Sunday 24 May 2015

I was stunned like vegetable by Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Two years ago, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said something to me and I totally missed it.

I had joined the 10km Jurong Lake Run, which Mr Tharman was flagging off since he’s the Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC.

As he made his way to the podium to flag off the race, he shook hands with a few out of the thousands of runners waiting at the start line. I was one of the lucky few — except I wasn’t so lucky.

I didn’t see him coming and was startled when I suddenly felt someone grabbing my hand. I turned and was stunned like vegetable to see who it was.

Mr Tharman said something to me that I couldn’t hear because I had my earphones on. I only saw his mouth move. All I heard was Weird Al Yankovic or whatever that was playing on my iPhone at that moment.

Then his mouth stopped moving and Mr Tharman looked at me like he was waiting for me to say something.

I did what anyone else would do in that situation — I pretended I heard what he said and just nodded dumbly.

He looked at me somewhat alarmed, like I was the craziest person he had ever met, and quickly moved on to shake hands with less psychotic individuals.

That was when I took off my earphones, but it was too late. He was gone.

I will never know what he said to me, to which a nod was evidently an inappropriate if not deranged response.

Damn you, Weird Al Yankovic!

Why didn’t I take off my earphones immediately instead of being stunned like vegetable?

I’ve regretted my slow reaction ever since but more so last week when I saw the YouTube video of a recent interview with Mr Tharman at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland.

The video was shared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Facebook and many were impressed by Mr Tharman’s poised performance.

Last week, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam spoke of the Singapore “trampoline” at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium in...
Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday, May 17, 2015

I suppose I must have heard him speak on TV before, but until that video, I never realised Mr Tharman had such a sonorous Barry White voice and a mellifluous, neutral enough accent that didn’t sound too out of place as he fielded questions from glib British host Stephen Sackur.

At one point during the interview, Sackur said to Mr Tharman: “To some of our sensitive flowers in the West, the authoritarianism that underpins that approach to managing a society feels uncomfortable.”

I googled “sensitive flowers” and got the mimosa plant, which can also be found in Singapore.

When Mr Tharman talked about the British press, Sackur, who also hosts the BBC programme, HARDtalk, said: “You are missing page three of the Sun newspaper and that’s a great loss, I agree.”

I was disappointed that at that moment, Sackur didn’t whip out a copy of the Sun newspaper and show Mr Tharman the daily naked female breasts on page three, just to see how our DPM would react.

My guess is Mr Tharman wouldn’t snigger like I would.

And snigger I did when I heard Mr Tharman say later in the video: “Singaporeans are, probably more than other societies, broadband-penetrated.”

Hey, who doesn’t enjoy being broadband-penetrated?

But Sackur was just getting warmed up. When Mr Tharman gave an answer that Sackur didn’t like, the host interrupted: “I believe in the sometimes simplicity of yes or no answers.”

If I were Mr Tharman, my response would be: “Have you stopped beating your wife, Mr Sackur? Yes or no answer only, please.”

Not that Mr Tharman didn’t get in a few rejoinders of his own.

When Sackur asked if Singapore believed in “the notion of a safety net”, Mr Tharman replied: “I believe in the notion of a trampoline.”

Sackur retorted: “So people are just bouncing up and down in Singapore.”

Yes, we’re all suddenly members of Cirque du Soleil.

Near the end of the interview, when Mr Tharman mentioned that China has “created a culture of accountability”, Sackur interjected: “Really? I’m slightly baffled by that.”

Mr Tharman said: “We can come back to that if you want to.”

Sackur said: “We don’t have time. We can talk more about China and accountability over coffee, but we can’t do it now.”

I’m sorry, but I can’t picture Mr Tharman and Sackur meeting at Starbucks and discussing world affairs over a couple of Ariana Grandes.

At least Sackur managed to use actual words with Mr Tharman, which is more than I can say for myself.

Hmmm, I wonder... did the minister ask me a yes-or-no question in 2013 and I didn’t hear it?

I hope the question wasn’t whether I had stopped beating my wife because a nod would’ve definitely been the wrong response.

It would explain a lot though.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 May 2015