Chan Chun Sing, our beng?

ccs_0

Everybody I know who knows Chan Chun Sing likes him.

Smart, folksy, straight-talker, authentic, humble beginnings, frugal, hard worker who tirelessly works the ground, all well known attributes. I like his accent and liberal use of colloquialisms.

I have enjoyed stories about how he likes driving his security detail around (rather than being driven) and how, in conversations with elite civil servants, he has championed the need to cultivate closer ties with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, an issue close to my heart.

All that gives me reason for pause when critiquing CCS. In the ivory tower that writers sometimes appear to occupy, one invariably wonders about the image of a person that the media projects. CCS is not the bumbling buffoon caricatured by his kee chiu antics, something I’ve heard many times.

Yet, as with most things, there is value in the views from both near and far. From my  distant trench, the evidence that keeps emerging about him—the latest being a leaked recording of a closed-door discussion with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI)—only deepens my conviction that he has ascended far higher than he would have if we had genuine meritocracy at the top.

CCS, in other words, would probably make a great Permanent Secretary (PermSec), pinnacle of the civil service, or agency head, or possibly a more junior politician, somebody that can connect with, and rouse, the “heartland” ground.

That he has risen to our putative second in command worries me.

And the fact that many Singaporeans have actually praised CCS for his comments at SCCCI suggests to me that our bar for leadership is just so low.

***

Many believe, firstly, that CCS’s explanation of the COVID-19 mask situation was indicative of transparency about stocks and logical decision-making. Yes, I enjoyed the clear-eyed thinking but then I remembered something: you and I were never supposed to hear that.

Instead the message the government publicly gave us was a cursory “Don’t wear masks if healthy, wear if sick”, which was confusing for all sorts of reasons.1

Instead of patting CCS on the back for being upfront with a closed group, we should ask: why did our politicians not treat us, all of us, as smart, responsible citizens and give us a fuller, more thorough explanation from the start?

Oh yes, that is a non-starter. A little more than a month ago, when CCS faced a parliamentary question from the Worker’s Party Pritam Singh about specific PMET employment numbers, his blithe, brow-beating response included “What is the point behind the question?”

If even our democratically-elected opposition leader is unable to easily extract basic data about our employment situation in parliament, then you and I, ordinary citizens, should be grateful simply to be told what day of the week it is.

CCS is a straight talker? Yes, for whatever he chooses to talk straight about.

The government’s weird messaging on masks led many to conclude that the government was not being honest about mask stocks. (And if so, then what else?)

This probably had some part to play in the eventual, though thankfully short-lived, panic—the same one that CCS blamed on “idiots” at SCCCI, playing to his kar kia gallery, as he loves to do (another example at the end).

There are two aspects to his shameful and disgraceful—how do you say that in Hokkien, xia suay?—denigration of his fellow citizens that we need to consider. The first is the elitist display of insider chums sitting around their control room pontificating about the lemmings they need to control.

One always gets the impression that CCS—and many others among the political and civil service elite—believe they are bearing some twisted modern form of The White Man’s Burden, and without their benevolent paternalism Singapore and Singaporeans would be rudderless, penniless peasants. (The Men in White‘s Burden?)

Perhaps that ideology had more currency in independent Singapore’s early days, when institutions were still being built, when we were at an earlier stage of industrial development, when the civil service and PAP actually could monopolise more of our best minds.

But in today’s Singapore, with talent spread so broadly across a knowledge economy that depends on the free exchange of ideas, sometimes from the most unexpected of places, this idea is not just offensive but also myopic.

The second problem with blaming everything on “idiots” is the obvious lack of introspection and humility. CCS has positioned himself as the standard bearer of the PAP’s public relations playbook: when things are going well, it is because of the party’s famed governance; but when anything bad happens, it is because of individual error—those irresponsible, ungrateful, stupid idiots whom you call fellow citizens.

This strategy is always used when it comes to race and religion. When there is harmony, it is because of the PAP (and no, nothing to do with the fact that Singapore has been a multicultural trading port for at least two hundred years). When something flares up, it is because of individual provocateurs, like Preeti and Subhas (and no, nothing to do with the PAP’s own racist policies, including institutionalised discrimination against Malays and Indians).

From Beijing to Riyadh, this is an essential element of autocratic control: make your citizens fearful enough of each other, of the rapacious tendencies of all the “idiots” around, and they will always come scurrying back to your protective embrace.

Dear Supreme Leader, we want your government and your tech companies to control all our data and watch us 24/7 because then you can monitor the real enemies: my fellow errant citizens.

