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Budget 2020, Covid-19 and leaks: The Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing show

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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The Covid-19 outbreak is turning out to be a good test for Singapore’s 4G leaders. It affects lives, literally. It has a deep impact on the economy, meaning the country’s long-term plans and the people’s livelihoods (jobs). It involves our taking a hard-nosed look at our, possibly, over-dependence on China for a range of things – from business to manpower to source of growth. So, are the 4G-ers up to the task of tackling the crisis?

Good question. How has PM-designate Heng Swee Keat and PM-designate first runner-up Chan Chun Sing fared so far?

Heng has done quite well. It so happened the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister was about to present Budget 2020 when Covid-19 reared its ugly head. It was generally expected that he would deliver a budget with an eye on the forthcoming general elections, all the official protestations notwithstanding.

I think the main bulk of the goodies were already in the original (pre-Covid-19) budget – especially the subsidies to cope with an impending GST hike and that commitment to electric (and driverless) cars, a game-changing initiative. A commenter on CNA astutely saw the latter as a smart move to brand Singapore internationally as the go-to city for cutting-edge technology (so check one up for the government). Covid-19 simply required a juggling which also meant an opportunity to display a deftness and sense of urgency in dealing with the situation. Very few people can argue with the without-delay measures the government is taking, as presented in Budget 2020. Help for the common man, hawkers, property owners, businesses and so on, with the emphasis on the sectors hit most by Covid-19 – tourism, aviation and retail. In all, $6.4 billion in the support businesses package and another $1.6 billion to assist households handle cost-of-living problems. Another $800 million is set aside for the frontliners fighting the virus. DPM Heng has won not a small number of votes with that simple statement for these dedicated people: “Take care of yourselves.”

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The government has no choice but to postpone any plan to increase GST for this year. It was a politically correct thing to do. Before Covid-19, it could have bitten the bullet and sweeten a hike with all the announced subsidies.  But the outbreak would make such a plan almost toxic. But it is surely laying the ground for such a hike and it will still be a political hot potato up for debate, whatever the package that has been advertised to make the medicine less unpalatable.

DPM Heng was in his comfort zone. He knew exactly what he was doing, even finding time to quote some Chinese sayings and to thank his Ministry staff for putting in all the extra hours, presumably to revise and balance a budget upended by Covid-19. Good for him. Substance – check. Clarity – yes. Delivery – not Queen’s English but ok. He may be on his way to being our next PM, barring any unforeseen circumstances. Singaporeans are getting used to him, and, dare I say it, to trust him. Mr National Conversation has passed his first real test.

Then there is Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. He did not say anything much about Budget 2020 because Heng was the main man here. But he has not shirked from playing a role – whether official or something he took upon himself, we don’t know – of thinking out aloud, without fear or favour, a la Bilahari Kausikan.  He has developed a mixture of speaking from the hip folksiness, laying down the hard truths the Lee Kuan Yew way and projecting himself as a decisive command-and-control leader learnt from his years as an SAF general.

This top-down, talk-down approach is risky. People see in it a certain disdain for alternative approaches, for people who don’t agree with you and for the assumption that others are stupid and not as smart as the elite and the elected leaders.

Which brings us to the leaked audio recording of Chan’s closed-door dialogue on Feb 10 (a few days after the Dorscon orange announcement) with businesspeople from the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. SCCCI president Roland Ng condemned the leak as “deeply disappointing” and “a betrayal of trust”.

There are at least two schools of thought on such closed door or embargoed speeches or dialogues. Ordinarily, a not-for-outside-consumption is exactly that, it allows the speaker or speakers to be candid and frank rather indulge in time-wasting and unfruitful anodyne speeches or conversations. I would put the SCCCI dialogue in this category and I would respect that privacy.

But – there is always a but somehow – sometimes a so-called not to be reported speech is delivered to an audience and yet finds its way to the media for a particular purpose. The speaker intends it to be leaked so that the real audience catches the message. This message may be a way of, say, warning another country of our intention, say, to fight for our water resources. And yet the speaker can claim it is not intended for publication.

I doubt Chan wanted his dialect-peppered dialogue on the issue of controlling the distribution of surgical masks to be leaked. I sympathise with him on that.

There is, however, a larger issue.  Is Chan Chun Sing suffering from a bout of second-in-command syndrome in a post-LKY era? DPM Heng should be the next PM and, along with that, Chan should be the DPM and be next line. He is not doing all that badly. I have seen him on the world stage at, for example, the Belt And Road conferences skilfully projecting Singapore’s views and plans. His performances at forums on anything are usually more than up to par.

Singapore’s second in command leaders were personalities who were comfortable with their role and ability. DPM Dr Goh Keng Swee was the master planner for the Republic’s economic success. He had no ambition to take over Lee Kuan Yew’s position. Neither had S Rajaratnam, the other DPM, who was the People’s Action Party’s ideologue and the architect of the government’s foreign policy strategy. Goh Chok Tong served his DPMship under the Banyan Tree and was perhaps fortunate that his 2G cohort opted for him rather Tony Tan, LKY’s choice. Princeling Lee Hsien Loong just had to bide his time. DPMs Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean were, each in his own way, fairly satisfied with their contributions.

Perhaps Chan sees himself in a different and more challenging period of Singapore’s political development. Everything is in much greater flux than in the early years and early 2000s. The LKY effect is wearing off. It is now the social media generation. He has decided to be more hands-on, outspoken and activist than the earlier 2ICs. He is in a hurry. Every auntie, every HDB resident or every towkay counts.

 

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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