In Singapore's marketplace of ideas, it's interesting to observe the political clout wielded by The Straits Times's Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang.
Say what you will about the publication he works for, but the former national newspaper's Editor (yes, with a capital E) for a decade has always been incisive in his commentary on all matters concerning Singapore — especially with regard to politics.
And how do we know this? The responses his writing attracts, of course.
Look at this sampling of high-level ministers who have responded to him in the past —
1) DPM Teo Chee Hean on the 38 Oxley Road saga
2) Minister for Transport, Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and PAP Chairman Khaw Boon Wan, on leadership renewal
Last Sunday, Han published another piece touching on some of the latest clashes that took place in Parliament — during the Budget debates, as well as the parliamentary committee looking into deliberate online falsehoods.
Titled "4G leaders need to find their own way to forge ties with people", Han made the following points:
a) It's now much tougher for the government to tackle opposing viewpoints
Han reviewed the clashes between Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim and several key government ministers, as well as the six-hour questioning of historian PJ Thum by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
The similarities he found included:
- That both Lim and Thum stood their ground and would not cave to government pressure despite conceding certain parts of their arguments,
- Both the debates ended up distracting from the main focus of the forum they were taking place in: the Singapore budget, as well as the issue of how to tackle deliberate online falsehoods, and, more importantly,
- As compared to how the old guard of the government leadership dealt with dissent in the past, the same tactics will not fly today.
b) Politicians shouldn't argue about what is true, but show what is possible
... and that their way is the best way, through the successful implementation of their policies for an overall positive effect in society.
Han argued that the realm of determining the truth behind historical events, or interpretations of historical records, is not for politicians to dictate, as their motives will always be questioned, whether or not they are legitimate.
Instead, he says, this should be left to debate between scholars and historians.
Politicians, therefore, should focus on winning the trust of the people through demonstrating how their way is the best way forward for the country.
c) Singapore's next generation of leaders must find their own way to develop this relationship with Singaporeans
Han said he felt that the session that took place between Minister Shanmugam and Thum was "as civilised as you can get when two men disagree with each other as strongly as the two did."
However, his view was that the entire affair was more a political exercise than an academic search for the truth.
"The objective is not to be able to win every argument but to be able to finally say: Trust me, my approach is the better one."
2 young ministers respond
So this, like most of Han's other commentaries, warranted a response from the government's upper echelons.
The respondents of choice in this instance, and perhaps appropriately so — since this is about Singapore's next generation of leaders: Minister of Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary.
Both of them also sit on the Parliamentary Committee looking into deliberate online falsehoods, and in their response, focused on Thum instead of on Lim.
Apart from branding Thum an "activist" whose "outrageous or false claims" could not be allowed to slide, the ministers said the history of Singapore should be of concern of all Singaporeans, not just historians.
Turning to Han's arguments on politicians and truth in historical events, they said:
"When others manipulate facts for their own ends, political leaders who are unable to demonstrate the fallacy of the assertions or expose the motives of the manipulators, do not deserve to be leaders, no matter what generation they belong to."
They added that the the value the government places on honesty and transparency with the people is the reason it has "sometimes gone out of its way to to tell citizens uncomfortable truths, even if there is a political price to pay in doing so".
In follow-up comments on Thursday, April 12, Lee said he has the "greatest of respect" for Han, a veteran in the industry, and welcomes his views.
“But it also means that we will have to state our position, and clarify what we think are not accurate or not correct views of how factual history should be interpreted.”
According to Today, Lee also acknowledged that quite a number of Singaporeans were disconcerted by the way Shanmugam questioned Thum, but said we also need to recognise that "this is how the government builds robust discussions".
“It cannot be that the Government takes a backseat and allows clear misrepresentations to go out into the public domain. This is something we hope that Singaporeans can understand and also discern these facts.”
Unfortunately for Lee's and Janil, robust as their response does look, it regrettably reveals what we view as their failure to address head-on the central point Han was making.
Which is, from where we're standing, not to focus most of their energies on discrediting or fighting every prominent activist/public intellectual who voice dissenting views, trust in the marketplace of ideas, and focus on showing that their way is the best one forward for Singapore.
Study and carry out the best ways to lift the lowly, keep our economy and society buoyant, and be as transparent as they claim to be.
That, added to what Han said, is true leadership.
Top photos via RSIS, Desmond Lee & Janil Puthucheary's Facebook pages