Of course, even without the PAP, Singapore would still have selfish individuals who behave in idiotic ways—just like in any country. But the PAP gleefully exploits this with its divisive messaging. It’s not conciliatory, it’s not appealing to the better angels of our nature, it’s not helping to build a more cohesive and gracious society.

This is especially true of many members of this 4G leadership, who seem eager to use this ongoing transition to power as the moment to prove their mettle, to show who among them is the biggest bully. One thinks of Ong Ye Kung, our (yes) education minister, using parliament to compare one of our leading playwrights to Nazis and violent jihadis. Are they all trying to Out-Shanmugam Shanmugam?

***

Another bit of CCS’s leaked discussion that melted his followers’ hearts was his apparent braininess and worldliness.

This is from last week’s viral post, “So he’s a Beng. But he’s our Beng”:

“#3 He also really knows his stuff. He knows the going price for masks. He knows how long Hong Kong’s supply of masks would last for medical personnel. He knows how many million masks one single machine can make in a month. To calculate whether he could safeguard the public hospitals’ mask supply while distributing 5 million to Singapore households, he did the math.”

Really? Is this what impresses you from your next deputy prime minister in conversation with the business elite? How about an interrogation of Singapore’s dependence on the Chinese tourist dollar? Or a conversation about the balance of power between landlords and retail tenants? (It’s been shocking, indeed, to see how quickly businesses across the world have folded.)

Singaporeans have every reason to expect deep thought, gravitas and intellect at such an event. Instead what CCS’s audience got was some rambling braggadocio, coffeeshop talk befitting a mid-level administrator who moonlights as a stand-up comedian.2

How, then, has CCS risen this far?

That would be a valid question even if I did not utter the T word. But with Tharman, one of Asia’s sharpest minds and Singapore’s most popular politician in the background, it makes the elevation of CCS seem like a cruel joke, as if Singaporeans are being forced to live through an extended reality show where the best person has so egregiously been voted off the island.

General chatter suggests that CCS is the favoured 4G minister of Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching, and might even have gotten the nod over Heng Swee Keat as Singapore’s next prime minister, but for some broad disgruntlement among the PAP’s cadres.

If the PAP had instead chosen as leader Tharman, its current top electoral performer who elicits broad, cross-party adoration, it would have pulled the rug from under the opposition. A long period of dominance would beckon. If the PAP cared about its own electoral future, in other words, it would have chosen Tharman.

This, then, is what scares me the most. CCS symbolises the idea that the Lee family’s interests are being prioritised over the party’s and the country’s.

And he best embodied this at the February 2017 debate over constitutional changes to pave the way for the reserved presidency, which limited that year’s election to Malays. Many Singaporeans believe this was a political manoeuvre masquerading as racial representation, led by Lee Hsien Loong to prevent (nemesis) Tan Cheng Bock from contesting.

During the debate CCS stood up in parliament and called Halimah Yacob “Madam President”. He did it not once but twice, laughing along with his fellow PAP politicians, having a ball of a time, delighting themselves in their own megalomaniac conceit. A full seven months before the election, Halimah’s colleagues were already calling it in her favour. They made a blatant mockery of our democratic process.

And in the process he also helped reduce Halimah, Singapore’s first female president, to a stooge of tokenism. How will history remember that election? As the achievement of a talented and very likeable Malay Muslim lady? Or as a vulnerable lady from a minority community being exploited by a dastardly fix?

In the video below you can see CCS, Ong Ye Kung and Janil Puthucheary, among others, laughing at your expense, dear Singaporeans. Tharman? He looked down soberly, perhaps embarrassed. Respect.

This incident alone should have disqualified CCS from high office. Even those who agreed with the political manoeuvre that delivered Halimah to office would have cringed at his horrible fuck-up. And for those who disagreed with reserving the presidency for one ethnicity—seemingly the vast majority of Singaporeans—what CCS did that day was to essentially give you a big middle finger on national TV. We can do whatever we want whenever we want.

Chan Chun Sing is “your beng”? That’s fine. Just remember that to him you could be an idiot. Even if not today, maybe tomorrow.

***

Watch Chan Chun Sing calling Halimah Yaacob “Madam President” in parliament in 2017, with Ong Ye Kung, Janil Puthucheary and his other kar kia in support—seven months before the proposed election, which Halimah won in a walkover.

***


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***

1More generally, as described in this longer post on COVID-19, I think the Singapore Government has done a pretty good job in its response to the outbreak.

2 We are privy only to an excerpted recording. Perhaps CCS did deliver at another time or place. In which case, I stand corrected.

The leaked SCCCI audio recording is here. The full transcript is here.

