
The rest of the story was given over to Teo’s remarks.
Simple and straightforward. They decided to hyperlink the article to the main interview.
The Straits Times
The Straits Times provided more details than CNA did.
They quoted the same line from Lee, but added her “So be it” remark:
“I even have friends who tell me, ‘Bee Wah, when you step down, then you will know, this civil servant will get back at you’. So be it. If I’m afraid, then there’s nothing much that I can do, right? So if you really want to serve, don’t be worried,” she was quoted as saying.”
While they also published Teo’s remarks, they quoted an earlier section of the interview with Lee, where she talks about civil servants supposedly giving “cut and paste” answers to queries for residents.
“She said civil servants needed to be on the ground to understand the issues, and added: “Some do. Some still don’t. They shouldn’t just give ‘cut and paste’ answers to residents.” She cited the car-lite push as an example of a policy that was too hasty, saying that Singapore does not have the right infrastructure yet to support the move.”
While CNA’s headline focuses on Teo saying what not to do, ST’s headline focuses on Teo saying what both MPs and civil servants should do.
And Today‘s headline?
It wrote it like there’s no tomorrow.
“Chide” is a word similar to “rebuke” or “chastise” or “scold”.
It implied that Teo was telling Lee off for her remarks.
However, in all the comments made by Teo in the three stories published so far, it’s hard to make a case for Teo doing so.
In fact, it looks like Teo was agreeing with Lee’s main point, which was that MPs and public servants may not always agree.
And by saying that he would personally investigate any cases of impropriety, wouldn’t that mean he was actually backing Lee in the unlikely event that a civil servant would “get back at her” once she has stepped down?
If any civil servant would be dumb enough to do that, Teo would go after him or her, and not Lee.
Ministers (allegedly) complained too
Also unique in Today‘s coverage was the inclusion of Lee’s quote about Ministers supposedly complaining to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about her “honest feedback”:
Ms Lee added that during her first term as MP, some ministers had complained to the Prime Minister about her.
“But I told PM that this is the feedback on the ground. Don’t you want honest feedback? Don’t your ministers want honest feedback?,” she stated.
“I think PM understands I’m just doing my work. I’m not there for a promotion. Whether you like me or not, is secondary,” she said.
She added: “If you cannot take such feedback, too bad. If you want me, I will do my very best. I will give you 101 per cent. If you don’t want me, I will just walk away.”
This adds another element of spice into the story — reiterating the idea that Lee was also at loggerheads with ministers (and members of the PAP) as well as apolitical civil servants.
And to think that Today actually edited its headline.
Top image from Gov.sg YouTube page