22 Jun 2006

Repression curbs Singapore's potential

Taken from mailing list, Singapore Review

Repression curbs Singapore's potential
Arthur Waldron. The Providence Journal. Providence, R.I.: Mar 26,
2006. pg. C.06

PHILADELPHIA - THE GOVERNMENT of Singapore, it appears, is intent on
burning the bridges that should lead to their country's future. What
other conclusion can one draw from the trial of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, a
leader of the island's determined but absolutely peaceful and law-
abiding democratic movement?

Singapore is one of my favorite countries, and as an American, I do
not take sides about its internal affairs. But I did happen to hear
Dr. Chee speak last year, at a democracy conference in Taiwan, and to
meet him. The talent scout in me was deeply impressed.

Hearing him, I could not help thinking that this man would be the
first prime minister of a politically mature Singapore to be chosen
in a fully democratic election.

Dr. Chee speaks brilliantly, with great clarity and simplicity, and
formidable intellectual and moral power. He is certainly up to the
high standard set by the great founding fathers of today's Singapore,
including David Marshall and Lee Kwan-yew, whom ordinary people
packed the parliamentary galleries to hear, back when debate was more
common in that country.

No doubt exists in my mind that in an open televised discussion Dr.
Chee would verbally dice and mince any member of the current
Singapore government. They were once razor sharp and quick on their
feet, but decades of power and privilege have dulled them.

Now Dr. Chee is caught in the coils of the sadly familiar Singaporean
political repression by means of the courts. Found guilty of various
technical violations and saddled with fines he cannot pay, he is now
bankrupt -- and thus, conveniently, ineligible to run for office.
This time he may be imprisoned.

But at age 42, he can afford some time. Dr. Chee is as fully prepared
for imprisonment as was Jawaharlal Nehru in British India 70 years
ago. He will make good use of the time.

At some point he will be released and, sooner or later, Singapore
will begin to change. Ideas will be needed about how to make those

A generation ago, the People's Action Party led change and dealt with
setbacks brilliantly, making a territory that had seemed doomed --
poor, ethnically divided, without employment, and viewed with
hostility by its neighbors -- into one of the most prosperous and
well-administered of countries.

Sadly, that momentum now seems to have been lost. The man who did so
much to rescue the territory and transform it, Lee Kwan-yew, is now
in his 80s, but still dominating the island's politics and showing no
sign of genuine retirement. Once a powerful advocate of democracy, he
has more recently tended to take the side of authoritarian rule.

Thirty years ago, Lee looked set for real greatness. And he could
have achieved it if he had used his time in the power he had earned
to create an institutional system for Singapore that would survive
him. This he never did. Today his vision for the future seems to be
limited to turning over politics to his son and management of the
island's vast government assets to his daughter-in-law.

The task of creating a Singapore run by laws and institutions, rather
than by a family and its associates, Mr. Lee has bequeathed to his

That is why Dr. Chee is so important. Lee Kwan-yew's generation is
exhausted; having realized one vision, it is not capable of producing

Dr. Chee's trial testifies to this. If those leaders still had the
vigor and intellect of their early years, they would be debating Dr.
Chee in public or parliament -- trading argument for argument
fearlessly in front of their fellow citizens, confident that their
ideas would prevail. Instead, these once formidable parliamentarians
are seeking to disqualify and silence Dr. Chee without ever facing
what he has to say.

This will not work. Singapore has transformed itself economically,
socially and intellectually since the days when the People's Action
Party pulled it back from the brink of the abyss of wretched poverty
and ethnic conflict. The challenge now is almost the opposite: to
create political institutions and politics appropriate to one of the
wealthiest, best-educated and most sophisticated populations in the

Doing this will mean involving the population directly in ruling
itself, far more than is the case today. The state media monopolies
will have to be dismantled, the gerrymandered electoral system
rectified, political speech encouraged, and parliamentary debate
revived from its decades-long slumber.

The People's Action Party of Mr. Lee may surprise us all by rising to
these challenges, as it did to face comparably complex difficulties
early in its career. But even should it do so, one doubts that a
future of unbroken domination by that party would be either feasible
or good for Singapore.

Changes have to be made, and will be. The only question is when and
by whom? Debating with Dr. Chee Soon Juan, instead of dragging him
through the courts, would be a good, not to mention a wise, initial

Arthur Waldron is the Lauder Professor of International Relations at
the University of Pennsylvania and a regular visitor to Singapore.


Anonymous said...

One of the very unique terms of Singapore's political lexicon is "OB Markers" - OB being short for "Out of Bound". While the meaning of this is very clear in Singapore, what would a foreign journalist make of this? Is this about soccer? (World Cup Round 1 is going on right now) Is it related to Outward Bound (an organization to promote youth travel to gain experience and exposure)? A brand of whiteboard pen?

To explain using, again, unique Singaporean expressions, OB Markers draw the line where "sensitive" ends and "insensitive" begins; in other words, where you get into trouble. You are allowed to talk about "sensitive" issues, as long as you do not become so "insenstive" that you begin to say things you should not say. How do you know when you have strayed across the OB Markers by talking insenstively about sensitive issues? When someone in power gets upset at you of course. But if you mean before that... It is up to your own judgement not to become insensitive when talking about sensitive matters... If you are unable to judge that, you should not be talking about sensitive matters.

Naruto said...

"How do you know when you have strayed across the OB Markers by talking insenstively about sensitive issues? When someone in power gets upset at you of course. But if you mean before that... It is up to your own judgement not to become insensitive when talking about sensitive matters... If you are unable to judge that, you should not be talking about sensitive matters."

