Dear PM Lee,
I am not sure what your PR agency has been telling you, but you are getting it wrong – some of it at least.
No, you cannot be the good guy and the bad guy at the same time. People think that PAP is the bad guy, so that’s the role you have to play for now. It doesn’t matter what you think about yourself. You might think that you are the good guy, but no, people think that you are the bad guy, and public opinion matters, as much as you don’t agree. So, no, you cannot insist on being a good guy when everyone else disagrees.
So, no, you cannot ask Sim Ann to slight netizens as spewing “hate speech” (even if they are). Lim Swee Say cannot say that PAP should be speaking up for the “silent majority”. You cannot be the one doing that. People will only be saying that you are being biased.
You might be trying to divide your party into 3 segments – the good, the bad and the neutral and hope that they will each take on this role and help redefine people’s opinions accordingly. And so, Ms Sim and Mr Lim might be assigned to playing the bad guy – or actually the good (if seen from PAP’s eyes) – where their role is to explain that Singapore is doing things right and that people shouldn’t be criticising the state of Singapore.
No, you cannot do this. People think that PAP is the bad guy, so whenever you are the one to bring out objective “facts” of how well Singapore is doing, it will be seen as trying to get people to side you, rather than it be seen as the objective truth. Even if PAP is doing a good job, you have to wait for other people to say it – other people whom Singaporeans will think are credible – so other people who are experts in their fields. So, even if it you think that it is reasonable that public housing can be sold for $1 million, then you wait for an expert in this view to comment on it. And when people laugh at this person, at least its not directed at you – at least you don’t add another black mark to your already tainted reputation. But when you get your own minister to say it, people will get angry necessarily – then what they see is that you are siding yourself. It’s like a kid who has stolen the lollipop from another kid, and turns around to tell that kid that he wasn’t wrong to steal the lollipop. Would you get angry at him? But if someone else comes along and say that the kid who has stolen the lollipop isn’t wrong, then maybe it would be seen as more objective. But then, this someone else would have told the kid that he was wrong to steal the lollipop.
So, you cannot form alliances with identified experts and get them to put out supportive statements for you whenever you need them to – people can catch you out when they know that you are trying to use the tactic of using experts to look objective, when they know that these experts have biased agendas – not least when we see the same people being used all the time. If you are really sincere, or if you really want your PR to work, then what you should do is consult widely and keep engaging a wide range of experts in discussions with you. What will happen is that these experts will voluntarily start providing their different views and develop a discussion, without your prodding.
Will you be able to keep the debate then within your comfort zone? Necessarily, that means you have to widen your comfort zone. But with more experts daring and willing to speak up, you will then get experts who might start genuinely debate for points favourable to you, not because they were assigned by you to do so, but because they genuinely believe in what you do. In the long term, this will only help you. Also, would you prefer to have a relatively more controlled debate, albeit with a wider comfort zone, in the mainstream media which you is more manageable, or would you prefer an uncontrollable wild fire on the Internet?
Having said that, your strategy of looking like the good guy, where you acknowledge your flaws and explain how you will take steps to mediate them, and where you honestly explain yourself, is working just fine. This all started during the General Elections when PM Lee apologised, but I don’t understand why you sometimes backtrack on this strategy. It seems sort of, schizophrenic.
It is also a smart move where you have identified ministers who are considered likable and use them as poster boys for you. Previously, you had Teo Ser Luck, but he’s obviously been really tired out. But what you have going for you are the boys at the Education Ministry. Heng Swee Keat and Lawrence Wong have been very upfront with admitting the flaws at the Education Ministry. Mr Wong have also acknowledged the flaws of childhood education in Singapore, and together, they have made some bold recommendations to revamp the Education Ministry. Of course, they most probably have your mandate to do so, since you had intentionally brought Mr Heng in just so that he can rework the Education Ministry. Another impressive, though I would argue is also by his own accord, is Tan Chuan-Jin who have set such an exemplary example of engaging people and hearing them out, to make informed and somewhat responsible decisions after consulting widely – at least this is what I have gathered from reading the papers (yes I still do read the papers but am discerning). So, this is the right thing to do.
You have obviously identified ministers (Heng, Wong and Tan) whose status you want to alleviate and other politicians which you are willing to sacrifice (Sim?), though I am pretty sure Tin Pei Lin wasn’t intended in this way. She was to have been PAP’s Nicole Seah, but what a turn of events! You should only go on with half of this strategy though. The ministers who are looking like they are genuine and consulting widely will impress people, and even if they don’t, in the very least they are a saving grace for PAP. But if you go on with putting up politicians who will speak up for PAP, even if PAP is seen as being in the wrong, then it will only get people really angry and whatever good work that the ministers in the former group can do to convince people of PAP’s sincerity, will be destroyed.