Image: Today Online

 

34 responses

  1. Dear Sudhir,

    Thank you once more for speaking up on the political situation in Singapore. I may not be Singaporean but I have and always will be concerned about the way the various races are treated. In this day and age, I just cannot fathom why they treat the people as if they were all fools! People understand a lot more than they are given credit for and this leads to so much frustration and anger.

    Thank you for being brave enough to speak out against the many injustices we see at present. I always enjoy reading your articles – they have a sense of humour, when needed but more importantly, you bring to light issues which are important to the lives of the “ordinary folk”!

    May God bless you and use you to be the light in Singapore. We love you and LiLing and do keep you in our daily prayers. As always, our home is open to you at any time if you wish to take a break in Melbourne.

    Take care

    With love,
    A Sharon

  2. I have followed, and have always enjoyed your views. I disagree with you on this one. I did not see a problem with transparency in the Covid 19 handling, and in fact, found everything I needed on the epidemic. And I think you conflate two things: his criticism of Singaporeans and his political position. You have not convinced me that his criticism is wrong, only that he has more clout than we realise.

    • Thanks! The conflating link is this: somebody who has repeatedly shown his condescension towards Singaporeans, and again through his recent criticisms, has no business being in that political position. Anyway, could be a failure of my logic or writing, will think and try harder….thanks.

  3. I agree with almost everything here, but I’d also like to add – CCS seems quite at a loss in being able to explain the behaviour of Singaporeans during the episode, asking “why are Singaporeans like that?” His only answer is: they must be idiots. He completely ignores the social and historical context from which these Singaporeans emerge. If you rule by fear for 50 years, with constant social engineering to create an individualised, atomsed society, then of course people are going to act selfishly and put their individual interests first. I mean, if you’re constantly telling Singaporeans that “no one owes you a living” and “you must steal someone else’s lunch or they will steal yours”, how else do you expect Singaporeans to behave?

    • This is a natural human behaviour of self preservation, look at South Korea, China, Hong Kong, even Italy. People will fail to rationalise in times of panic, why do you think the term run-on-a-bank came about? Only a communist country where the government has full control over goods & resources can it function from such a high level perspective.

  4. I agree with almost everything here, but I’d also like to add – CCS seems quite at a loss in being able to explain the behaviour of Singaporeans during the episode, asking “why are Singaporeans like that?” His only answer is: they must be idiots. He completely ignores the social and historical context from which these Singaporeans emerge. If you rule by fear for 50 years, with constant social engineering to create an individualised, atomsed society, then of course people are going to act selfishly and put their individual interests first. I mean, if you’re constantly telling Singaporeans that “no one owes you a living” and “you must steal someone else’s lunch or they will steal yours”, how else do you expect Singaporeans to behave?

  5. what can be inferred from your article is those who view CCS positively are idiots in your opinion. there is condescension and you speak as though you are enlightened and “woke”. Well if getting more people to be “woke” is your ultimate aim, so that the electoral incumbent can be voted out for a “freer” society, do you think this condescension will help your cause? Moral outrage does no good except to make the one that expresses it feel good. what has this piece achieved other than giving like-minded supporters a pat on the back? Has it influenced fence sitters? would people be made to change world views because they were told they should be more “woke” in a less than pleasant manner?

    and the anti PAP camp wonders when society will evolve. well, start by changing the way you engage fence sitters and the up and coming voters.

  6. Pingback: Writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh says praises given to Chan Chun Sing calls standard of leadership in Singapore into question – - TinySG

  7. “But with Tharman, one of Asia’s sharpest minds”. It takes more than someone with the “sharpest mind” to reach the pinnacle of politics. Things like cunning, scheming, deception, trickery, boot licking are just as important. Something Tharman doesn’t have, not motivated enough or not willing to do. With the exception of Barack Obama, I don’t think we will ever see another minority politician with real political power, unlike Halimah Yaacob, running Singapore any more than we see a Muslim President of India or a Uyghur Muslim President of China. Btw, why do you think Tharman is still in ruling party? Just curious.

  8. Pingback: Writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh says praises given to Chan Chun Sing calls standard of leadership in Singapore into question – The Independent News - StanKaba

  9. Hi Sudhir
    I really enjoyed reading this. Great analysis and if I hadn’t read your self-intro, would have thought you’re at least from the merdeka gen. Have read many different views on the CCS saga and yours is most similar to my standpoint.
    Looking forward to reading your other works.

    • just wondering. how many Singaporeans are there in the population? ao when ccs scolded Singaporeans idiots, is that even correct? Also he used the word sia suay which means face. In the time of survival, is face even a concern? only elites will care about face but normal people will be concern about feeding their family. i wonder, if there is lack of food, they as ministers don’t need to worry because the reason is obvious but what about the normal people?

