Our Singapore Government is never blatant, but always obvious. It doesn't state or list what it wants. But, if we look carefully enough, its intentions are obvious, even startlingly clear.
In January this year, filmmaker Lynn Lee interviewed two SMRT bus drivers who were said to be key instigators of Singapore’s first strike in 26 years. The bus drivers alleged that they had been beaten and threatened by police officers. After Ms Lee released snippets of the interviews on her website, she was invited to have coffee at the Internal Affairs Office, an independent body within the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In February, Dr Cherian George, a well-respected academic, was denied tenure by the Nanyang Techological University (NTU). Dr George, incidentally, discusses socio-political issues related to Singapore with illuminating wit and brevity. The lack of transparency on this denial of tenure has prompted four senior faculty members from NTU itself to pen a letter of support for Dr George.
More recently, Nizam Ismail withdrew from the Boards of Directors of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) and Centre of Research on Malay and Islamic Affairs (RIMA). He was informed that two Ministers “were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media.” He was also advised to “take it easy” and refrain from such politically-inclined activities lest the Government withdraw all funding from AMP. According to Mr Nizam, this was why he withdrew from both the AMP and RIMA Boards.
Equally recent was the arrest of Leslie Chew, an online comic artist who runs Demon-cratic Singapore, “a totally fictional comic with entirely fictional characters based on wholly fictional events in a fictional country”. Mr Chew has been warned twice over his comic strips, one that refers to the removal of a judge and the other that speaks about the Malay population.
These disparate incidents suggest a government desperate to control the online media, desperate to stifle any voice that might be remotely construed as dissenting. And why just pick on outspoken individuals? Why not simply ensure everyone 'read the right thing'? Say, have a ruling that online websites reporting on Singapore put up a 50,000 SGD bond. If these sites ever run afoul of any rule that the Media Development Authority arbitrarily decides, just confiscate their money lah.
Our government, naturally, has the rights to defend itself against allegations. In fact, as a citizen, I’d expect our government to. But is there a need to react with both guns blazing, is there a need to rely on legal threats, withdrawal of resources and discrediting?
Why not engage us? Why not reason with us? Why not understand our concerns?
Last December, I had interviewed Mr Chew for the Kent Ridge Common. When I found out that he was being investigated for allegedly seditious acts, I dropped him an email to express my hope that all this would resolve quickly and amicably.
After sending that single email, doubts began to surface. Isn’t Mr Chew’s computer, phone and hard drive confiscated? What if the government were scrolling through his emails right now, searching for his supporters? Would I be implicated?
For a moment, my humchee-ness scrambled my thoughts and I couldn’t think clearly. Then, I realized that this is exactly what the government wants. To make people uncomfortable about expressing divergent opinions online. Our Singapore Government is smart. It doesn't have to be explicit about what it wants. All it has to do is to propagate a climate of fear and expect Singaporeans to cower. It is never blatant, but always obvious.
Such incidents contribute to an atmosphere of uncertainty, turning the political momentum against the current, governing political party. But there’s no reason for such incidents to become public fiascoes, no need for one fiasco after another!
The governing political party can use these incidents to their advantage. Instead of going after their critics with the standard methods of legal threats, withdrawal of resources and discrediting, they can, instead, recognise their efforts.
Come up with an "Outstanding Singaporean with Visible Online Presence" (OSVOP) award or another phrase with nicer-sounding acronyms. Thank the critics for spotting something they might have overlooked. Through this, they would have demonstrated that they are humble, they have changed, they are listening and addressing our concerns.
By relying on those tried-tested-doesn’t-work-that-well-anymore methods, critics would feel that their concerns aren’t addressed. It is conceivable that they’d just repeat their concerns in various ways no matter how many voices are suppressed. (Recognising the efforts of online commentators with such awards might in fact discredit them as independent voices, but that’s an altogether different issue.)
Instead of viewing online media as antagonistic, our government should recognize that we all share a common aspiration for Singapore, and in that common aspiration, find ways for different voices to come together and sing a symphony.
Look, I'm thankful for the education that the PAP-led government has accorded me. I'm thankful that I could converse with Chinese and English people and learn from them without a gaping language barrier in between. I'm thankful for an education that has allowed me to write this very post here. I'm thankful for so many things that the government has done. The provision of healthcare, the provision of potable water in our taps, ensuring that Singaporeans have jobs - very thankful for so many things.
But I'm finding it a challenge to love a government that provides for its people but doesn't love them.
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