Minister Shanmugam shows us how much we need to improve our English

By October 10, 2017Current

TL;DR – Time for us to go back to school? Not.

We thought we heard the last of the debate on the changes to the system to elect our president when Minister Shanmugam and Ms Sylvia Lim sparred in Parliament recently.

We were wrong. So wrong.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock fired another salvo after Ms Lim’s adjournment motion. Dr Tan claimed that Minister Shanmugam’s response to Ms Lim contradicted what he had earlier said.

What, exactly, did Minister Shanmugam say and mean?

So what did Minister Shanmugam say? In a dialogue session Minister Shanmugam was asked “When would the circuit-breaker (to hold a reserved election after a racial group has not been represented in Presidential office after five continuous terms) come into effect?”

Minister Shanmugam’s answer was:

“The most direct answer is actually, the Government can decide. When we put in the Bill, we can say we want it to start from this period. It’s… a policy decision but there are also some legal questions about the Elected Presidency and the definition and so on, so we have asked the Attorney-General for advice. Once we get the advice, we will send it out (emphasis ours)”

Pay particular attention to the last sentence.

Dr Tan probably read that sentence and took the “it” in that sentence to refer to the advice that the government was to get from the Attorney-General. That’s why Dr Tan thought that Minister Shanmugam had meant that the government would send out the advice it got from the Attorney-General.

And that contradicts what Minister Shanmugam said in Parliament in response to Ms Lim:

“This government, as a rule, generally, does not publish legal opinions that it gets.”

Minister Shanmugam has since responded to Dr Tan. In that response, Minister Shanmugam clarified that the “it” in the sentence “once we get the advice, we will send it out” has to be read in context of his entire answer.

And if read in the context of the entire context, the “it” actually refers to the government’s position, not the Attorney-General’s advice to the government.


Minister Shanmugam isn’t wrong. If we read his answer to the question in the dialogue session carefully, in its entirety, and thought hard about it, then yes, we might have comprehended the sentence the way Minister Shanmugam had intended it to mean.

But… maybe we shouldn’t be made to think so hard?

We are but… commoners. Definitely not every one of us is a senior lawyer who is well-trained in scrutinising every word and crunch every paragraph.

A great person once said this about communication:

“When I was a law student I learned that every word, every sentence has three possible meanings: what the speaker intends it to mean, what the hearer understands it to mean, and what it is commonly understood to mean. So when a coded message is sent in a telegram, the sender knows what he means, the receiver knows exactly what is meant, the ordinary person reading it can make no sense of it at all.

When you write notes, minutes or memoranda, do not write in code, so that only those privy to your thoughts can understand. Write so simply so that any other officer who knows nothing of the subject can still understand you. To do this, avoid confusion and give words their ordinary meanings.”

That person was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He said it to a gathering of top civil servants in 1979. He went on to say:

“If I had not been able to reduce complex ideas into simple words and project them vividly for mass understanding, I would not be here today.”

Let’s get back to communicating simply and clearly

In other words, Mr Lee insisted that it’s the responsibility of the speaker and writer to make himself easily understood. The audience or reader should not be made to bear the responsibility of having to think so hard to understand what he hears or reads.

So, while Minister Shanmugam was technically correct in both his responses to Ms Lim and Dr Tan, he could have avoided all of these if he communicated in a less “lawyer-ly” fashion, and in a manner that is far easier to understand by us commoners.

Surely (and dare I say it, thankfully?) we cannot all be lawyers. Meanwhile, Dr Tan remains a cheerful former parliamentarian.


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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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