  10. Hi Sudhir. I beg to differ on a couple of points you’ve made. This is going to be long but I hope you bear with me.

    1. The first fundamental difference between CCS/PAP and what you seem to stand for is this: The government is pragmatic, and you are idealistic.

    The truth about liberal democrats, which I feel is how you identify, is that a certain honesty/realism is lacking. Take freedom of speech. America has an absolute freedom of speech. Is that something we aspire towards? I say no, because people, simply put, are stupid. You are not stupid, but there are a lot of stupid people. Look at America and Trump. Look at the countless interviews of Americans supporting Trump and how simply stupid they are. This is a multi-century old country, the strongest country in modern times, capable of influencing the world over, with most of the best universities in the world.

    Are we so arrogant to think we are more completely educated than America, or the UK? Words can lead others to kill, or worse, start wars. To me an absolute freedom of speech is equivalent to the absolute freedom to act. So do away with laws against murder. Can’t trust people to act responsibly? It’s the same problem with speech.

    Coming back to the original point, how are the less educated going to react if the government says they don’t have enough masks for everyone? I don’t see a problem with them calming nerves and distributing limited masks. It seems like the best option to take instead of saying “we don’t have enough” and causing a panic.

    2. Re:the issue of CCS calling Singaporeans idiots.

    I’m sorry but anyone who has a problem with this is an idealistic hypocrite. He said those words behind a closed door. They were used in a private setting, period. Do not for a second tell me you expect our ministers to NEVER swear or insult others. Everyone swears and insults others. He has the sense to not use it in his rallies, good enough. This issue is simply really.

    3. Tharman

    I agree that Tharman is an amazing intellectual. I do think he is currently of the highest calibre in the cabinet. However, remember that our government is pragmatic to a fault. If you go through the annual reports of the top 50 companies in Singapore you will see that almost every one of them has business in China, making sometimes huge profits. This is, like has, like it or not, come from the fact that we have been able to maintain “Guanxi” with China. Our 3 PMs have always been able to converse with China in mandarin, and I even have reservations w.r.t. LHL and HSK’s level of mandarin. Remember we are the only Chinese majority country outside of greater China. This is an advantage no other country enjoys, and like it or not, having a chinese speaking leader matters. I believe Tharman knows this, and he has too much humility and is too much of a pragmatist to expect otherwise. That said, it is completely stupid to think that Tharman can ONLY contribute as the PM and that being DPM somehow reduces his abilities.

    • Fair points, though as you can imagine I disagree with all.

      1. Yes, I think Singaporeans are far smarter and more worldly than the government gives us credit for; and we need to calibrate for that. Even the “less educated”. We all deserve proper, honest explanations about everything from fake news to masks.

      2. No, not everyone swears and insults others. And it is condescending and wrong for our (incoming) second-in-command to do so with elite chums. Among many other problems highlighted above, it also sends the wrong signal.

      3. Yes, Tharman would be able to do so much more as Number 1. Our system concentrates power at the top. Relations with China? Tharman could easily handle with Mandarin-speaking sidekicks or deputies. China is far more pragmatic–they’ll be more focussed on our leader’s policies and leanings, rather than his/her skin colour or language.

      • Then we will have to agree to disagree.

        1. Our government has done more and given more explanations re: coronavirus than any government on Earth. I challenge you to name another who has done as much. Whatever is kept from the public has pragmatic reasons for remaining unannounced. If you still disagree, then this argument is dead.

        2. Once again, such an idealistic view. It was meant to be private. He did not want to send such signals, so you cannot say he’s sending the wrong signal. I honestly think people hold unrealistic and ridiculous ideas of how people in office should behave. The people who selfishly hoarded groceries ended up pushing up prices/completely wiping out supply for those who actually needed it. If it wasn’t for the government’s foresight to have a stockpile (and make no mistake not every country does this) there would be a crisis for the shortage of critical supplies like rice and alcohol swabs. This is one of THE obvious shortfalls of a capitalist society, before the government is able to step in and restrict purchases to sensible levels. Once again I see more right being done than wrong. Call them what you want, but the panic buyers were behaving stupidly, plain and simple. Should CCS have called them idiots in public? No. Did he call them in public? He didn’t, it was leaked. Had he done it in public I would have an issue with that. Should we police how public servants behave? Absolutely. Should we be policing how public servants’ thought? No, that would be eroding freedom of thought. So CCS thinks some people behaved idiotically. That’s his right to opine. I can’t repeatedly explain this anymore plainly.

