An open letter to the Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, from one of the country’s most celebrated writers, Ms Catherine Lim. It makes reference to the PM’s defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng.
It was with much dismay that I read the report ‘Blogger ordered to pay PM 150k in damages’ in the Straits Times of 18 December 2015. I was less struck by the specifics of a court case that Singaporeans must have been following with great interest over the months — the standpoints taken by the contending parties, the various judicial processes, the assessment of damages to be paid to the plaintiff — than by one stark fact: once again, Sir, your powerful government is putting to use its most powerful instrument for silencing critics, namely, the defamation suit.
This dreaded instrument that had been created in a past era to punish political opponents specifically and instil fear in the people generally, could not have appeared at a more inappropriate time. For this is supposedly a period of sweeping change and new connection with the people, following the PAP’s resounding victory in a highly fraught general election. Charged with new energy, the government has been engaged in a massive exercise of goodwill and generous giving to the people, firstly to consolidate and strengthen the support that they had given in the election, and secondly, to lead them, during this crucial period of transition, into a new era of PAP leadership that promises to be even better connected with their needs and aspirations.
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My comment: Catherine Lim as always dresses her argument in such flowing linguistic finery. Much as I admire (and envy!) her majestic writing style, I am mindful of the need to consider it separately from the substance that lies beneath.
“If, for the first time in Singapore’s political history, the PAP leaders break away from precedent , and decide to give M priority over D, they will in effect be setting another precedent: giving the nod to their successors to try a completely different approach in dealing with the voices of dissent and confrontation. The result will most certainly be a totally new strategy that will be marked by openness and flexibility, which will thus be more attuned to the challenges and demands of a new age.”
It sounds like a glorious vision of embracing and boldly evolving to adapt to the needs of the future. While I have little doubt that Singapore does need to constantly evolve, I also know that sometimes in life, one needs the courage not to change. Some of the most important things in life are really boring and old-fashioned, like accountability for word and deed. And discipline. If you sacrifice these ‘boring’ things, you undermine the very fundamentals of your existence and well-being: in short, your life can come apart.
Sound fundamentals are particularly vital to a small country like Singapore. I would go further to argue that most of our country’s main competitive advantages are thoroughly boring: besides the above mentioned accountability and discipline, also good governance, respect for leaders, political stability, safety and security — all of which nurture an environment that permits the government to do less politicking and more long-term planning. It is precisely such boring fundamentals, however, that build the platform for one to lead an exciting, fulfilling life.
If we allow defamatory assaults to be carried out with impunity, the political scene here may degenerate into one where slanderous accusations are slung like so much sludge and malodorous filth all over the arena. This country prides itself on fair and responsible behaviour, and respect. Unfashionable, good old-fashioned values, whether you choose to label them as Asian or not. I believe most Singaporeans would not want that kind of tone in their politics and by extension, their society.
True, Singapore does need greater openness and flexibility to meet “the challenges and demands of a new age”. To do that, we need reform in our education system, our media controls, our social values and yes, our government’s attitude to criticism. But the critical point is this: criticism and defamation are distinct from each other. To be receptive to criticism is not the same as meekly tolerating a unfounded, flagrant smearing and tainting of one’s hard-won good name.
I had the privilege of meeting PM Lee in a dialogue session earlier this year and was quite blunt in my criticism of him. I was very struck by how receptive he was to criticism – there was not the slightest defensive reflex from him (so very different from some corporate chieftains and top civil servants I have had the misfortune of meeting). He tilted his head and really listened. I could tell he was really trying to see things from my point of view. Ultimately, he took my criticism very much in his stride.
We need the above mentioned reforms to make Singapore more open, flexible and dynamic. But to grant Ms Lim her wish might instead cause Singapore society to lose its famed discipline, accountability and personal responsibility. We risk these boring qualities at our peril.
To close, I would like to point out a simple fact for further thought. Ms Catherine Lim has been robustly criticising the government for many years now, as have many opposition leaders like Low Thia Khiang and Kenneth Jeyaretnam. If the defamation suit really were such a “powerful instrument for silencing critics”, would it not have silenced them by now?
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