You might know by now of The Straits Times Editor-At-Large Han Fook Kwang, who writes incisive commentary and pointed critique — on a good number of occasions aimed at the government — that attracts responses from folks pretty high up the political food chain.
No? Here's Exhibit A:
And Exhibit C:
Han's latest commentary, out over the weekend, looked into another pretty pertinent issue: the clarity of political speech.
In "Ministers, please speak plainly to the people", Han praised the "earnest and thoughtful" speeches in Parliament over the past two weeks that were made in the course of the debate on the President's address.
The only hitch, he argues: they may not have connected all that well to the man in the street.
"What does equipping Singaporeans with a 'global mindset and skillsets' mean to someone worried about holding on to his job or who has just lost it. What does an education system with 'diverse pathways and multiple peaks of excellence' mean to the parent struggling to help her children cope with school work?"
While indeed, Han says, the ideas shared by the ministers in their speeches are important and form the basis for many policies in Singapore, "there is also a place" for leaders to use the language of ordinary people when speaking about the problems they face and the hopes they have.
He argues that the ordinary Singaporeans would want their leaders to demonstrate that they do understand their anxieties and concerns, and would in that scenario be more likely to listen to what they are thinking, as well as what their plans are to improve their lot.
Gov't should promise security in education, and in retirement for working Singaporeans
Han then went on to draft a couple of speech sequences he felt would be more effective in getting the government's messages across — one of them involved an assurance that no matter what work a Singaporean happened to be doing, as long as they have had a "full working life" they would be able to retire with enough to live a "good and decent" life.
"I think Singapore leaders should make such a promise to the people. It is unacceptable for a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world to have too many people retire after working all their lives without adequate retirement security."
He also asserted his wish that the government should give assurance to people that a child, having completed 10 to 12 years' primary and secondary school education in Singapore, will be able to find a place in a tertiary institution — whether this be ITE, a polytechnic or university.
"When you speak plainly, you are compelled to be clear in your thinking about what you intend to do.
There should be nowhere to hide behind unnecessary verbiage. This is especially important when there is so much more noise out there today, from so many voices, especially in the online world."
Enter Minister Heng Swee Keat's press secretary
And the next day, Monday afternoon, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's press secretary Lim Yuin Chien issued a response to Han's commentary.
In his reply, Lim said speaking plainly doesn't just consist of using simple language, but also in speaking the truth. This, Lim said, is what the PAP government has been doing for close to 60 years. Lim also poked Han about hard truths.
"And as Mr Han knows well, this Government has never flinched from telling people “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”. He once helped edit a book with that title."
(That title, by the way, is written by none other than the late Lee Kuan Yew.)
Lim says a good example of the government speaking the truth is when Minister Heng announced the government's decision to hike the Goods & Services Tax to 9 per cent.
"Unfortunately, some opposition MPs sought to avoid debating this issue in Parliament, preferring to wait till the heat of the hustings when emotions rather than reason rule."
Lim went on to take a swipe at Han as well, accusing him of not speaking plainly —
"The injunction to “speak plainly” applies to journalists and commentators too. Mr Han begins by urging Ministers to speak plainly – meaning use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to Ministers to make sweeping promises."
He mentions Han's proposal for how a minister might speak about retirement security, noting that "plain speaking" about adequate retirement necessitates the explanation of "some hard truths" as well, such as the CPF and Silver Support schemes notwithstanding, people's life spans and spending needs are going up and could well need to work longer and save more while working.
And in conclusion? Lim said the following, make what you will of it:
"The easiest five words to utter in politics are “I promise you free lunches”. But that’s not plain speech. That’s pandering and populism."
Here's the response from Lim in full:
Mr Han Fook Kwang is correct: Ministers should indeed speak plainly to the people. This does not only mean using simple language that people understand. It also means telling people the truth.
This is what the PAP Government has been doing for close to 60 years. Ministers and MPs spend considerable time on the ground hearing from citizens, answering their questions, explaining policy.
And as Mr Han knows well, this Government has never flinched from telling people “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”. He once helped edit a book with that title.
The most recent example is the Budget Speech, where the Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced it will be necessary to raise the GST in the next term of Government and explained clearly why.
Unfortunately, some opposition MPs sought to avoid debating this issue in Parliament, preferring to wait till the heat of the hustings when emotions rather than reason rule.
The injunction to “speak plainly” applies to journalists and commentators too. Mr Han begins by urging Ministers to speak plainly – meaning use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to Ministers to make sweeping promises.
For example, he wants Ministers to assure people that if they had “a full working life in Singapore, in any job, when you retire at 65...you will have enough to live a good and decent life.”
“We will make sure it happens,” Mr Han urges Ministers to say, “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it.”
But plain speaking about adequate retirement would also entail telling people some “hard truths”. For example, the CPF scheme is adequate for most Singaporeans, and Silver Support will help top up for those who did not earn much while working. However, as people live longer, their needs in old age will
go up. Then we will have either to work longer, save more while working, or have less to spend in retirement.
Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken.
Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately voters or their children bear the cost.
The easiest five words to utter in politics are “I promise you free lunches”. But that’s not plain speech. That’s pandering and populism.
Top photo via RSIS, MOF's Facebook page