Monday, 6 June 2016

Singapore's journey towards a collective consciousness: Han Fook Kwang

By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 5 Jun 2016

It has been almost four years since I started writing regularly in The Sunday Times, and my pieces have now been compiled in a book that will be in the bookshops later this week.

Re-reading my first column made me recall why I picked up my writing pen again after I stepped down as editor of The Straits Times in 2012.

When I wrote "The trouble with $2,200 bikes and $600 chairs" about public unhappiness over the way the National Parks Board had bought expensive bicycles for its staff, I received a flood of e-mails from readers.

One in particular made a deep impression. The person wrote: "I am often baffled when confronted by the statistics and rationalisation presented by government spokespersons. I don't have the intellectual capacity or verbal skill to argue against them... but in my heart, I know it is not right. So too do the many Singaporeans out there. Most of us do not have the words sometimes but we know in our gut when we feel something is not quite right.

"So it is so important for someone with the ability to say it for us. So we can say: 'Aha, that's what I feel. That's what I meant too'."

She might have over-generalised somewhat the failings of authority, but her provocative words made me restart my writing career, and I have since kept up on a range of topics, including politics, the economy, society and transport.

Indeed it has been a fertile time for commentators, especially after the watershed General Election 2011, and as the country enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

There is anticipation of change to a more rounded society where the politics is more forgiving, but there is also concern over where it is heading.

My writings reflect this mixture of hope and anxiety.

The overriding hope of most Singaporeans is that the country continues to have abundant opportunities for everyone and where all are respected as members of the community regardless of race, language or religion.

But they also want to be able to achieve this in a society that encourages more active participation of its people in civic life with a greater diversity of views, and with a government more willing to accept that it does not always have all the answers.

The anxiety is an old saw, given Singapore's small size and limited resources, but it has a fresh edge now that the country is entering a new phase in its development.

Do the old formulae for growing the economy still work? Can the country make a successful transition to more pluralistic politics? Will it continue to be a place where lives get better for every succeeding generation?

These questions have prompted me to write many of my pieces.

In my discussions with many people, I find a growing number who are concerned about where Singapore is heading.

Last week, a former colleague who travels regularly in the course of his work said he worried over whether Singaporeans were exposed enough to the harsh realities of living in a rapidly changing world.

Technological changes which threaten jobs, geopolitical shifts which threaten peace - they can upend the stability that has underpinned this country's progress over the last 50 years.

Singapore cannot prevent any of these disruptive changes from happening and affecting its people.

But Singapore's leaders, my friend noted, tend to sugar-coat these issues, over-protecting the people, and preferring to dwell on the country's success instead of its weaknesses and the difficulties ahead.

Last week, the straight-talking diplomat Bilahari Kausikan also spoke about these challenges, and his remarks are worth quoting at length: "Small states are vulnerable. The margin for error is narrow. The government's role is essential. Thanks to what was achieved over the last 50 years, the threat is no longer that we will disappear as a sovereign and independent country, although that can never be entirely discounted. The threat is now more insidious. The danger is that our autonomy could be compromised even though we remain formally independent and sovereign... if we are clumsy in our external relationships or mishandle our domestic politics, the freedom to decide our own destiny could be severely circumscribed."

I believe that as we enter an uncertain future, it is even more important to engage Singaporeans in discussion and debate so they understand the issues better.

Mr Kausikan lamented the lack of understanding among many people of the fundamental realities that circumscribe the options available to a small state like Singapore.

But getting greater understanding requires more debate and discussion, not less.

A good starting point is to err on the side of greater openness and tolerance for differing views, not more intolerance and heavy-handedness towards dissent.

A recurring theme in my writings has been the need for Singapore to strengthen its social culture, one where there is a strong sense of belonging to the community and respect for one another regardless of the jobs we do, the wealth we possess or the views we hold.

Societies that have these qualities in abundance have strong and resilient peoples - Japanese, Israelis, Northern Europeans, to name a few - who are able to bounce back from setbacks.

They have a healthy respect for one another's views but they also demand high standards of social behaviour and are not afraid to point out one another's shortcomings.

That's how, individually, they accomplish much in whatever they do, and, collectively, their societies attain high levels of development and civic consciousness.

Singapore has some way to go in this regard, but I fear there isn't enough appreciation of this point.

Because the people have achieved so much in so short a time, too many believe they have arrived, and that there is not much to learn from others.

