6 Aug 2006

"climate of fear"

"Climate of Fear" is a regularly used expression in Singapore, and a rather weird one: when challenged to explain "Fear of what?", the speaker is usually unable to do so. Some point to the case of Chee Soon Juan, but this is unenlightening, because the specific activities that led to trouble: his dismissal by NUS for using his research grant to send his wife's thesis for examination in Georgia, the public comments on GCT, LKY and LHL that led to the defamation lawsuits, and the civil disobedience acts that led to his brief imprisonment, could all be easily avoided. Even the cases of Catherine Lim and Mr Brown were atypical: a critic of the government normally does not receive a letter of reprimind from the prime minister or get so publicly dropped by a newspaper - such matters are usually handled quietly.

So those who say "climate of fear" were merely being oversensitive, or just finding excuses for their own timidity? Some commentators, such as our late NUS Business School collegue Jennifer Mao, who used to write a regular column in Lianhe Zaobao, would mock others "what's there to fear; see I often criticize but nothing heppens to me", but this merely reveals a failure to appreciate the basics of Singapore's social psychology. A behaviour may be irrational, but if an irrational behaviour is widespread, there must be a reason for it. My answer to "Fear of what?" is "Fear of official disapproval".

To explain this, it is first necessary to explain, why does the government show official disapproval so often? Given its grip on political and economic power, why should it worry about little pinpricks from the likes of Catherine Lim and Mr Brown? Can a few cartoons about Jesus Christ or jokes about Islam really do much harm? In the west, no one would expect the government to take action since these minor matters are obviously beyond its control. Curiously as it may sound, it is precisely because of the government's power and wide span of control that it has to intervene even in little matters: since it is so much in control, anything happening in public is assumed to be "the government allows it to happen", and the government would get the blame for anything anyone does not like. If the government is responsible for everything, then it has to be cautious about everything.

It then naturally follows that anything, anyone, is labelled as "approved" or "not approved"; since speaking up could cause one to be classified as "not approved", one need to be extremely cautious, even fearful, about anything one says.


mister k said...

hi yuen,

welcome abroad

yuen said...

you asking me to go overseas?