On leaked speeches, idiots, and suckers

By now a lot of you have probably heard this leaked audio recording of Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing speaking to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It’s been circulating online, especially on WhatsApp, and The Online Citizen has posted it to SoundCloud, which I’ve embedded below:

In the recording, the minister addresses several aspects of the fight against COVID-19: the limited availability of masks, the raising of DORSCON from Yellow to Orange, the panic-buying that took place, the impact on businesses and employment. He spoke in full-on Chinese unker Singlish, letting loose and venting his frustrations over the situation. His verbal fire was especially concentrated on those who had engaged in panic-buying and hoarding: labelling them “idiots” and “suckers”, he mocked their rush to stock up on toilet paper, hand sanitisers, and even condoms, and described it as “sia suay” (disgraceful, in the sense that it causes people to lose face).

For those of you who can’t be bothered to listen to the clip (don’t blame you), here’s an excerpt for some flavour (just skip it if you’ve heard the clip):

Okay, rice you scared, 世界末日 (world coming to an end), because people think DORSCON Orange means Wuhan, you know. Okay lah so you want stock rice, stock noodles, okay I can tahan. Then why stock toilet paper?! If you eat all the rice and instant noodles, you confirm diarrhoea.

You explain to me... then why Hong Kong people stock toilet paper? Because monkey see monkey do. Hong Kong people stock toilet paper because people scared toilet paper come from China, tomorrow China no toilet paper we all cannot go pangsai right? Our toilet paper come from where? Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia and Malaysia cut off our toilet paper supply or not? Cut off that one ah, the famous words from Sun Xueling ah, bo zua zui ah ho, no paper, water also can. So why do we behave so idiotically I cannot tahan. Right?

Then the selfish idiot go and take all the alcohol swipes, because got no more clean wipe right? Take alcohol swipe, you know the small small one, to clean table. That one people use for medical... you know the diabetic patient must clean the skin then poke the needle through one? Wah lau eh, you take that one to clean table, clean finger... The one I really cannot tahan one, why condoms also run out of stock?

[in response to jokey comments from the audience] Self entertainment. In case of lockdown, self entertainment. I thought in case of lockdown, at least nine months later TFR [Total Fertility Rate] go up, still got chance.

So can you explain to me why Singaporean like that?

Since the audio was “leaked”, Chan has actually been praised by many Singaporeans for his candid talk. We are, after all, a nation of people who believe that we all need some “hard truths to keep us going”, and many people have taken this speech as an indication that the government is going strong and has got the situation all in hand.

I’ve found the positive reaction pretty staggering. It makes me feel like there’s a significant number of us Singaporeans out there who actually like to be treated with disdain.

To be clear, I’m not taking issue with a lot of Chan’s arguments. For instance, I totally see the logic behind the government strategy with face masks: without knowing how long the COVID-19 situation is going to drag out, plus the knowledge that the surgical mask suppliers of the world are going to struggle to keep up the supply given the demand from so many countries, it makes sense for the government to be cautious about how many masks they dispense from the stockpile. I also appreciate him asking business leaders not to retrench workers at this difficult period, even though COVID-19 is hitting many companies’ bottom-lines.

But it’s the way he talks about all this that bothers me. Not the Singlish—there’s nothing wrong with speaking Singlish, no matter what the Speak Good English Movement might imply.

It’s the implication, running underneath all his comments, that he operates from a position that the public is dumb or irrational, and he’s the clever one with the answers.

Sure, we might think that people who are panic-buying and hoarding are being silly and selfish (and guilty as charged, I’ve made some “look at these people wtf” comments too). But dismissing them as being irrational or stupid doesn’t help the situation. In looking up reasons for why people engage in such behaviour, I found this BBC News interview with a collective psychology expert commenting on a period of panic-buying in the UK that was really illuminating.

Panic-buying: it’s not actually that irrational

In the interview, Dr Clifford Stott says that resilience in society “revolves around trust and confidence, it revolves around a sense of collective identity, or social identity”. He says that instead of telling people that they don’t need to be irrational—which actually adds to the sense of a problem—we should be building communities instead. This isn’t just something for the government to think about, but also for the media to consider in its reporting, because oftentimes media reporting also amplifies the sense of “panic” and “crisis”.

Panic-buying, Dr Stott points out, isn’t actually irrational—stocking up when you think you’re going to be short of supplies in the future is pretty rational behaviour. What’s happening is that people are acting individualistically to take care of their own needs, which is selfish behaviour at scale. “So what we need to do is to help people to think collectively, and to think as a community. What we’re looking at here is not a loss of rationality, but a loss of our sense of ourselves as a community.”

Dr Stott was talking about worries over fuel shortages due to planned industrial action in the UK in 2012, but I think his comments apply to what we’ve seen in Singapore with COVID-19. The desperate hoarding and “every man for himself” selfish behaviour suggests that, despite all our efforts with Total Defence and psychological defence, we’ve failed to build a strong sense of community and solidarity. Instead of mocking people who are stockpiling out of anxiety, we should be asking ourselves why they feel such anxiety, and what can be done to address this. It’s not going to be fixed by telling people they’re being idiots.

(Photo from Chan Chun Sing’s Facebook post)

Who else does Chan think are idiots?

It’s also more worrying when the person making such disdainful comments about the public is a government minister. Even though most of his contempt was reserved for those who engaged in hoarding, it was pretty clear to me from his comments overall that he generally thinks that the population isn’t particularly smart: he talks about giving out surgical masks so people can feel “shiok-shiok”, and seems to generally come from a place where he assumes that Singaporeans don’t know much and should just listen to the government.

His jokes and jabs might be funny when the targets are people that we don’t identify with and also think are being dumb, but the attitude that Chan displayed throughout this speech made me wonder: who else does he dismiss as irrational, or dumb?

Does he also think that critics of POFMA are just a bunch of people who “never think”? Perhaps he thinks that those of us who believe that there should be more freedom of assembly in Singapore are “suckers” who don’t understand the situation like he does? Or maybe he believes that activists pushing for the repeal of 377A merely want to feel “shiok-shiok”?

This brings us back to a long-standing issue that has been raised time and time again: does the PAP government engage with citizens from a position of mutual respect and good faith? How meaningful are the public consultations that we have in Singapore? How open are they to listening to differing viewpoints and considering them?

If the government has so little trust and faith in the people, and believe that they can only speak candidly to a group of “elite” who are like them—such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry—then it’s no surprise that we have this sort of top-down paternalistic authoritarian governance. And we should really be asking ourselves if this is a good place to be.

This might seem okay for a lot of the time—and generally I think the government’s response to COVID-19 has been pretty good—but does it actually help to build the solidarity and social identity that we need to be resilient? Does it encourage Singaporeans to engage in our own critical thinking and parse the situation for ourselves without having to always be waiting for cues from the government? Does it make us strong enough to be able to be, to borrow the term from Chan, “steady” independent of the government? What happens if the government gets something wrong, or doesn’t react fast enough? Will we be paralysed as a people without direction from the top?

(Then there’s the even deeper question: what does it mean for us, as people, to not be able access fundamental rights and freedoms that allow us to exercise our full agency as human beings?)

This is not a rant to argue that everything Chan said or did was wrong—far from it. But it was upsetting for me to see so many people applaud his comments, and to think about what that says about us and our normalisation of paternalistic, authoritarian governance.