When leaders apologise

When Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Wee Kiak retracted his comments in April about how Malaysia had handled the Flight MH370 incident, it was the MP’s third public embarrassment.

In 2011 and 2013 he apologised for his remarks on ministerial salaries and on Mr Low Thia Khiang’s hearing ability respectively. (See below.)

But Mr Lim is not the only one who has had to offer a “regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure”, as an apology is defined by some.

Looking back on the last 8 years, many Members of Parliament – including not a few ministers – have apologised for various remarks they have made which had offended the public or particular groups of people. Some incidents more serious than others.

For example, former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng had to apologise for the escape of Southeast Asia’s top terrorist suspect in 2007 from a Singapore detention facility.

But not all politicians would apologise easily. Instead, they prefer to be a “punching bag” for the public, as MP for Joo Chiat, Charles Chong, said in 2009.

By his estimation, “frustrations have got to be vented on someone or another.”

He said, when referring to criticisms of his remarks then that Singaporeans are more prone to complain than new immigrants, “It will be sad if people vented their frustrations on other new Singaporeans who are here to find a better life. As a politician, I can stand the heat.”

Mr Chong had also made what has turned out to be an infamous remark in 2009. Referring to the outcry over a Permanent Secretary spending about $46,500 on a holiday to Paris’ famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, Mr Chong described the critics as “lesser mortals” and that they were “envious” of the Perm Sec.

But he was unfazed by the criticisms and has taken them in his stride.

“After 21 years in politics, I have developed very thick skin,” he said.

Indeed, that was also what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year. He described “being unashamed and thick-skinned as elements key to online resilience”, referring to the online vitriol which is sometimes directed at him and his government.

“When you are in the public eye,” he said, “you flame me, I’m flameproof.”

But even so, the prime minister himself has had to apologise – twice – in recent years for the failings of his government.

However, Mr Lee’s ongoing joust with blogger Roy Ngerng has attracted criticisms. Some say that he should be magnanimous and accept Mr Ngerng’s apology for allegedly defaming him in a blog post.

Instead, Mr Lee claimed that Mr Ngerng was insincere in his apology.

Also, under demand from Mr Lee’s lawyers, Mr Ngerng had made an offer of compensation of S$5,000 to Mr Lee. However, Mr Lee’s lawyer said this amount was “derisory”.

So, Mr Lee has apparently rejected both the apology and the offer of compensation and the matter looks to be going before the courts.

Yet, Mr Lee was seemingly more forgiving when it came to incidents involving others.

In 2012, Chinese student Sun Xu had made derogatory remarks about Singaporeans, causing an uproar. Mr Lee, in giving his views on the incident then, said:

“You look at the Sun Xu incident, he shouldn’t have made that blog post. He did. He has been chastised. He has been disciplined. He has expressed his contrition. He’s sorry about it. And I think we should accept that. We should have been able to move on from that and deal with it as one person who mis-spoke.”

And in January this year, speaking at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Ministerial Forum event, Mr Lee said of the incidents involving former National Trades Union Congress employee Amy Cheong and a fictitious Facebook character “Heather Chua” who made racist postings online:

“Yes, somebody has done something wrong, repudiate it, condemn it, but do not lower ourselves to that same level to behave in a way which really makes us all so ashamed of ourselves to become abusive, hateful mobs, especially online and anonymously.

“We risk having an over-reaction, we risk having unrestrained, anonymous viciousness on the Internet.

“You scold, you swear, you curse — all the wrong instincts get fed and in a group, there are certain group dynamics and it is like a pack of hounds hunting, which is bad.

“We have to be better than that, to deal with situations civilly, patiently, tolerantly. Hold a stand, but remain a civilised human being.”

Are Singaporeans themselves a forgiving people? Well, if one looks at Singaporeans’ reaction to foul-ups by their political leaders, it would seem so – and there have been not a few of these leaders who have had to apologise.

But are our leaders just as forgiving when they are injured by others?

Andrew Loh


Lee Hsien Loong – May 2006: Apologising for his “fix the opposition” remarks during the general elections.

May 2006 - LHLb


Lee Kuan Yew – October 2006. Apologising for remarks on Malaysia that the attitude of Malaysia and Indonesia towards the republic was shaped by the way they treated their Chinese communities.

Oct 2006 - LKYa


Wee Siew Kim – Oct 2006. Apologising for his daughter Wee Shu Min’s blog post.

Oct 2006 - WSK


Wong Kan Seng – Feb 2008. Apologising for the escape of terrorist suspect, Mas Selamat.

feb 2008 - WKS


Khaw Boon Wan – Nov 2009. Apologising for two incidents of chemotherapy drugs overdose in Kandang Kerbau Hospital.

Nov 2009c - KBW


Ng Eng Hen – May 2010. Apologising for his remarks on the weightage of the Mother Tongue subjects for the PSLE.

May 2010 - NEH


Vivian Balakrishnan – Sept 2010. Apologising for the wrong signatures used on more than 45,000 certificates that were given to Youth Olympic Games participants, volunteers and torch-bearers.



Lee Hsien Loong – May 2011. Apologising for the failings of government policies.

May 2011c - LHL


Lim Wee Kiak – May 2011. Apologising for remarks linking ministerial pay with the “dignity” of politicians.

May 2011 - LWKb


Penny Low – August 2011. Apologising for using her handphone during the singing of the National Anthem at the National Day Parade.



Teo Ser Luck, Zaqy Mohamed – November 2011. Apologising for the racist remarks of a Young PAP member directed towards a Muslim kindergarten.



Seng Han Thong – Dec 2011. Apologising for his remarks about SMRT staff.



Baey Yam Keng – Feb 2012. Apologising for his remarks that Singaporeans should “reflect” on themselves afterNational University of Singapore undergraduate Sun Xu had described Singaporeans as “dogs”.

Feb 2012 - BYK


Michael Palmer – December 2012. Apologising for letting Singaporeans down because of his affair with Ms Laura Ong.

Dec 2012 - MP


Teo Chee Hean – Feb 2013. Apologising for the White Paper footnote which described nursing as a “low skilled” occupation.



Lim Wee Kiak – Feb 2013. Apologising to Low Thia Khiang for his comments on Mr Low’s hearing aid.

Feb 2013 - LWKa


Zainudin Nordon – May 2013. Apologising for his Facebook post which said, “Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action.”

May 2013 - ZNb


Lim Swee Say – Feb 2014. Apologising for the People’s Association sending out the wrong invitation to Dr Tan Cheng Bock and others to a party at the Istana.

Feb 2014 - LSS

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