By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong –
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 reader make of it? Is this about golf or soccer? 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, uniquely 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 "insensitive" that you begin to say things you should not say. How do you know when you have strayed across the OB Markers by talking insensitively 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.
Now foreigners might say "someone gets upset; what's the big deal?" Well, Singapore is a company town, the headquarters of Singapore Inc, and more or less everyone is working for the same employer; so people are anxious about being "insensitive" and would like to see all the OB Markers surrounding "sensitive" issues; unfortunately, people who determine where the markers are, might prefer not to lay all their sensitivities out for others to see.
"Civic Society" was once another frequently heard expression; I even vaguely remember people organizing public seminars to discuss how to promote it. Obviously, a civic society exists in Singapore 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 decision making procedures, consensus building 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.
Unfortunately this is simplistic. I can cite two incidents to show how fragile "civic society" is. First is the case of National Kidney Foundation. Second is the Singapore Roundtable.
The first has by now fallen below the radar of public attention, but in its turbulent days, generated a series of lawsuits, including criminal cases involving its former CEO and Management Board members. The second has disappeared even more completely. The first involved large sums of money from the public; its proceeding shows that ultimately the government has to exercise authority to manage public money and apply final judgement. The second assumed that there are meaningful things besides power and money which groups of knowledgeable people can discuss and organize, but they soon found that nobody, themselves included, were interested.
Hegel said that ideas progress through thesis, antithesis and synthesis. You need antithesis to fully understand thesis and to progress through synthesis, whether you are talking about civic society or politics and money – recall that the NKF incident pitted NKF management thesis against a SPH reporter's antithesis, before Health Ministry intervention led to synthesis. Remember also Marx's "History repeats, first time as tragedy, second time as farce" and Santayana's "Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it".
Returning to OB Markers, Archimedes said "Give me pivot and I shall move the earth"; I say "give me OB marker and I shall show where 'sensitive' ends and 'insensitive' begins".
Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.