        3. I don’t think you should project your idealist tendencies on the CCP.

        You can’t say “our system concentrates power at the top” and then say “China is more pragmatic and will focus on our policies instead of our leader’s skin colour.”

        Really? Contradict yourself in consecutive sentences? This is the CCP we are talking about, who loves to concentrate power at the top above and beyond what you know the PAP is capable of. Heck, they are policing people’s thoughts and have a countrywide social ranking system. But when it comes to dealing with the only majority chinese country outside greater China… Ooh! We’re suddenly lib-dem CCP who ignores PM Tharman’s skin colour and inability to converse in our native language about the global issues and the West’s global hegemony?

        We need more honesty and pragmatists. Dreamers and conservatives should be right next to the leader advising balance, but pragmatists should always have the final say.

      • Might I add, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, in country level meetings, A LOT is placed on the seniority of the representative a country sends to a meeting. If you want examples I can link you.

        A PM meets with a PM. A minister of education with a minister of education. If a DPM meets with a PM, the country sending the DPM is seen as showing disrespect or callousness.

        The mismatch in seniority is sometimes tolerated when there is a huge gap in the countries’ economic size/development status. That’s why you see eg. Brunei sultan meeting our defence minister Ng Eng Hen and not the PM or DPM.

        But when it comes to larger countries like France and Germany, or US and Canada, the ministers always meet their counterparts as a basic act of courtesy/respect. If the opposite side sends a minister of education and you send your DPM or PM then you are seen as vey welcoming of the other country’s presence/holding them in high regard.

        Why I am saying this is: If Xi Jinping wants to meet Singapore’s leader, either sending a chinese speaking DPM or translating for a non-chinese PM is a VERY subpar experience. These subtleties in chinese relations are very important. Eg. 80% of china’s oil passed through the malacca strait in 2016. So much of China’s private and public foreign operations are in Singapore too. This is not possible without a certain amount of trust and comfort in relying on a country that China understands.

        ——————————————————————————————————–

        Now imagine the PAP, CCS or LHL trying to explain the above to the lay-Singaporean on the street. It’s impossible. The truth is being in government and handling national relations sometimes demands doing unpopular things, like holding on to 377A even though its clearly unethical, because if they did away with it, the christians and old people in the country would vote against the PAP. Do you do what’s ideal and get voted out of office and risk the demise of a country in the hands of an “opposition” populist government, or do you allow a wrong to go on to maintain the economic wellbeing of a country that it’s citizens take for granted? (like a true pragmatist)

      • Hi Sudhir, good article and well reply to this “Anonymous”. We have to be aware of the conditioned paranoid ones ( Don’t be paranoid, PM Lee says, but be paranoid – Forbes Global CEO Conference 2014 ) and they will bring destruction to Singapore. Paranoid generates anxiety and lead to mental disorder that will cloud clear thinking. The behaviors their leader(s) expressed cannot be explained in rationale and they often do things that not only contradict each other but also putting others in danger, (https://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen/videos/pm-lee-goes-on-walkabout-in-ang-mo-kio-distributes-bottles-of-hand-sanitiser-to-/789347351557171/ ). When PM Lee utter nonsense about China’s pork rib soup and free smoke, he was shunned by Xi…This has nothing to do whether he speaks good Mandarin or not. Able to converse in Mandarin is one thing but if it is the thoughts of yellow banana or Ah Beng, they will not do any good even they can recite Mandarin’ poems in front of Xi.

  11. Pingback: Life As We Know It, Adrift | Jason's Musings

  12. I really like many of the points stated here, but it is really a stretch to call Tharman bowling his head in discomfort at 3.20 of the video.. I could almost spot a snigger or a smirk on his face as well. That said, we are very fortunate to have such a capable person in our cabinet.

    • Hmm, I thought he looked embarrassed, in both exchanges. Second one there seemed to be a smirk forming, but more an uncomfortable, don’t-know-where-to-hide one. Anyway, maybe I’m wrong! Maybe Tharman found it funny too…thanks for sharing.

  13. Well articulated observation and views Sudhir. Personally I do feel over the past decade, its moving more and more towards Lordship Elites over Peasants Working Class, rather than a Government for the People. On too many occassions, I cringed from what has been uttered by some Ministers while at the same time I’m trying hard to fathom how they rightly deserved the highest paid politicians in the world! Where lies the value proposition? Just sad…

  14. Thank you for writing this article, I hope Singapore could learn its mistake on the handling the Coronavirus and fight the Coronavirus issue bravely.

  15. Pingback: Some recent corona-related writing « Musings from Singapore

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