Much of my writing is but a feeble attempt to correct this mindset.

Han Fook Kwang's new book, Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, will be available in bookshops from June 10.

Ex-Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang: A 'simple man's hard questions'
Han Fook Kwang celebrates turning 63 with a new book comprising 40 of his thought-provoking and conscience-probing columns
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer, The Sunday Times, 12 Jun 2016

On his first working day at The Straits Times on Feb 20, 1989, Mr Han Fook Kwang did not even have a table to write at.

"It was a big change," recalls the former civil servant who, as an Administrative Service officer, had his own room and personal assistant at the Ministry of Communications, with its no-nonsense, hands-on Permanent Secretary Sim Kee Boon as his mentor.

After that unsettling start as ST's senior leader and feature writer, his bosses - Singapore Press Holdings executive chairman Lim Kim San and editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng - chose Mr Han, "for some strange reason" he says, to collaborate with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on his first book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas.

That book, which he wrote with his colleagues Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan - who are now ST's editor and deputy editor, respectively - became a best-seller, with close to 100,000 copies sold since its launch in 1998.

In January 1995, while writing the book, Mr Han became the paper's political editor.

Then in September 2002, he was made its editor, a position he held until Valentine's Day 2012, when he went on to be managing editor.

That year, after a 10-year hiatus, he returned to column-writing on "hard questions" that mattered to everyone here, such as how Singapore could continue to be successful amid rapid, roiling change everywhere.

The flood of e-mail he got from readers after what he penned in 2012 - much more than he ever got when he first wrote his Thinking Aloud columns in 1989 - spurred him to write every other week.

Four years later, he is still at it, a probing, pellucid voice of the Singapore conscience.

On May 27, he turned 63 and was to have retired from the paper. But he accepted ST's offer to stay on as its Editor-at-Large, albeit one free to pursue his own projects.

His new book, Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, is out in bookstores.

It comprises 40 of the columns he likes best, plus fresh pieces written to introduce each of the book's sections, that is, on politics, the economy, society, transport and what he calls "odds and ends".

Among these odds and ends is a call close to his heart: the need for Singaporeans to strengthen their sense of community, be it looking out for one another or keeping everywhere clean.

"This is how developed societies get to where they are today," he notes in this interview.

"In places like Western Europe, they are not afraid to tell you off if you don't behave properly and show you are a responsible member of the community."

That, he adds, is how these societies "move up and become the advanced societies that they are".

But in Singapore, he argues, free market forces "pull people apart" because some move up the economic ladder at the expense of others, resulting in "a tendency to be smug and complacent, to feel that we have done it and are so much better than many other societies".

But you need only look at the abandoned meal trays cluttering tables at hawker centres to know that that is not the case, he says.

Unlike people with a sense of community, he points out, "the fellow who's waiting for a table here won't say, 'Hey, why are you leaving all this mess on the table?' "

Looking out for others has to start in school, during a child's formative years, he adds.

He was, for instance, "absolutely floored" recently by a video of schoolchildren in Saitama, Japan, on their hands and knees, scrubbing various areas in their school.

You can watch it on https://

In a note to Mr Han, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam wrote: "I agree with you that it's this culture, the everyday interactions and quality of relationships, starting from when kids are growing up, that's at the heart of the future we want - the mastery of skills, and deep solidarity among Singaporeans."

Mr Vincent Loo, 57, a commodities sales and relationship manager at financial news and data provider Bloomberg, who has been following Mr Han's writing since his first Thinking Aloud columns, says: "His writing has touched a lot of raw nerves here, which is good because he is not about criticism for criticism's sake. Most of the time, he puts a positive spin on his constructive criticism, which shows us what mature thinking is like."


Mr Han grew up without a television set in his home, and his first articles for ST in 1989 ran in a newspaper that was all black-and-white, as colour pages were introduced only a few years later.

But by the time he became its editor in late 2002, very powerful political, social and technological forces were conspiring to do in newspapers and, in many cases in the United States, did.

With a far more vocal populace here, and the media scene changed forever by technology in split seconds, he recalls: "Although we tried very hard to produce the best paper we could every day, it didn't satisfy everybody. And I would be the first to admit that that was the case.

"In a way, it's not surprising. Society is changing very fast. Different people have different expectations of a newspaper."

Tapping away at the leg of the coffee table in his office, as he often does when he is pondering something, he muses: "One of the challenges of being an editor is that it's unlike producing a bottle of Coke, where once you get the formula you don't need to tweak it."

