Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Ministers, please speak plainly to the people

Plain speech also about telling the hard truth

Editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang is correct (Ministers, please speak plainly to the people; June 3): Ministers should, indeed, speak plainly to the people.

This does not only mean using simple language that people understand. It also means telling people the truth.

This is what the PAP government has been doing for close to 60 years. Ministers and MPs spend considerable time on the ground hearing from citizens, answering their questions and explaining policies.

And as Mr Han knows well, this Government has never flinched from telling people “hard truths to keep Singapore going”. He once helped edit a book with that title.

The most recent example is the Budget speech, where Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that it will be necessary to raise the Goods and Services Tax in the next term of Government, and explained clearly why.

Unfortunately, some opposition MPs sought to avoid debating this issue in Parliament, preferring to wait till the heat of the hustings, when emotions, rather than reason, rule.

The injunction to "speak plainly" applies to journalists and commentators too.

Mr Han begins by urging ministers to speak plainly - to use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to ministers to make sweeping promises.

For example, he wants ministers to assure people that if they had "a full working life in Singapore, in any job... when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life".

"We will make sure it happens," Mr Han urges ministers to say, "don't worry about the details or how we will do it."

But plain speaking about adequate retirement would also entail telling people some "hard truths".

For example, the Central Provident Fund scheme is adequate for most Singaporeans, and Silver Support will help top up for those who did not earn much while working.

However, as people live longer, their needs in old age will go up. Then, we will have to work longer, save more while working, or have less to spend in retirement.

Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken.

Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately, voters or their children bear the cost.

The easiest five words to utter in politics are: "I promise you free lunches." But that's not plain speech. That's pandering and populism.

Lim Yuin Chien
Press Secretary to the Minister for Finance
ST Forum, 5 Jun 2018

Ministers, please speak plainly to the people
It is important to cast your plans in terms everyone can understand and relate to
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 3 Jun 2018

There were many good speeches in Parliament last month when members discussed the Government's agenda for the coming years.

Almost everyone rose to the occasion and spoke on important issues facing the country - what Singapore has to do next, how to tackle the inequality problem, and why some things need to be done differently.

They were earnest and thoughtful.

I liked the numerous calls for people here to value different kinds of talent, not just academic, for those who have done well to help the less well-off, for government to listen more to the people.

But I am not sure they connected well to the man in the street.

How many today remember what had been said?

It's tough making a memorable speech that moves people emotionally and makes them identify with the speaker.

More so because the news cycle spins fast these days with so many headline-grabbing events since those parliamentary sittings: the historic election upset in Malaysia, the on-off Trump-Kim summit and the Surabaya suicide bombings.

But one other problem with speeches is that they are mostly about abstract stuff: the economy, the education system, elites, the income divide.

When problems and issues are cast in these terms, they lose the human connection and become hard for ordinary folk to relate to.

What does equipping Singaporeans with a "global mindset and skillsets" mean to someone worried about holding on to his job or who has just lost it. What does an education system with "diverse pathways and multiple peaks of excellence" mean to the parent struggling to help her children cope with school work?

These ideas are important and may well be the basis of successful policies that will work for Singapore.

But there is also a place for leaders to use the language of ordinary people when they talk to each other about their problems and hopes.

How to do this?

Here is one suggestion: Imagine there is a real person in front of you, a typical Singaporean with real problems trying to cope with making ends meet, stressed about his children doing well in school, worried over his sick mother running up medical bills.

He must believe you understand his anxieties before he will listen to what your thinking and plans are to make his life better.

I think many Singaporeans would have liked for their leaders to say something like this:

"We know life is tough for you. You are barely making enough to cope with your expenses - paying the mortgage, tuition for your two children, the occasional entertainment and replacing that old mobile phone. You worry about your job, the pay has not gone up much the last few years and you don't know if you will still have it in two years' time. You and your wife worry all the time about whether the children are doing well enough in school and how you can help them, especially the elder one sitting the PSLE this year.

"We understand you are anxious too about your mother's health and the mounting medical bills.

"That's quite a load to worry about. But we want to assure you that we have a plan to lessen your anxieties and make sure you will be able to cope. We promise you that if you do your part, we will do ours so you and your children will have a great future."

Put like this, it's quite an undertaking for any government. But isn't that what the people want to hear - that the Government understands them and knows what to do about it.

What to do about their anxieties?

Here again, it is important to speak simply and cast your plans in terms everyone can understand.

That real person you were speaking to when addressing his worries is there waiting to listen to what you have in store.

So, here goes:

"I promise you that if you have had a full working life in Singapore, in any job, whether you are a cleaner, a security guard, a taxi driver or a waiter, when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life. We will make sure it happens - don't worry about the details or how we will do it. The only thing we ask is that you must do your part and be serious about your job.

"We would have failed in our job if Singapore is a country where a person can work his entire life and still not have enough when he retires."

I think Singapore leaders should make such a promise to the people. It is unacceptable for a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world to have too many people retire after working all their lives without adequate retirement security.

Can the Government make this simple promise?

Education was another recurring issue during the parliamentary debate. But the issues got lost in a tangle of words and jargon.

I wish the Government can make this declaration:

"As for education, we promise you that if your child completes 10 to 12 years of primary and secondary education, he or she will have a place in any of our tertiary institutions, in the ITE, polytechnic and universities.

"That's what our institutions are for, so that no matter what a student is good at, we will make sure we do our utmost to make the best of his abilities. Even if it means a drop in our global rankings."

When you speak plainly, you are compelled to be clear in your thinking about what you intend to do.

There should be nowhere to hide behind unnecessary verbiage. This is especially important when there is so much more noise out there today, from so many voices, especially in the online world.

I hope the 4G leaders will be a model of clarity, especially now that they have decided to launch a series of discussions with Singaporeans.

I would look forward to having such a conversation.

The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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