Am i reading u correctly? The last two sentences, in other words, puts the case for state-induced self-censorship. It presupposes there are things that are too "sensitive" or secretive even for a civilised society and its discerning members to mention and discuss. OB markers are nothing more than an orwellian doublespeak and jargon describing unjust rules that have no moral, ethical, factual and legal basis and whose functions are really to repress and silence dissent.

Matilah_Singapura said...

More collectivist language which takes away the focus on individual lives.

Repression has the tendency to limit the potential of individuals. Some individuals can and will transcend this "oppressive" force.

That's what being an individual means—personal choice, even in situations where the deck is stacked.

Anonymous said...

"Civic Society" was once a frequently heard expression; I even vaguely remember people organizing public seminars to discuss how to promote it. Obviously, a civic society exists and consists of many aspects; by doing something to improve a particular aspect, say public facilities for disable people, art museums, or antique car restoration, you have in some way made a contribution to "civic society", but what exactly does "promoting the concept of civic society" mean?

It is first necessary to explain that "civic society" is generally speaking not "sensitive" and does not give rise to the need for "OB Markers". If people are involved in those aspects that interest them, they cease to be apathetic; if they are involved in organizational activities, they get experience in following democratic procedures and public rules of conduct. Hence. promoting "civic society" gives people scope to learn to be good citizens without risking the crossing of OB Markers and upsetting someone with power.

I can cite two incidents to show how naive this idea was. First is the case of National Kidney Foundation. Second is the Singapore Roundtable (Now does anyone still remember it?) The first has already generated a series of lawsuits, including a current criminal case involving its former CEO and Management Board. The second simply disappeared. The first involved large sums of money from the public; its experience shows that ultimately the government has to exercise authority to manage public money. The second thought that there are meaningful things which they can discuss and organize besides power and money, and soon found that nobody, themselves included, was interested.


Anonymous said...

Low blow...

Media Release: Chees apply to court to stop summary judgment by Lees
22 Jun 06

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lee Hsien Loong have confirmed that they will apply for summary judgment in their lawsuit against Ms Chee Siok Chin and I. Such an act is appalling in two respects:

First, as leaders of Singapore the Lees are showing that they are unwilling to put their claims to public scrutiny. They have made very serious allegations against the defendants and told the world the they stand ready to be cross-examined in the witness box in order that their claims can be tested.

But when we call their bluff and challenge their lawsuit, they now try to hide behind a summary judgment. Such cravenness and flip-flopping cannot be the hallmark of Singapore's future leadership.

There are questions that need to be asked and issues to be examined. The only way that the matter can be resolved in the public's mind is for both sides to submit themselves to cross-examination and to present witnesses. Ms Chee Siok Chin and I state again that we are willing to undergo this process. The Lees must not make themselves appear even more foolish than they already have. They need to face us in court like individuals that they claim they are.

Second, summary judgment will make a mockery out of the legal process. Simply put, the Lees have said that they were defamed in The New Democrat article while we have stated that they were not. Should not there be a trial where evidence from both sides can be presented and the truth ascertained in a public and transparent manner?

A summary judgment will render this impossible because the case will be decided in chambers behind closed-doors where Ms Chee and I will not be able to cross-examine the Lees and adduce evidence from crucial witnesses. It is like accusing someone of committing murder but not allowing him to call witnesses and produce evidence in his defence. Is this what we want to see in our legal system? What kind of legal precedence are we setting?

All we are seeking is a fair and open trial. Surely this is not too much to ask. To this end, we are applying for the courts to prevent the Lees from going for summary judgment (see below).

Chee Soon Juan
Singapore Democratic Party

Inq said...

It was a simple problem to solve. The Corporation had a choice. Either enable singaporeans to become intelligent and increase their chances of being ousted from office, or make them docile and ensure their political longevity. Taking the first route, they can make money off these people prior to the latter phase of globalisation - when local creativity would be required - and then move on to utilise the billions made off the backs of the people in the manufacturing phase to invest in the creativity of the population of OTHER countries when the locals are not, inevitably, able to compete intellectually and creatively at the said latter phase when these skills would be required. That is why 'foreign talent' is required.

Anyone stop to question why India with a huge decrepit population is able to become number 2 in IT in the world whilst simultaneously serving as an indispensible part of the American industry.

The multi-ethnic character of singapore which held immense potentials for the development of the local intellect and which arguably could have placed singapore at the forefront of creativity and intelligence in the entire Asian region was traded for immediate political security for the PAP elite. This was the case in the 70s when singapore was heading, intellectually speaking, down an entirely different track other than the one it is on now. I had personally known many highly intelligent, witty, and creative 'Chinese' then who were a result of much interaction with English-speaking Catholic Indians and Eurasians. These people saw themselves as a group apart from the mainstream Indians and Chinese and were well set on heading the economy. However, the insidious effects of the SAP school policy amongst a whole slew of others were already taking place. Marginalisation of other ethnic groups, mother tongue policty, etc, etc, had finally taken its toll, and singapore takes its well-earned and rightful place in the abyss of the creative and intellectual world. They are trying to catch up now, but others are far ahead.

"He who has no knowledge of the past, has no vision of the Future.", is proverb most applicable in the local context.

Anonymous said...

I'm seriously ataken back when I saw the line:

'Hearing him, I could not help thinking that this man would be the first prime minister of a politically mature Singapore to be chosen in a fully democratic election'

He might as well state the date he takes office as 06/06/2016.