The power of effective English

You’ve probably read the news about the court exchange between the Lees and the Chees. It’s all very weird and surreal, and I do wish I had attended the court session.

All that stuff aside, what fascinated me most were the uber-powerful labels MM Lee used on Chee Soon Juan, and very successfully too – the local press immediately picked up on them and used them in the headlines.

“Political juvenile”

“Near psychopath”

You know, CSJ has been ranting for a good 16 years already, and is widely disregarded by rational local folks who have better things to do. Yeah, I want more liberties too, but more importantly, I need to pay the bills and feed the kids.

He’s said alot over the years, but I’ve sometimes felt that nothing has really registered because he hasn’t demonstrated the same mastery of the language that the Old Guard had/has. I once read an old speech to RI boys by Eddie Barker and boy, was he brief yet memorable in his words.

The right words, used just once (and not repeated again), calibrated carefully and in the right environment, will create a framework of thought that just sticks and refuses to disappear.

Now MM Lee’s two labels for CSJ are truly impressive – they are simple to understand, yet are loaded with meanings, and immediately carved out a public persona for people to frame CSJ into.

It doesn’t matter who you’re siding with politically. As someone who’s sometimes fascinated with the use of language and semantics, I’m struck by the use of those two labels and their sheer potency.

Politics is about pushing the right buttons, and life will really be more fun if more politicians here figure out how to use powerful language for their cause. All we hear these days is the boring language of administrators. We need more orators, poets and firebrands to spice up the imagination and drive emotions/thought, and that’s what the MM is really good at.

We don’t need a Speak Good English campaign. What we really need is a Speak Effective English campaign!

PS: Don’t bother commenting here, dear supporters of the Chees or even the Lees, this post is on language, not on which political side is better lah. ie. The older generation generally has a better grasp of English and its nuances. Fault of the education system or just a general trend towards simpler usage of English? Shrug, that’s for another day’s blog post.

PPS: From what I’m reading online about reactions to the court proceedings, I suspect some people may not even grasp the concept of “contempt of court”. Dear fellow citizens, please note that this is not an episode of Matlock or some John Grisham novel. If you think I’ve injured the raging political animal in you, you can always email me at iantan AT

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