The 4G team needs a softer tone

PHOTOS: Reuters / Yahoo News Singapore

The Singapore Cabinet is about to be re-shuffled any time now. Which accounts for the popularity of tea leaf reading as well as futile attempts to pry new information from the 4G ranks of ministers.

What have we heard so far?

That Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat would be happy to retain his current portfolio: “I’ll be very happy to continue my job as finance minister. There are many things that we need to do as I announced in the Budget.”

That the labour movement’s Chan Chun Sing operates at the Prime Minister’s behest:  “Where I go, what do I do, that’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative so if there is any change, wait for the Prime Minister and his announcement.” (The talk is that Education ministry’s Ng Chee Meng will move over)

That Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, tipped to take over from Mr Lim Swee Say, advocates patience: “I don’t think we have to wait very much longer till the Cabinet reshuffle is announced. We should just be a little bit more patient and we will come to that.”

ST speculated that three veteran ministers will leave the frontbencher in this reshuffle: Mssrs Lim, Yaacob Ibrahim (Communications and Information) and Lim Hng Kiang (Trade and Industry). All three are in their 60s. All declined to talk but ST’s tea leaves showed that farewell plans are  “afoot’’ in their respective ministry.

ST went further to suggest who could take over their jobs. Besides Ms Teo for Manpower, it suggested that Mr Chan could cross over to MTI while Mr Janil Puthucheary takes over MCI.

The person who is really doing the brewing, PM Lee Hsien Loong, gave away just one important piece of information: Don’t expect a new Deputy Prime Minister. He’s probably aware that people thought they would see a new name in the DPM ranks, which would be a clear signal of succession at the highest levels. But it is not to be.

With this delay or postponement, the common chorus from the G now is that the people should look at the collective, the big picture, the problems ahead and the policies – and not be obsessed with the individual. The point is whether the 4G team can work together.

I would add another point: Would the 4G leadership be any different from the current one? What sort of tone of government will the team set?

Given the opacity of government operations, we can only gauge this from their public utterances and behaviour.

We were told, for example, that the last Budget was mainly a 4G enterprise. If so, it was a pity that the main thing people remembered about the Budget was the exchange between the PAP ministers and the Workers’ Party. It was a distraction from the big issue of how to fund social spending in the future, which was an opportunity for various younger ministers to put forth a new vision. The impression was one of bullying, however hard the ministers try to make the point about truth and lies over the imposition of a higher GST rate. In fact, the older generation would have done a better job of demolition methinks.

You can read my piece here.

Given that the 4G team was said to have taken more control of the Government and the legislative agenda in recent time, then the parliamentary highlights over the past year have been sobering. It’s been a slew of laws that involve security issues, such as the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act that was pushed through by Mrs Teo in her capacity as Second Home Minister.

We might applaud the 4G’s commitment to protect Singapore, and even agree with each individual measure. But the pace of legislation is suffocating, leaving the overall impression that to protect the country, we need draconian laws over our words and actions.

Perhaps, what has been happening is some kind of foundation-laying exercise to ensure that the new PM is in a strong position to take over the reins. That might account for the rush to  push through tough legislation before the baton finally changes hands. It now looks as though we should brace ourselves for some kind of law on fake news when Parliament re-opens for business next month.

You know, I applauded the setting up of the Parliamentary Select Committee to collect views from the public on tackling deliberate online falsehoods. Now I regret it. Going by what has happened so far, the right time for such a committee is after the legislation – or non-legal measures – have been proposed.

That’s because we’re still no closer to a consensus on what would constitute a deliberate online falsehood that deserves our condemnation or criminal sanctions. With a draft legislation, we would be able to pore over the words of the law and have a more fruitful exchange of views and even give input for the final legislation. I doubt that Parliament would ask for such a committee, given that the G seems anxious to get this out of the way.

Then comes the committee’s ripostes to all challenges over the way it has conducted the hearings. I believe that everyone should have a right of reply, including the G.  It is for the people to weigh the arguments and come to a conclusion which they can express, hopefully, without fear or favour.

But the politicians’ replies should be tempered by the knowledge that they always, always have the upper hand and the stronger arm. For even a well-meaning commentary by former ST editor Han Fook Kwang on the importance of perception to be trashed by 4G ministers who accused him of saying that politicians should not question academics is a bit of an over-reach.

In case I am accused of over-generalising, you can read both the commentary and the response so that you can assess them for yourselves.

I agree with the thrust of Mr Han’s column that “Singapore’s fourth-generation leaders have to find their own way to deal with the messy, noisy world that is full of other ideas and narratives”. The new generation of voters require different handling. I would add that handling even the old generation requires some finesse these days because of the quick pace of change in technology.

Younger people won’t be content with repeated assertions, nor would they be happy if they thought they were being brow-beaten by rational, intellectual and high-minded arguments. Nobody wants to look stupid – even if they are. Older people, on the other hand, want to live in a society that doesn’t leave them behind as it rushes pell-mell into the smart future.

So what is the tone we have managed to glean so far? I think it is a hard, uncompromising one. Even arrogant. Described as “robust replies’’. It is as if the 4G leaders want to convince people that there is steel in their collective spine; that they are no softies. It might work if there was a master persuader in the ranks, but we hear more  motherhood statements instead.

The news from the G has mostly been “hard’’: about big data, smart nation moves and the upgrading and overhaul of places and infrastructure. There is little sense that we are being engaged at a more, for want of a better word, spiritual or personal level. There’s no appeal to the heart; only hard, rational demands made of the mind.

For all we know, the 4G team could be great policy wonks and well-loved by the people who know them. But politics – and this is where the G doesn’t seem to get it – is about public perception. You might be right, but you have to persuade people that you are.

And, sometimes, you can be nice too.