"to rescue truth from beauty and meaning from belief"

The Acts and Art of Manipulation


Beauty is truthtruth beauty,—that is all.” Keats

As a minister given almost a month to anticipate and prepare for a certain scenario, how would you go about it?

That is the pertinent question Singapore citizens need ask in order to uncover, as it were, the aim behind Minister Khaw’s beautiful performance on 29 Jan in Parliament. It was a successful performance – judging by the million or more written and discussed words in the days since. And, even more successful to his and Party’s intent, if one notices the turn in focus of what’s written/printed.

Essentially, the focus of ‘Fernvalegate’ has now become only a matter of a failure in the tender process and execution.

Here is my 2cents’ worth to try to ‘rescue truth from beauty’.

To see through the true intent of Khaw’s parliamentary reply, we must first know 2 fundamentals underpinning his action and the reply.
One, the substance of the reply must be informed by the need of the situation. How ‘Fernvalegate’ has played out thus far against the current imperatives of his Party working under the pressure of time to the next GE and in a climate unfavourable to PAP. Forget not that Khaw is first and foremost Comrade Chairman, PAP.

Two, it is a well-known fact that seasoned politicians practise the act of manipulation to a fine art – to secure and stay in power. They do whatever it takes to increase their chances at the ballot box….Never mind what the people think.

Therefore, we cannot be too far wrong to sieve Khaw’s performance through the 2 aforesaid filters. Firstly, there’s little doubt that the Fernvalers’ unexpected rage, PAP MP Lam’s vote-endangering performance and the accompanying flare-up in cyberspace dictated PAP’s need to minimize political damage. Secondly, containing that fallout can only be achieved through reclaiming the narrative.

Singaporeans are damnably daft if they suppose that PAP’s governance extends to honesty in playing the political game.

We examine Khaw’s reply.

Here we first need to go back to how Fernvalegate took off. The key complaint of the buyers is ‘the non-disclosure of material information in the promotion and sale of Fernvale apartments”. With regard to the commercial columbarium, “the reason why so many of us were caught off guard is because we have placed so much trust in a government statutory board. We have expected HDB to be transparent, open and more forthcoming with important information. We didn’t expect a reputable and biggest developer of properties like HDB would hide critical material information under ultra fine prints and vague uncertain phrases (eg. “may include”) coupled with disclaimers.

We believe that if there were information which could help HDB to fetch a better price for the BTOs (eg. Mall, LRT stations, amenities etc), HDB would surely have put them up prominently and affirmatively. We expect HDB to do likewise for information (eg. Columbarium) that may make the flats less attractive to most buye­­rs and thus, fetch lower prices for HDB.

But Khaw disregarded that critical objection (omission of material fact). In short, Khaw evaded it.
Next, to MP’s queries, Khaw appeared to admit neglect by his managers in the tender evaluation. His HDB subordinates have ‘assumed’ (wrongly) that tenderers will abide by the rules…Really? Are angels running businesses in a growing industry (increasingly elderly population with money to burn upon death) whose first concerns are sticking to rules not profit maximization? As much as rent-seeking by a HDB operating under PAP’s mantra, ‘What’s wrong with collecting more money’ primarily concerned to serve citizens’ interests? Any savvy company would see thro’ HDB’s habit of awarding to the highest bids (Khaw admitted as much), and obliged accordingly. If rent-seeking is not habitual, LifeCorp might have risked a lower bid with a superior USP (unique selling proposition) to ace the tender.

Sounding almost contrite with sincerity or sincere with contrition, Khaw appeared to excuse his ministry since “for 20-odd years, we would never have thought that a for-profit company would participate in a non-profit making venture”  (echoes of a ‘50-year flood event’?). So, will any head(s) roll? That decision hinges on the threat of vote loss from fence-sitters vs loss of compliant civil servants’ votes (for severing the unwritten rule that no minister’s/civil servant’s ever need to roll for mistakes of any kind).

Regardless, Khaw diverted our attention with a masterstroke of acknowledging a shortcoming – but searing his Party’s preferred narrative for Fernvalegate.

Further, to doubly ensure success, he threw in poetic license. A virtuoso performance, almost. In the august chambers on 29 Jan, Parliament House, the mention of butterflies and lovers would be like pearls of wisdom sprouting from a sage to an expectant audience. ‘Butterfly Lovers’ by the Fan Dai, is not a classic if the story will not stir one’s soul. But Fan Dai would likely turn in his grave to hear/read that his tender, tragic story of a love unfulfilled being used as a tool to frivolously explain away a grave error in governance. All par for the course to mislead citizens towards an ignoble political end.

Judging by the many commentaries and comics based on his Butterfly comparison, Khaw can be justly proud of his attempt to distract citizens from Fernvalers’ main beef with a beauty of a prose.

So, people, be not daft. Social media editors, be not duped. Readers and commentators, be not deceived. The tender process snafu and the beauty of Butterfly Lovers are but diversion and distraction to help in the evasion of Fernvale citizens’ core concern. PAP’s HDB must answer for their wilful withholding of material information in selling a roof over and for our heads as much as they nee­d to answer for their human error or complacency in the tender.

On the face of it, PAP Chairman claimed empathy with Fernvalers. But actually, he was directing his Party’s preferred narrative that Fernvalers suffer from a selfish, NIMBY mentality instead of directly addressing the issue of contractual transparency between a government ministry and the very citizens it is committed and claims to serve.

The art of manipulation via 3 acts; evade, divert, distract. That’s the truth behind the beauty.

Fernvalers, please speak up! Reclaim your narrative and your demand! We are all ears – and all the way with you!

Footnote: How Khaw sidestepped the critical question. See more at: <http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/housing/story/sengkang-columbarium-khaw-boon-wan-takes-questions-mps-20150129#sthash.i75Wv9n0.dpuf&gt;

MP Zaqy Mohamad’s (CCK GRC): On the issue of transparency, one of the sticking points from many of the residents or potential buyers of these flats was that the columbarium was seen to be a fine print. So moving forward, from a URA perspective or sales perspective, how does HDB plan to change this practice?
Mr Khaw: In this instance, there was no question of lack of transparency. The site was clearly marked as a temple. And in fact, for completeness, the HDB put in a footnote to indicate there may be a columbarium because we cannot assume that the temple will build a columbarium.…But I think the unhappiness of the residents over the last few weeks was that they thought we were going to allow a commercial columbarium to be built – and this is quite a different creature from an incidental columbarium service.


2 thoughts on “The Acts and Art of Manipulation

  1. Seems to me that Khaw should be the PM instead of LHL. It is true that Khaw put up a good wayang but that is expected from any half decent politician anywhere in the world.

    That said, PAP took the side of for-profit business and unleashed NIMBY criticisms against the residents. They lost. They relent. And the face-saving wayang follows.


    • That would be disastrous for SGP and our grandchildren. Based on yr own observation, Khaw is the more dangerous one. He can mislead more daft ones and hence prolong PAP’s reign.

      I doubt tt PAP ‘relented’. Khaw has steered the focus back to NIMBY albeit with faux humility of a mistake tt never happened in ’20 odd years’.


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