Over the week, the two main conversation topics among Singaporeans are the e-scooter ban and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s poor performance in Parliament. I shall skip the personal mobility device ban issue. That ban is, I think, well supported by most Singaporeans concerned about safety on roads and shared pathways. I support it. But the livelihoods of 7,000 food delivery workers are at stake and, I hope, all goes well for them in the dialogue between them and relevant authorities.
Somehow, however, the mainstream media seemed all too eager to play up the e-scooter ban. They went to town with maximum coverage. We get big media pictures of PAP MPs in earnest conversations with affected delivery workers. The fact is: It was the government which was behind the curve in coping with the new transport devices and had allowed their proliferation all over the landscape. Only now has it stepped in to deal with the situation.
Not much, relatively speaking, has been published or written in MSM about DPM Heng’s performance. Not the la dee da about the need for the motion but Heng’s outright fumble. Why? Here, I quote a Malay phrase: Tau sama tau (You know, I know). Interpretation: Underplay the exchanges between Heng and Lim and move on, perhaps the public will forget all this very quickly. And yet, in the coffeeshops, millennial eateries and offices, that was all that Singaporeans were talking about and will talk about in the impending general elections.
There were a number of points to-ing and fro-ing between Heng and Lim over the recusal motion. In case you have forgotten. The motion called on the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council to discharge its responsibilities to its residents by requiring Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all matters relating to, and oversight over, financial matters.
Points raised included: Heng’s remarks about “hidden documents” and “millions lost” plus whether it was proper for such a motion to be tabled even before the appeal against the High Court judgement has been filed and properly heard.
Heng clarified that the exact words he had used was that “millions of dollars in public funds are involved” not that “millions have been lost”. Then, all of sudden, the debate was passed on to Senior Minister of State (Law) Edwin Tong. Whatever Tong actually said became almost irrelevant as, clearly, the public may have already seen enough to make up their minds about both what was said and what they saw on TV or YouTube.
Images make or break leaders. They can also undo the best of strategies practised by those who think politics of dominance can allow them to get away with anything such as foisting any kind of leader on an increasingly sophisticated population.
Over the decades, I have seen how People’s Action Party leaders have tried to intimidate political opponents. They have always believed in the so-called robust counterpunch: No challengeable act shall be unchallenged. Often they get caught in overkill and, as a result, unravel whatever good they may have done. That was how the late political dissident Francis Seow, his alleged personal defects notwithstanding, became a formidable foe for the PAP till his last days.
In a live telecast of the hearings of the select committee on the need to restructure the Law Society in the 1980s, the public saw the redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew dominating the proceedings, as expected. In his effort to engage Seow, who was a former Solicitor-General and former President of the Law Society, over some point, he practically pushed him into a corner. The late dissident, who exiled himself to Harvard University no less, had been quite respectful of LKY. He was calm. But, given no escape route, he fought back. The erudite Seow, whose command of English and laws was as pukka sahib as anyone else’s, answered back in a silky sarcastic voice: “Mister Prime Minister….” It did not matter what else he said, it was the way he said it that, according to many, had him one up over LKY in the public eye. Debatably perhaps but the advice of Sun Tzu on the Art of War must have been lost on LKY:
“When you surround the enemy
Always allow them an escape route.
They must see that there is
An alternative to death.”
Heng apparently has not learnt anything from this pivotal incident. In fact, he had also not learnt from his own experience when he was Finance Minister. In 2018, he tried to corner Lim over her alleging that the government was floating a trial balloon for an impending GST hike. Heng denied this and was joined by Law Minister K Shanmugam (yet another Law Minister coming to his rescue).
Then he was Finance Minister. But last week, he was Deputy PM and PM-designate. No one should have to come to his help. It was expected that he would have to prep himself for the occasion, a great opportunity to prove he was in charge and more than capable of handling Opposition members in Parliament. Apart from the obvious fumble, what the camera silently captured was even more revealing.
Heng called for an adjournment to consider Sylvia Lim’s assertion that it was not proper for him to raise the motion. On resumption of the debate, he was about to go to the rostrum to resume his speech when PM Lee Hsien Loong could be seen stopping him and signalling to let Edwin Tong take the floor.
This was when I felt great sympathy for DPM Heng. Where would he go from here after having been so exposed in the harsh light of the public arena – away from the controlled conversations, choreographed forums and talks and over-sanitised environment of our allegedly intellectual circles?
And to put the whole thing in even better perspective, Singapore’s Opposition is getting better. Maybe it is because the ruling party has been getting lazy and taking everything for granted, so caught up in their own cocooned world and self-belief that they have a right to rule forever, whatever the quality of their leadership. No pressure to perform.
Also, Opposition parties have been attracting better members and talents. They have been knocking at the door for a long time. Those who are already in Parliament have, at the same time, been getting better. Everyone in Opposition have to work harder, they do not carry a card of perpetual self-entitlement. Most WP MPs have improved in their public speaking. Low Thia Khiang has become almost Jedi-like. Sylvia is untouchable in the polls, I think. Pritam Singh has been more vocal. Not far behind are Leon Perera, Gerald Giam, Yee Jenn Jong and Faisal Manap.
If Heng cannot even handle these people, who are by no means rabble-rousers, he would be dead meat to the more seasoned, highly political and articulate leaders in neighbouring Malaysia.
Two rescue jobs so far. And counting. Singapore’s PM-in-waiting has to do much better than this.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.