By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong
In an open society, anyone criticizing the government is considered to be merely exercising his/her rights as a participant in public affairs; it is unnecessary for any critic to get prior approval. So the title of this article might strike you as being very strange, reflecting the unique nature of the city state Singapore.
The first point to remember is the special nature of the public media here. (See: https://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/08/about-singapore-press-holdings/), with the mission to report news and shape public opinions in a way that is positive for economic development, i.e., a kind of PR unit of Singapore Inc, and it is for the foreign press and media to generate the wider diversity not provided in the local media.
What amount of government criticism should the local media present? Everyone, the government included, knows that it is necessary to allow criticism so as to allow improvement, but this implies one need to make judgement about whether a particular piece of criticism would cause improvement and is worth reporting, and the person making the criticism has that objective in mind and a certain level of competence as a critic. In other words, to judge that he/she is suitable to be an officially endorsed critic. A critic whose objective is judged to be trying to help an opposition party or foreign government, or to arouse attention to himself/herself, or just to stir something up, would not deserve to be reported as if he/she was a fair critic.
In this, a media endorsed government critic has a similar press role to a domain expert, with a reputation for professionalism and competence so that he/she could be trusted to be not speaking to advance particular commercial or political interests. However, whereas domain expertise and professionalism are relatively easy to judge, publicly proclaimed critics are far harder to certify.
The public’s rather obsessive, almost desperate search for the next messiah almost always goes through the same cycle of rise and fall: someone appears full of promise, writes/speaks a few times arousing much excitement and eager anticipation, says/does something that passes an “OB Marker” (see https://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/09/political-singlish-ob-markers-and-civic-society/) leading to some kind of official reaction, and ceases to be carried in the media like before. He/she might be hauled out now and then by reporters or some public minded organization on some particular occasions when an alternative voice is needed, but most of the time he/she is best kept at distance.
Part of this excitement/anticipation about the latest publicly proclaimed critic is when he/she does say something that looks “insensitive”, at which point speculation goes rife about whether someone will get upset and send forth a reprimand. This speculation has elements of both hope and resignation – hope that the OB marker has been relaxed so that more “sensitive” matters can be discussed, and resignation that sooner or later someone will catch up with the critic’s “insensitivity”.
Catherine Lim, a well known Singapore novelist, also happens to be the best known media endorsed government critic. In 1994 the then Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong suggested the idea of her becoming a politician in a public letter addressed to her, responding to two articles she published in Straits Times. The suggestion might be rhetorical, but it was serious all the same. She did not however take up the suggestion, and apologized to him for any distress her articles might have caused, thus putting a quick end to the episode. Her occasional returns to the political forum, usually to make some statements about the lack of prospect for real changes, are still eagerly anticipated, the latest being her comments on the 2011 election including a very recent, more optimistic one at an NUS Guild House event http://catherinelim.sg/2012/08/27/after-a-watershed-election-paradoxes-perils-promises/ .
Getting Catherine Lim to do political commentary was obviously a brainstorm that occurred to someone at Straits Times: She has considerable social and behavioural insight from her material for writing novels, and is sufficiently well known and well off to be able to speak independently. These factors make choosing her a relatively easily defended move – after all, if her comments upset anyone, you can always say, oh well she was a novelist.
Catherine Lim’s first 1994 article talked about an “affective divide” between the government and the people, but it was the second one that caused problems: she basically said Goh Chok Tong was not to blame for some of the “harsh” things that were taking place (e.g., suing opposition politicians for defamation was not yet the familiar practice, but a trend towards gloves off struggles was already visible). She might have thought she was being helpful to Goh, but actually the implication that the Prime Minister was not in full control, was unacceptable to the incumbent, whose letter simply told her to go into politics formally if she wished to “set the political agenda”, leading to her apology and (for a few years) hasty exit from the political forum.
While the reaction among the English newspaper readers were predictable, the few Chinese paper columnists who commented on this turned out to be much more interesting:- as a mere novelist, she should not have “talked down” to the Prime Minister, and her violation of protocol deserved a quick rebuke. Presumably they have the same attitude towards others that might claim to know better than the government and want to give advice. Given that the Chinese paper columns usually provide a more diverse set of views compared with the Straits Times, their failure to address her ideas and their deep concern for her manners seem curiously consensual.
A lesser critic was the Today newspaper columnist/blogger who goes by the pseudonym of Mr Brown. His last Today column was in June 2006, titled “Singaporeans are fed; Up with progress” – which actually anticipated some of the election issues of 2011. Following a letter to the editor from a ministry spokesperson, it was announced his column was suspended; certain changes in the editorial department also occurred subsequently.
The incident actually caused 30 people including a number of foreigners turning out for a 30-minute protest at an MRT station, wearing brown shirts. For Singapore this was a notable and rare event, but that would not alter the cycle of the media endorsed government critics phenomenon. The system grinds on according to its unique dynamics.
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.