fbpx

Running to the police not a mark of committed citizenry: Cherian George

cartoon

On 15 May, Dr Lee Woon Kwang wrote to the Straits Times’ Forum page to lament if the “population at large [is] mature enough to handle” what academic Terence Chong called for – “open discussion in a frank and adult manner.”

Dr Lee was responding to an earlier article in the same paper on “a deepening conflict between freedom of speech and Singapore's OB markers of race and religion”, and how the Government has over-reacted to instances where these so-called markers were breached.

The article cited the examples of cartoonist Leslie Chew and blogger Amos Yee.

In both instances (and others as well) the two were arrested and investigated after complaints were filed with the police by members of the public.

This default reaction of petitioning the police reveals "Singaporeans are over-dependent on the authorities for maintaining social peace", said Cherian George, associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Institute of Southeast Asian Studies sociologist Terence Chong said the over-reaction - and the willingness of the authorities to act on it - would ultimately result in a certain cultural bankruptcy,” the Straits Times said.

“If censors take their cue from the most conservative or sensitive members of the public, then "art in Singapore is done for", Mr Chong said.

The two academics’ remarks prompted Dr Lee to write to the Forum page, where he said that “freedom of speech, as inspired by the West, has not brought much benefit to its people.”

“Just look at the mess it created there with the free expression of anti-Islam sentiments,” he added.

He cautioned that “[it] does not take much to destroy inter-racial and inter-religious trust and harmony, but it will take a lot of hard work and time to build these up again.”

Dr Lee also referred to Dr George and said it was “easy for people outside Singapore to make such comments, as they do not have to live with any adverse consequences.”

“Indeed, had Singapore listened to their advice in the past, it would not be what it is today,” Dr Lee said.

On 18 May, Dr George wrote to the Forum page to respond to those remarks.

He said that Dr Lee’s view “betrays the kind of attitude that would endanger the very harmony that he claims to prize.”

“First, it is precisely because we treasure peaceful, respectful coexistence that Singaporeans should not automatically delegate disputes to the Government to mediate,” the associate professor said.

“The instinct to lodge police reports instead of first trying to work through our differences horizontally is hardly a mark of a committed citizenry.”

Dr George said such behaviour “does nothing to develop the social capital that is ultimately the best source of national resilience.”

As for Dr Lee’s description of Dr George as part of the “people outside Singapore”, Dr George had this to say:

“I remain a citizen with a home and family back in Singapore, and my current inability to work as an academic there is hardly due to a lack of emotional investment in the affairs of my country; quite the opposite. Thinking of the thousands of Singaporeans working overseas,

"I hope Dr Lee's remark is the kind of divisiveness that would be rejected by our public.”

Dr George said it would be “fatal hubris” if Singaporeans thought that there was nothing they could learn from outsiders.

“The challenge of balancing freedom of expression with other societal interests is eternal and universal; and the specific dilemma of dealing with racial and religious provocation is something most societies continue to grapple with.”

The original letter by Dr Lee Woon Kwang is available on The Straits Times' forum page. Dr Cherian George's response is appended below.


Tackling freedom of speech issues a universal challenge

DR LEE Woon Kwang's letter ("S'pore not ready yet", last Friday) took issue with my comment that Singaporeans are over-dependent on the authorities for maintaining social peace.

His response betrays the kind of attitude that would endanger the very harmony that he claims to prize.

First, it is precisely because we treasure peaceful, respectful coexistence that Singaporeans should not automatically delegate disputes to the Government to mediate.

The instinct to lodge police reports instead of first trying to work through our differences horizontally is hardly a mark of a committed citizenry.

Furthermore, it does nothing to develop the social capital that is ultimately the best source of national resilience.

This is not even a controversial view. Government ministers and grassroots organisations such as OnePeople.sg have repeatedly emphasised the need for Singaporeans to step up and take a stand, and not over-rely on the state.

Second, Dr Lee dismisses views such as mine as the "easy" comments of "people outside Singapore" who "do not have to live with any adverse consequences". For the record, although my quote reappeared in The Straits Times last week, the columnist got it from an article I wrote in 2011, before I moved to Hong Kong.

But that is beside the point. I remain a citizen with a home and family back in Singapore, and my current inability to work as an academic there is hardly due to a lack of emotional investment in the affairs of my country; quite the opposite. Thinking of the thousands of Singaporeans working overseas, I hope Dr Lee's remark is the kind of divisiveness that would be rejected by our public.

Third, even when faced with non-Singaporeans' comments, we would be indulging in fatal hubris if we duped ourselves into thinking that we had nothing to learn from outsiders.

The challenge of balancing freedom of expression with other societal interests is eternal and universal; and the specific dilemma of dealing with racial and religious provocation is something most societies continue to grapple with.

Nobody has found the answers, and everybody - yes, even Singaporeans - can learn from developments elsewhere.

Cherian George (Dr)

Hong Kong