Verbal lashing reminds many of harsh old days

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 15 May 2005

Insight: Down SouthBy SEAH CHIANG NEE

BLUNT, controversial civil servant Philip Yeo has hit the headlines again, but for the wrong reasons. 

At a time when the government is projecting Singapore as an inclusive, tolerant society, the powerful bureaucrat cracked down on a student critic, threatening to sue him for defamation.  

The University of Illinois student, Chen Jiahao, was accused of damaging the reputation of a government agency, A-Star (that Yeo led), in his personal website. The threat was withdrawn only after Chen shut the website down and apologised for the second time for his comments. 

This was followed by a newspaper interview in which Yeo launched an attack on male government scholars, describing them as “whiny and immature”.  

These actions stirred anger within the Internet community to an extent rarely seen in the past decade. Many men read it as a personal attack on them. 

Yeo is a pillar of Singapore’s biomedical industry. He’s also chairman of A-Star, whose task is to nurture research talent by offering scholarships to A-grade Singaporean and foreign students to study in some of the world’s best universities. The students are then required to work for the government for six years. Keenly sought by global MNCs, however, many have been wriggling out of their bonds. Chen is one of them.  

Bond-breakers anger Yeo in a way that surprised some members of the ruling party. He calls them ungrateful and disloyal and had in the past publicly shamed them.  

To put it into perspective, privileged youths reneging on their scholarship promises are not popular with the public and Yeo is generally supported for insisting that they pay back their dues to society.  

“The scholarship money is from my research institutes. This is not your Ah Kong’s (grandfather’s) money. So you jolly well make sure you study hard and excel,” he said. 

But Yeo’s actions are widely criticised. Many believe it could have been done with greater finesse.  

One critic said, “It is like using a machinegun to get a mosquito in a room full of people.” 

Yeo observed that all government scholars who broke their bonds since 1990 had been Singapore males, and they also made up most of the web critics against the programme. 

“I have no bond-breakers among the girls, no bond-breakers among foreign students. Maybe I should give more scholarships to non-Singaporeans who are bright, eager and hungry, and then help them get Singapore passports. The rest, I give to the A-level girls at 19 years old,” he said. 

“I don’t want whining Singapore boys. They are not mature even though they have done national service and are over 22 years old when they take up undergraduate studies. They give me so much trouble and waste our precious time.” 

People who know the high-achieving bureaucrat are not surprised by the outburst. Twenty years ago, the whole thing would have passed as just another government scolding, but times and politics have changed.  

This episode is particularly damaging for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who took over the leadership only last August. He is trying to convince Singaporeans – and the world – that his is not a punitive, draconian government.  

He is testing his popularity in his first general election as prime minister and can do without this unnecessary heat. Besides, he had just encouraged young Singaporeans in a TV forum to speak up and play an active role in nation building.  

Yeo has strengthened local critics’ contention that society remains fundamentally as it was in the “harsh old days”. So far the government, ministers and backbenchers have kept quiet, probably gauging ground reaction to determine whether any damage control is needed.  

However, Yeo has his admirers, including Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. He is regarded as a rare breed of civil servants with vision and the ability to get things done. Some Singaporeans lament that he will not be easily replaceable. 

A promotion report prepared by The Washington Times Advertisement Department on behalf of A-Star said in part: “Philip Yeo exhibits all the intelligence of an Albert Einstein and boundless energy and enthusiasm of American exercise guru Richard Simmons. He is a man on a mission.” 

However, his “arrogance” has gained him many detractors who say his type is becoming irrelevant and negative for the New Singapore. One sympathetic web message sums it up, “We’re dammed if he stays, and we’re double-dammed if he goes.” 

Yeo doesn’t take kindly to criticism, frequently blasting away at his critics. “You can call me names,” he said last week. “I don’t care. Just don’t criticise my work ... I will bomb you flat.” 

His quick temper has resulted in unnecessary flare-ups, even with government backbenchers and a newspaper editor. 

In an encounter in 1998, he called on (then) People’s Action Party MP Chng Hee Kok to resign when the latter disagreed with his stand that government scholars had a moral obligation to serve the nation. 

The repercussion – a civil servant telling an elected representative of the people to resign – ended up in Parliament and resulted in an admonition. Both men later made up. 

A-Star’s defamation threat has raised several questions. Firstly, how effective is the use of the court as a means of controlling criticism of the government or civil servants?  

The agency explained its move was to clear its good name, but even after the conflict was declared over, Singaporeans still have no idea what precisely Chen had said that was defamatory.  

It declined to say and Chen said he did not know. It is partly due to this lack of transparency that has swung public sympathy to the student. One source said it was over remarks made by a third person attached to one of his blogs. 

It also raises the question whether the scholarship programme – and the concept of bonding someone to a job for years – can serve a globalising Singapore that thrives on ideas.  

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan once suggested getting rid of it and replacing it with a student loan plan in which graduates repay the government after they’ve started working.  

Hsien Loong quickly slapped it down. That was years ago. The scholarship scheme may eventually go – or be drastically changed. 

  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website 

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