Mr Han Fook Kwang, Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Prof Tommy Koh, Prof Chan Heng Chee and Prof David Chan. (Photo - SMU)

Pointless to ask for more “naysayers” when the environment does not permit so

At a recent forum with the theme of unintended consequences in Singapore, panellists noted that Singapore required more “naysayers” in order to do well in the next 50 years.

While the logic behind that reasoning is sound, this is an issue that should come as no surprise to most Singaporeans. After all, it is common knowledge that Singaporeans are not known for their outspoken critical evaluation of government policies. Such talk is reserved for coffee shop chit chat or private discussions amongst friends.

Is the problem of a lack of public dissenting opinions a result of Singaporeans having no opinion or is it a case that Singaporeans are too wary to freely voice any opposing points of view?

Singapore has certainly seen its share of government critics seemingly pay the price for daring to be obviously vocal. Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ), Tang Liang Hong and Dr Chee Soon Juan were spectacular examples of how it does not pay to openly ask inconvenient questions.

In these cases, the men ran for elections under the banner of opposition parties and faced financial ruin for defamation. In their respective campaign trails, each had fiery speeches that overtly questioned the government that were all deemed defamatory. Were they really? Clearly, there is a fine but murky line between defamation and naysaying!

More recent examples would include teenager Amos Yee and blogger Roy Ngerng. In Yee’s case, it was held that he offended the sensibilities of Christians while in Ngerng’s case, the infamous defamation suit reared its ugly head once more.

The problem of blurred lines creates a climate of fear and self-censorship amongst the general populace.

What is the point of declaring that Singaporeans need to be more opinionated if the environment does not permit us to be freely so?

There is such a raft of catch-all legislation that can ensnare the potential detractor that no one really knows what or how to raise an objection. What would be deemed as defamatory?

In such an atmosphere, can Singaporeans really be expected to raise any form of objection?

I don’t think anyone disagrees that there needs to be more challengers in Singapore. The bigger question is how we can foster an environment where people are encouraged to speak out. This is something that only the government can take the lead in reforming. In the absence of decisive leadership from the government in this area, any kind of suggestion can only be theoretical.

We can’t really expect the general public to be martyrs for the cause.