Retired Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang's book holds up mirror to Singapore society

Guests with Mr Han (seated) at his book launch yesterday, including Mr Liak Teng Lit (at left), group CEO of Alexandra Health System.
Guests with Mr Han (seated) at his book launch yesterday, including Mr Liak Teng Lit (at left), group CEO of Alexandra Health System.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

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.

The way to improve... was by fostering a stronger sense of community, by being personally invested in everyone and everything around them... A case in point, said Mr Han, was how most Singaporeans would not clean up after themselves at hawker centres... Prof 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.

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.

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.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'Retired ST editor's book holds up mirror to Singapore society'. Print Edition | Subscribe