Former Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) associate dean, Prof Donald Low, has pointed out that the Government should have given Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim the same benefit of doubt for her “trial balloons” comment that it wants people to give the Ministry of Health (MOH) for its judgement call on dealing with the HIV Registry data leak.
Last March, several heavyweight ruling party politicians came down hard on Lim when she said in Parliament that the Government had floated “trial balloons” on a possible tax hike.
While the Aljunied GRC MP defended her statement as “honest suspicion,” her remarks drew intense flak from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam who refuted the allegation and asserted that her statement was both “dishonest” and “hypocritical”.
Shanmugam and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat pressed Lim to withdraw her statement.
Heng later wrote a letter and pressured Lim to behave as “an honourable MP should” and retract her statement.
Minister Indranee Rajah also publicly criticised Lim while Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat called Lim’s comments “vicious” as it “goes to the heart of Government’s integrity”
This was followed by Leader of the House, Grace Fu, giving Lim a 3-day deadline to apologise for the “false allegation” or risk further action.
When Lim refused, a “disappointed” Fu put Lim on notice and added that Lim’s behaviour is indicative of the low standards of “the member and her party,” and that her actions were “deplorable”.
Yesterday, Prof Low compared the Government’s treatment of Lim for her “reasoned and reasonable” assessment about a possible tax hike to how it expects the people to treat MOH and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong over the “judgment call” they made to not disclose the HIV data leak to the public. He said:
“I think we can accept the Minister for Health’s explanation that his ministry made an honest “judgement call” not to inform the affected patients of the data breach back in 2016, and that it was not unreasonable for them to assess then that putting out the information would have caused more harm than good. So there was no (intentional) cover-up.
“Of course now with the benefit of hindsight, we can argue that they should have made a different assessment in 2016. But as they say, hindsight is 20/20. The real test is whether given what MOH knew in 2016, was their decision then a reasoned and reasonable one? And my answer is yes.
“If you agree with the above argument, wouldn’t you also say that when Sylvia Lim suggested (during last year’s Budget debate) that the government had floated the GST increase as a “trial balloon”, it was also an honest assessment based on what she knew then?
“With hindsight, she changed her mind, but again the real test is whether given the facts at the time, was her assessment a reasoned and reasonable one, even if it was later shown to be wrong? And I think most neutral observers would say it was a reasonable opinion (that many others at the time also held) and she didn’t need to apologise.”
Prof Low argued that this comparison is relevant because “one of the ways in which democratically elected governments undermine democracy is their constant denial of the legitimacy of political critics and opponents, and their characterization of the opposition as enemies, not just political rivals.”
He added that the Government should reflect on why the people are so distrustful of the MOH and Gan as he pointed out that “how you judge and treat your opponents is how you will eventually be judged and treated by the public.” He said:
“Why is this comparison important? Because as Harvard’s Levitsky and Ziblat argue in their excellent book “How Democracies Die”, one of the ways in which democratically elected governments undermine democracy is their constant denial of the legitimacy of political critics and opponents, and their characterization of the opposition as enemies, not just political rivals.
“So if the government is upset that people don’t seem to give the poor Minister for Health the benefit of doubt (and I think he should be given the benefit of doubt), and that he’s been unfairly accused of a cover-up, perhaps they should ask themselves where people picked up this distrustfulness (and I should add, Schadenfreude) from. Because how you judge and treat your opponents is how you will eventually be judged and treated by the public.”
Read his post in full here: