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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'Plain speech also about telling the hard truth'. Print Edition | Subscribe