By Howard Lee
Before you decide that Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan got off to a bad start this year in Parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam might have just beaten him to it.
While Khaw was busy heaping it on commuters about their impatience with a six-minute extension to the downtown line, lamenting about his inability to handle a Twitter flame-war, and generally confusing train disruptions with longer travel routes, Shanmugam appeared to have decided that neither of his Ministries had the capacity to respond to The Online Citizen’s alleged “orchestrated campaign of falsehoods” about the death of 14 year-old Benjamin Lim, instead suggesting that sub-judice charges might be in order.
Lim had fallen to his death from his home after the police have interviewed him about an alleged molestation offence. The incident has prompted a public outcry and even Lim’s parents decided to issue their own public statement on the matter.
If the Minister now wishes to claim sub-judice, he is nearly a month short of being timely, let alone say anything that demonstrates “respect for Benjamin’s family” or what “a matter of public interest” means.
To begin with, Shanmugam claimed that the 20-odd articles TOC published on the case contained insinuations that the police were lying to the public and had intimidated Lim. He also reserved similar words for Law Society president Thio Shen Yi.
But insinuations cannot stand in for accusation. If anything, public interest in the matter was less about the police not doing their jobs, but the fact that they were perhaps doing too much. Greater public interest revolved around whether police procedure was executed at the expense of good sense, in which the Ministry of Education also drew some flak for doing far too little to protect Lim.
Comparatively, MOE’s response was a little timelier, and while hardly sufficient in quieting public anger, did effectively acknowledge the concern that many parents might have following this incident: Will MOE exercise a duty of care to protect the children entrusted to them?
Does the Home Team understand what all the public interest was about? Why then, blame the public for demanding answers?
And Shanmugam’s latest response to that same public interest in Parliament was hardly assuring. In the court of public judgement, it might in fact come across as dripping of double standards. Wait for the Coroner’s Inquiry, or risk sub-judice. But as a public figure, I can continue speaking because “public confidence in the police must be maintained”.
Would the head of the police force be the most credible voice when defending public confidence in the police? What weight does it have in dispelling any perceived police wrong doing? How big is the cone of silence? Can we even utter a word of concern?
In addition, we now have another dilemma to consider: Why are questions about police action in this case sub-judice? The coroner’s inquiry, by definition, would very likely deal with Lim’s cause of death. Will it also look into what happened during the time he was in police custody? If not, why would views that supposedly shake “public confidence in the police” be an issue here?
No answers to these, and many other questions. If anything, Shanmugam’s most affirmative statement is this: “I have asked my Ministry to study how the police and other institutions can respond in future to such falsehoods.”
The response could really have been a lot simpler and more transparent. There is no need for any elaborate study or strategies of response.
“We are aware of rumours circulating online about the death of Benjamin Lim. We would like to, first and foremost, convey our sympathies to the family of Benjamin for this tragedy. We assure them that we will leave no stone unturned in the Coroner’s Inquiry, any police wrong-doing will be dealt with justly, and a thorough review of police procedures will be done if necessary. Meanwhile, we would like to call on the public to remain calm and wait for the verdict before drawing any premature conclusions. We would also like to request that TOC and the Law Gazette publish this statement.”
Concern, action, perspective. Crisis communications 101. The best way to put out a fire is probably not to stand quietly by and let it burn out, but to quickly remove any flammable material around it. Wouldn’t direct and honest engagement be a lot more productive and efficient?
In Benjamin’s case, Shanmugam is worse than Khaw at public relations
By Howard Lee