Written by Bertrand Seah

What happened?

Veteran journalist Han Fook Kwang came under fire from the Singapore government after his column on the Straits Times drew a sharp rebuke from Lim Yuin Chien, Heng Swee Keat’s press secretary. In his column, Han called on government leaders to speak in language that resonates with ordinary citizens. In response, Lim put down Han’s suggestions, which included the simple assurance that those with a full working life would be able to retire with a “good and decent life”, as “pandering and populism”.

Is the government listening with humility?

Han’s call for clear language might be said to be timely given recent criticism of the government’s propensity to speak in platitudes, as well as the government’s own plans to engage public feedback “with humility and respect”. At the same time, writing columns not in favour with government figures is hardly new to Han, who drew a similar rebuke recently from Ministers Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary over a piece about the historical debate over Operation Coldstore.

The outsized response might be seen as reflection of the widespread perception that the Straits Times comes under pressure to toe a pro-government line. This perception is one that has been backed up in the past by Wikileaks cables, and was also strengthened by another recent piece that called on Singaporeans to suppress dissent with the world’s attention focused on the Singapore-hosted Trump-Kim summit. Nonetheless, the rebuke has drawn criticism from numerous figures, including former PAP MP Inderjit Singh, for not reflecting the humility they claimed they would show. Such a reaction might be a sign that not only should the government speak in clear language, perhaps they should be a little less tone-deaf as well.

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