"There were areas we fell short. We could have done better," he then says, declining to cite examples.

Asked what he thought of the view that ST reflects the Government's position, he says evenly: "That's our karma. That's part and parcel of who we are. It doesn't mean that we can't be professional and credible and produce a good paper for our readers. But it's a perception that will be very hard to shake off, given our history and the strong influence the Government has."

As to navigating that strong influence, he says: "Every editor in ST has had to navigate this, including the present editor. I did my best navigating it; I will leave it to others to judge how well I did that."

With local opposition political parties given greater coverage on his watch than ever, did speaking truth to the powers that be dent his career advancement?

"Well," he says wryly, "I was already editor of the paper."

He adds: "You have to decide for yourself how you want to do it for the paper. You have to be very sensitive, but you can't always be looking over your shoulder and be afraid of the consequences if you did it one way or another. You have to trust your judgment and you take counsel from your senior editors.

"You have to approach it as professionally as possible, and if you don't do it this way, you're going to lose the readers or put the paper in an untenable position and you're not just going to lose your readers but lose the respect of your colleagues in the newsroom."


Mr Han is married to public relations consultant-turned-homemaker Frances Chua, and they have a son, Isaac, and two daughters, Yushan and Yushi.

Mild-mannered, kindly even, he insists he is "a very simple person" with "very simple interests" such as reading a good novel.

At present, he is leafing through Walden by Henry Thoreau and Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan.

He grew up in his paternal grandfather Han Keng Juan's coffee shop in Joo Chiat Road, with his then five-member family squeezed into a room upstairs, all sleeping on the floor. Across the road was Joo Chiat Community Centre, which had a little library.

Mr Han recalls his father, textile salesman Han Eng Min, "kicking up a big fuss" because librarians there would not issue his son a library card at first, as he was only four.

After Presbyterian Boys' School and Raffles Institution, where he edited its self-funding magazine, the Rafflesian Times, Mr Han left Singapore for the first time for the "perpetually grey skies" of Leeds, Britain, on a Colombo Plan Scholarship.

He returned with a mechanical engineering degree in 1975, did his national service with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and then joined the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 1978, having decided that he wanted nothing to do with engineering.

While at EDB, he learnt that the Government was short of Administrative Service officers, so he signed up to become one and spent the next nine years crafting policies to back the introduction of the MRT and ERP systems. He also obtained his master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

ST offered him a job after being suitably impressed with his replies to readers on its Forum page.

With his foot tapping away at the coffee table, one of two tables in his room, he says: "Sometimes, I come across as critical of the way we do things and all that. But that's my little contribution to this attitude which I think the Old Guard leadership had, which was to confront our problems openly and honestly, and where we fall short, to say so."

What it was like to work with Mr Lee
By Cheong Suk-Wai, The Sunday Times, 12 Jun 2016

In his new book Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, ST's Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang recalls what working with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was like:

"Once he had decided to do something, whether it was writing a book or securing Singapore's future, he was impossible to shake off.

"When he called me one night in August 2008 to do another book, I wasn't thrilled at the prospect. I was then the editor of The Straits Times, with my hands full running the paper. The editor's job was demanding, the hours long, and I did not relish doing another book on top of that.

"But it was impossible to say no after he said he had only two to three years left and he wanted to put across his views on some of the issues that troubled him: the call for more political openness, the backlash against foreigners and the challenges facing Singapore in a rapidly changing world.

"Given his failing health, it might well be his last book. When I took some time to get back to him on the concept of the book, he urged haste, telling me in an e-mail: 'Don't let the grass grow under your feet.'

"Finally, when we had settled on how the book should be done, he was impatient to start, and wrote: 'Try it the way you propose. Outline the subjects to be covered and draft a few chapters. Then, let's try your vigorous probing and challenging of my positions.'

"The book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, was two years in the making. When we finally launched it in 2011, his health had deteriorated significantly after the death of his wife.

"Indeed, he loomed large in my professional life."

Retired Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang's book holds up mirror to Singapore society
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer, The Straits Times, 17 Jun 2016

When The Straits Times' editor- at-large Han Fook Kwang recently met a former colleague, who is based in New Zealand, the latter asked: "So what's it like living in the best-run place in the world?"

But over dinner three weeks ago in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a Singaporean businessman there told him Singapore was "not adjusting and changing far and fast enough to new economic and social challenges in a rapidly disrupting world".

