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What happens when citizens fear their government?

American founding father Thomas Jefferson had this to say: “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

It would seem that fear is a one-way street in this country. Just how pervasive is the fear factor?

Singaporeans young and old fear that if they offend the powers that be in whatever way possible, no mercy will be shown.

Some even fear that their vote is not secret.

And how unnerving it is that we still see people speaking in hushed tones, looking behind their backs, because they fear that Big Brother is watching.

But who’s to blame them? Singaporeans are conditioned to toe the line. Or else.

There are constant reminders. Chilling examples have been made of people – from critics to academics – for simply voicing their opinion.

And if there should be a slip of the tongue or the pen, the sledgehammer is wielded to devastating effect.

For Singaporeans who find themselves in the opposition camp, fear then turns to resignation that the worst could befall them. To oppose white is to be consigned to the dark side.

And so the majority have learnt that it is best to mind their own business, to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear, to be indifferent and take the path of least resistance.

They fail to realise that citizens have power in their hands and that the rulers’ duty is to serve, not to be lord and master.

It is not by accident that there is such a climate.

Lee Kuan Yew made no bones about the kind of people and society he wanted:

“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.  Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle dusters . . .”

But even with knuckle dusters, does anybody have a chance against the might of the sledgehammer, hatchet and lightning rod?

LKY succeeded in his mission to instill fear.

With or without him, the four-letter word rears its ugly head.