Callous labelling of mental illness smacks of gutter politics

TOC Editorial

The figure of speech “method in the madness” has taken on a decidedly less figurative connotation when used in relation to Dr Chee Soon Juan and his campaign of civil disobedience.

In the latest instalment of Chee’s altercations with the government, the People’s Action Party (PAP) and those sympathetic to it seem to be trying to close the book on him by portraying him as a lunatic.

It began with Minister Mentor (MM) Lee Kuan Yew sharing the opinion of his doctors on the witness stand that Dr Chee Soon Juan was a “near psychopath”. In a Saturday edition of TODAY, MP for Pasir-Ris Punggol Charles Chong misquoted MM as having said he was “psychotic”, and reminded Singaporeans of Chiam See Tong’s comments over a decade ago that Chee was a “megalomaniac”. Chua Lee Hoong, one of the Straits Times’ most vocal supporters of the PAP opined that he had an anti-social personality disorder.

However ineffective or distasteful one might find Chee’s brand of political action, it is quite a different thing to equate a lack of political efficacy with insanity. Sadly, this is a distinction those close to the government are happy to blur.

TOC might not believe in every tactic that Chee employs, but we will push back strongly against the concerted attempts to characterise him as insane.

Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Siew Kum Hong was quoted by TODAY as being doubtful about the efficacy of confrontational civil disobedience, but he took pains to emphasize to TOC that “[he did] not think Chee is mentally ill”.

We agree.

Butchering medicine for political ends

It is ironic that an establishment that insists on a strict positivist separation of the law and politics seems so eager to blend politics and psychiatry. The concerted campaign to paint Chee as mentally imbalanced seems to have uncanny echoes of the Soviet Union’s imprisonment of political dissidents in lunatic asylums.

Of course, we are not suggesting that the extent of this smear campaign is anywhere close to the Soviet Union’s brutal physical maltreatment of dissidents. The present accusations are far more insidious than amateur political intimidation. They are a refined version of a form of gutter politics that uses medical accusations to serve political ends that we have seen before.

These tactics reap large political gains for those who purvey them. It allows government cheerleaders like Chua Lee Hoong to shed crocodile tears and tell the public “we have got to feel sorry for him” while citing unproven medical diagnoses that discredit him politically.

The public should note that MM Lee’s comments about having consulted medical experts is no substitute for an actual psychiatric evaluation of the man himself. Far more tawdry is Chua Lee Hoong’s hack job that throws out another lay diagnosis on the flimsiest of grounds: “a medical website”. For a writer who regularly derides bloggers as unreliable, her faith in the veracity of medical opinion online is odd.

She has certainly done psychiatrists a disfavour, because the next time someone needs a psychiatric evaluation, they will just log on.

Professional social counsellor Anthony Yeo decried the obviously-political motivations for the attacks. He told TOC that the way the labelling was calculated to “demean, denigrate and discount the dignity and worth” of Chee as a person, and pointed out that such labelling “speaks more of the myopic mentality of the one who labels than the one being labelled”.

Sadly, this is not the first time medical terms or records have been used against political opponents. Ex-President and former-PAP loyalist turned dissident C V Devan Nair was labelled an alcoholic by Lee Kuan Yew. Another vocal ex-President, Ong Teng Cheong, was discouraged from running for a second Presidential term by the PAP through the latter’s use of his medical records in Parliament to publicly declare his cancer was resurgent.

Comments insensitive to the genuinely troubled

The public’s perception of people with genuine mental illnesses is no laughing matter. Using clinically-recognised illnesses as a political slur does not help the public’s understanding of this group of people or what they suffer from.

Charles Chong, in his comments to Today newspaper, misquoted MM Lee’s doctors as having said Chee was psychotic.

The difference between psychopathy and psychosis is easily identifiable by any first-year psychiatry student. Whereas those suffering from the former exhibit chronic amoral and anti-social behaviour, those suffering from psychosis experience delusional beliefs, personality change and disorganised thinking.

On a personal level, such callous and careless use of these terms for political mileage runs roughshod over the feelings of actual sufferers of these problems.

Mental patient “Ann”, a member of local mental health support group sg_mentalhealth has bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Giving her views on the matter, she told TOC that “it is not very nice to use such terms loosely and… [this careless labelling] smacks of prejudice against people with mental health problems”.

Our leaders should know better than to manipulate mental conditions to their political ends. Such behaviour is disrespectful to those who seek greater public understanding of their plight, and is disrespectful of a citizenry that deserves more intelligent political discourse than petty mudslinging.

A diagnosis of our own

The desperation with which establishment figures are trying to paint Chee as mentally imbalanced is puzzling. If he is such a spent political force, why expend such efforts trying to tear him down? If he is indeed mad, why put MM Lee and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong through the indignity of being cross examined by him?

With respect to mental patients suffering this problem clinically, we might even venture that the establishment is being paranoid.

By Choo Zheng Xi

On behalf of The Online Citizen


Read also: Consultant Therapist at the Counselling and Care Centre, Anthony Yeo’s letter to Chua Lee Hoong : Character assassination of the most uncharitable kind.


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