Noting that both contrasting comments were valid, Mr Han said yesterday at the launch of his new book that Singaporeans can and should do much better, instead of thinking they are tops while putting down other countries.

And the way to improve, which he canvasses in the book - Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, comprising 40 of his columns over the past four years - was by fostering a stronger sense of community, by being personally invested in everyone and everything around them.

Mr Han, 63, was speaking to more than 120 people, including his wife Frances, their younger daughter Yushi, past and present politicians, colleagues and guests at the launch at the National Library Board headquarters.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, with whom Mr Han worked on many projects, called him "a kindred spirit".

"We both love Singapore. However, we are not uncritical lovers. We are proud of Singapore and what we have achieved. Singapore is, however, not perfect. Fook Kwang has had the courage to point out some of these imperfections and exhort us to do better," he said.

A case in point, said Mr Han, was how most Singaporeans would not clean up after themselves at hawker centres, leaving it to "an army of cleaners" and technology such as sensors in litter bins.

Professor Koh added that such a dearth of communitarianism was also found in the workplace. He believed it came from "our top-down hierarchy and individualistic culture", which had left Singaporeans "selfish, self-centred, 'me first', of low civic-mindedness and having low regard for other people".

That weakened solidarity among Singaporeans and so Mr Han was right to flag it as a great concern.

Speaking earlier, ST editor Warren Fernandez recalled how, as a young journalist on ST's political desk with Mr Han as his editor in the 1990s, there was some "trepidation" in the newsroom about Mr Han's plan to launch Insight, a weekly section of commentaries on politics here, given that there were out-of-bounds (OB) markers often flagged by the authorities.

But Mr Fernandez recalled Mr Han's reply thus: "The fact that there are OB markers on the fairways doesn't stop anyone playing golf." Instead, golfers took their best shots, and kept at it if their ball went astray.

Mr Han led the way, commissioning and editing the features, as well as writing for Insight too, thus inspiring colleagues to press on in the endeavour till today, he added.

Former MP Yu-Foo Yee Shoon said of Mr Han: "There is a Chinese saying 'zhong yan ni er' or 'truth always hurts the ears'. But I find him balanced in his criticism of the Government because from the many books he worked on with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, you can tell he loves his country." Mr Han collaborated with the late founding prime minister on three books.

Mr Han summed up the topics in his book thus: "Education is not just about passing exams, but the lifelong habit of mastering skills. Economic planning is not just about creating jobs and growth but what sort of jobs and what sort of growth. Politics is not about demolishing political opponents but of strengthening the trust between people and their understanding of what is at stake."

The book, published by Straits Times Press, is available at $25 with GST from leading bookstores.

Essays by 'a critical lover of Singapore'

We both love Singapore. However, we are not uncritical lovers. We are proud of Singapore and what we have achieved. Singapore is, however, not perfect. Fook Kwang has had the courage to point out some of these imperfections and exhort us to do better. I have always believed that institutions languish when their lovers are uncritical and their critics unloving. The bottom line is this: Singapore needs critical lovers like Han Fook Kwang.

Second, I want to share with you my three favourite essays in the book. They are: (i) What dark secret is in the Singapore basement? (ii) Who do you think owns your company? (iii) Don't let hawker fare disappear.

In the first essay, Fook Kwang argues that Singapore's extraordinary success has been achieved at the expense of our low-wage workers (200,000 of them); the political opponents of the PAP, especially during the period from the 1960s to the 1980s; and the low-wage foreign workers and foreign domestic helpers.

In the second essay, Fook Kwang calls our attention to a problem which affects our low productivity, low social capital and low civic-mindedness. The problem is probably due to our top-down, hierarchical and individualistic culture. We talk a lot about communitarianism but we do not actually practise it. The truth is that we are a very individualistic people. As a result, workers and employees do not feel that they are stakeholders of their companies or institutions. Solidarity or camaraderie or l'esprit de corps is weak in Singapore. I think Fook Kwang is right that this has affected and will continue to affect our productivity, social capital and civic-mindedness.

The third essay strikes a chord in my heart. I am a champion of our hawkers and hawker food. I want to raise their social status and their incomes. There are two issues which we should focus on: rent and the design of our new hawker centres. The Government is planning to build 10 new hawker centres. I hope the rentals in these new centres will not be exorbitant.

- PROFESSOR TOMMY KOH, in a speech at the launch of the book Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks by Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang.

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