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.
Image: Today Online