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Political education? Allow greater media freedom first - and start with the schools. Ng E Jay.

Loosen stranglehold before providing political education

Ng E-Jay

In the latest edition of  Petir, the People’s Action Party's bi-monthly party magazine, Law Minister K Shanmugam warned party members that younger voters could erode the PAP's political dominance if they are not convinced that Singapore needs strong political leadership capable of making effective and speedy decisions.

On one hand, Mr Shanmugam is acknowledging that younger voters seem more ready to vote  the opposition. On the other hand, he is also asserting that if one believes in having effective and efficient government, then the PAP must be the right choice. Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the opposition will not provide the strong political leadership that our country needs. This is an example of arrogant, presumptuous thinking that supporters of multi-party democracy must refute.

Mr Shanmugam also suggested that students be provided with greater political education, but that the "education should not trumpet the virtues of any particular system."

It is hard to fathom exactly what the Law Minister means by "not trumpeting the virtues of any particular system", when his message seems to lend support to the PAP idea that the western model of democracy should be rejected because Singapore, being different, requires its own system of government. He also mentioned that adopting the western model of democracy would result in a lower quality of life and more social tensions. Isn't Mr Shanmugam trumpeting the virtues of the PAP system whilst denouncing that of western democracy?

In reality, western democracy is not a simplistic, narrow set of ideals that Mr Shanmugam makes it out to be but instead comprises an entire spectrum of ideas from which each political party in the western world adapts to suit their own needs and purposes. Fundamental to the western concept of democracy however is the notion that human rights are universal and inalienable, and that there should be effective separation of powers between the legistive body and the judiciary.

Left to its own devices, the education ministry here would most likely steer any political education programme toward glorifying the “achievements” of the PAP government, such as how far we have progressed as a nation and how the political system engineered by the PAP has enabled this progress to take place.

Educating students about politics can easily degenerate into educating students that only the PAP is qualified to govern Singapore. The classroom can easily be turned into an arena for political campaigning on behalf of the ruling party behind the veneer of providing an all-rounded curriculum.

As it stands, student organizations in our tertiary institutions have been gradually de-politicized over the years. Major policy issues are hardly debated in our universities except perhaps in political science classes, and the closest our universities come to organizing political events is inviting cabinet ministers to give a speech or host a dialogue session.

NTU students took to Speakers' Corner on Oct 2008 to protest the school's censorship policy

 

In fact, within the confines of campus life, censorship with regards to political expression takes place regularly. Examples were raised by Mr Lin Junjie, editor of the Nanyang Chronicle, an NTU student newsletter, in his article "It wasn't just Chee Soon Juan", which was published at the Enquirer.sg website in Oct 09. In his article, Mr Lin explains that articles written for the NTU newsletter are "edited or played down to avoid offending the powers that be, or in extremely rare cases such as the Chee saga, removed entirely", and that "decisions to edit, downplay and censor potentially sensitive stories are made within the confines of the newsroom and the school, by the people who oversee the student editors". Mr Lin also adds that these actions which take place behind the scenes and sometimes involve nothing more innocuous than removing a photograph "gave the illusion of a relatively free press", but that "most of the time, the stories in the Chronicle are ultimately sanitised under the care of a teacher adviser".

The NTU's decision to censor a student report on a visit by Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the SDP, is not the only example in recent times of suppression of free speech by university authorities. Other examples include SMU's banning of Dr Chee's intended visit to the school campus, and Loo Zihan's protest speech at his graduation ceremony of NTU's disallowing a poster of a film he had made which contained political overtones. (See reports listed below.)

How does our Law Minister propose to promote greater political awareness in schools when there is active censorship and restriction of expression of political ideas?

How can any meaningful political education take place if there remains a general climate of fear about openly criticizing Government policies, especially in the civil service?

How can any meaningful political education take place if the mainstream media continues to provide overwhelming, one-sided coverage of the PAP's ideology but only limited coverage of the hopes and aspiration of its detractors?

Can the Government realistically provide good political education for students if it attempts to do so in an environment in which the media is tightly controlled, publications deemed undesirable are banned rather than openly discussed without fear or favour, and where the Government is often seen promulgating the idea that freedom of speech must be regulated rather than harnessing its power to the maximum?

At the end of the day, the Government must loosen its stranglehold on the media and allow greater freedom of expression before any meaningful political education can be provided to students.

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Read also:

The Enquirer - It wasn’t just Chee Soon Juan

The Online Citizen - NTU censors campus news coverage of Chee Soon Juan visit

The Online Citizen - NTU students protest at Speakers’ Corner

The Online Citizen - NTU student protests school’s censorship in graduation speech

The Online Citizen - Becoming a world-class university: NTU and campus media freedom

The Online Citizen - “If you want to do journalism, don’t do it in Singapore.”

The Online Citizen - The importance of editorial independence in the news process

The Online Citizen - Student activism – what’s next?

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