Sunday Star, NZ
June 25, 2006
Opinion: Tze Ming Mok
AMID international media reports about Singaporean bloggers living in a "climate of fear" apolitical Singaporean blogger "Mr Brown" recently asked why he couldn't read online just once that he was living in "a climate of 'a little bit scared'?"
After all, with its latest public behaviour modification campaign, Singapore is aiming to be the city of "four million smiles" not "four million fearful grimaces". This begs the question of the bilateral deal signed last week: How scary will the New Zealand-Singapore jointly- produced horror film about an embryonic ghost baby, be allowed to be? There could be trouble if it scares Singaporean women off breeding - declining Singaporean fertility has proved impervious to public behaviour modification campaigns marketing baby-bliss.
Even worse, the movie could constitute an illegal political analogy about the government's fear of the embryonic and growing political opposition movement and the threatened maturation of Singaporean political society! No wonder Lee Hsien Loong freaked out in New Zealand, putting on his own Jekyll and Hyde horror show. We were treated to an echo of his father Lee Kuan Yew's familiar transitions from vicious baby-eater to charming reptilian patriarch, in Baby Lee's vitriolic tirade against opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, and his later volte-face of manners to smooth over, or explain, his surprise outing as an Angry Asian Autocrat.
Trying to move the press off the subject of human rights and freedom of expression, he said that New Zealanders needed to be "more attuned to what is happening in Asia". Human rights were "familiar issues to Western journalists and maybe readers too, but really they don't define Asia. You need to come and learn how people live." I agree unreservedly with the prime minister of my maternal homeland. Yes, go spend some time in Singapore, and you'll know just how cynical and sarcastic a huge chunk of ordinary Singaporeans are about their government. Because you'll never see those ideas in the Singaporean press.
And yes, "defining" Asia through an Othering lense of one issue alone is always misguided and simplistic.
Unfortunately, the way New Zealand is "attuning" to Asia now, would suggest that Asia is just about trade deals and photo-ops with leaders of countries who come and strike trade deals.
But if New Zealanders become more realistically attuned to what is happening in Asian countries, human rights will become only more relevant, because human relationships, human dignity and humanism as a whole will become more relevant.
I was under the impression that the big buzz about Asia was that a lot of human beings live there. Like anyone else, they dislike being exploited, intimidated, wrongfully arrested, repressed and tortured - and if they have ideas contrary to their governments about how to develop their economies and societies, then those ideas are just as Asian as they are. For a significant slice of New Zealand's population, these are our families and our erstwhile compatriots. Many more of us actually are these people - mobile global citizens with bases still in Asian countries.
The Singaporean government's stock response to overseas criticism, that Westerners "don't understand Asia", is a fraud when plenty of Westerners are Asian, and when a third of all Asian Singaporeans just voted against the PAP despite the opposition's zero chance of success.
Civil society movements across Asia are vibrant, feisty, and doing vital, constructive work, even in Singapore. Supporting and learning from opposition movements in our neighbouring autocracies, and from the open discourse and social movements in the democracies, is a better way of understanding Asia than defining the region narrowly as either a cash-machine or an exotic/retarded/mystical/cranky/ dirty child to be taught the ways of the West.
Physical cruelty, vindictive destruction of opposition, flouting of the rule of law, media manipulation and political bullying have no intrinsic relationship to whether a society is Asian or not. The US for example, is excellent at such stuff, and certainly tortures harder than Singapore these days.
However, I'm still Singaporean enough to get angry about Singapore, while lucky to be not quite Singaporean enough to get sued for expressing it. So from the safety of Auckland, what specifically were the underhand, destructive, foreigner-pleasing, martyrdom tactics of the Singapore Democratic Party ranted about by the Singaporean prime minister to the New Zealand press?
The SDP adopts its nonviolent civil disobedience tactics directly from Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote the passive resistance rulebook while undermining the British Empire. Ironically, the PAP is in the role of machine-state imperialist now, while the little SDP is staying true to a hopeful political methodology indigenous to Asia: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win."
The first three steps are well in hand - because, dear xiao (little) Lee, you're turning out a bully just like your old man. But maybe after the PAP's worst election result ever, you too are "a little bit scared".
- via Singapore Window