A recent media kerfuffle has shed light on politics and society in Singapore. After decades of softball journalism and scripted Q&As, some of our politicians do not have the ability to articulate their views coherently, or answer tough questions.
As a result, when we hear the views of our leaders, as transmitted through the mainstream media, I wonder how much is true; how much is really their own view; and how much is scripted–them simply saying what they think we want to hear.
The story involves Lim Wee Kiak, a PAP MP for Nee Soon GRC. In late May, when discussing ministerial salaries, he told a Lianhe Zaobao reporter:
“If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with CEOs of telco companies who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.”
Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate online backlash–why should dignity flow from a person’s income?
What followed was a series of ridiculous flip-flops that still leaves me baffled.
First, Dr Lim responded that he had been quoted out of context. OK–so he does believe that income=dignity, just that the example shouldn’t be quoted on its own.
A couple of days later, he released a statement, where he said, “I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms.”
Huh? I find it impossible that somebody can flip views on such a fundamental belief in two days.
On the one hand, I’ve always respected the fact that politicians in Singapore can change their opinions on larger policy issues–LKY on bilingualism, for instance–when new facts and evidence surface.
On the other hand, belief in income, dignity and a person’s worth are not policy ideas–they get to the very core of a person’s makeup. I doubt that some criticism can suddenly change that overnight. I am completely convinced that Dr Lim believes that dignity flows from income. Many people do, not just in Singapore, but all over the world.
That doesn’t make it right, and it worries me that our politicians think this way. Although I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me: money-worship seems to have gotten a stranglehold on our society, especially over the past 10 years or so. At its extreme, it produces cases like that involving Susan Lim.
(to clarify: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with materialism and making money. this instinct drives many economies, after all. It’s only problematic when the pursuit, and the making, of money is immoral, unethical or excessive.)
In my mind, what probably happened is that other senior politicians told him to fall into line, and apologise. How many of those other politicians actually think exactly like Dr Lim–but simply sugar-coat their press statements to make it seem like they’re egalitarian, magnanimous folk?
What has surprised me is that speaking to some friends, and reading some of the commentary online, it seems as though some Singaporeans accept this flip-flop, and are willing to forget what he said.
In other words, we may be tempted to view his initial statement to Lianhe Zaobao as a genuine gaffe–unrepresentative of the man.
I think we shouldn’t. It is a precious insight into the thinking of a politician–unvarnished, unscripted, spontaneous, from the heart, away from the watchful eye of the PAP spin doctors.
We should cherish these moments.