Yes, you might want to put your story out to clarify your stand, but you cannot do it at this point – not for the next 5 to 10 years when people are still angry. They won’t hear you. As much as it is tough for you to feel that you’ve been misunderstood, you don’t have the upper hand. People are angry and they can use the Internet to tarnish you, as and when. You should be glad that they are not doing a Mitt Romney to you by now. But if you understand that they are angry, and if you are willing to put your ego away for now and be patient to understand them, you will be able to win them over with your sincerity – but the trick lies in whether you are truly sincere.
On the other hand, your strategy of somewhat being neutral, or being balanced, is actually working quite well. I have to say that the recent debate on minimum wage which involved Halimah Yacob and a representative from the opposition, Nicole Seah, is one of the more balanced and representative discussions that have been held recently. The involvement of an “expert” representative, Leong Sze Hian is the perfect mix of representation that you would want to have, moving forward – an alliance of between PAP, the opposition and an “objective” expert. If you truly want to organise a National Conversation that is sincere, like what many commentators have said, you cannot set up a committee which is made up of only PAP members. Having the involvement of opposition members will boost your credibility, so the involvement of Nicole Seah in this forum is definitely a right move. But of course, you must have have selected Nicole Seah because you must have known about her views on minimum wage, and you would have thought that it would have been safe to have her as part of the discussion. If I were Nicole, I would be swearing in private for having been used by you, to look like my beliefs are similar to PAP, which will then make me look like I’ve betrayed the people who disagree with you. But like I’ve said before, people are more likely to think that Nicole would be more objective in what she says, rather than you. She might not be considered an expert but the very fact that she is not part of PAP will give her a lot more credibility immediately.
And let’s be honest, the only opposition party that is strong enough to give you a worthy fight is the Worker’s Party and truth is, they are pragmatic and sensible. At this point, they understand that they should not attempt to replace you as the government because for Singapore to continue in its tight and compact growth, it is necessary that a coordinated government is at helm. Thus their aim is to only challenge you at this point to do the right thing, and not to overthrow you. In any case, netizens are doing a much better job at challenging you at this point. So, if you have the smarts and are willing to let go of your ego as well as the play of politics (some of it at least), you would know that it’s beneficial for you to work with the Worker’s Party. So, similar to how you have engaged Nicole Seah, you need to engage the Worker’s Party on a similar level. Obviously, you guys want to fight out your differences – it’s politics – stupid but I guess you have to do that. But work with the Worker’s Party to put yourself out as a government which is wiling to be consultative, and be willing to be truly sincere. Any opposition which has Singapore’s interests at heart, or in fact, anyone who has Singapore’s interests at heart, will be willing to provide honest, objective and well-analysed viewpoints, which will work for the interests of Singapore, and downplay the politics. This also means you have to do the same.
My government, we are at a turning point in Singapore’s development. You have said this yourself. But you cannot say this and then continue in your ways of the past. You need to develop new strategies of engaging and consulting with Singaporeans, based on the understanding that we are at a turning point. At the juncture when you have netizens who are throwing everything they have, including their kitchen sink, at you, you need to form smart alliances with people who can help you to bring the netizens on your side or if not, to at least be persuaded to hear you. The opposition at this point can be the “objective” balance that you require – it is silly to carve out a part of yourself to do this, as reasoned above. Otherwise, your next best bet will be the experts in their respective fields, as you have always done, but with the turning point that Singapore is at now, it would mean that you cannot simply identify experts, align them with you and request that they say whatever you want them to say. It would mean that you sincerely engage and consult, and start encouraging a vibrant debate where people who actually believe in you would speak up for you and be part of that vibrant discussion to help uplift your reputation.
But of course, if you already know that most experts would actually speak up against you and which is why you might have refrained from doing going down this route, then perhaps you are really doing something that you know is not right. Then you would need to change, only because you have to do – this would be the right thing to do.
To conclude, you know what needs to be done. But you need to be bold. You cannot hold on to some of your old ways, even if they might have served you well in the past. You need to form new alliances with parties which you would never have had in the past, only because of the dynamic changes that have occurred in the past few years. You also have to be sincere and geniune in your ways, especially in your engagement and consultation with Singaporeans, because we know when you are being true, and not. And when you show yourself to not mean what you say at any one point, we will only pick on that. Unfortunately, the trust that could have been is now in tatters and every move that anyone in your party makes can thus be a flash point. But things can change, and will change. But you might have to be the gentleman at this point and be willing to be patient with us. Of course, we have to be the gentleman too, but who understands the larger picture of Singapore better than you do, and if we don’t, you have to give us the time to do so, especially since we are only beginning to awaken to our newfound abilities to think about socio-political issues.
You have to remember that the current situation is partially created by you, through a mix of past policies, and if you want change to take place, you will need to give another few years or decades before the effects of what you have done onto us can be undone.