In the aftermath of the Yale-NUS saga, playwright Alfian Sa’at has encouraged the public to refrain from making personal attacks and “derogatory comments” against Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, following the latter’s comments in Parliament on Mon (7 Oct).
In delivering his speech on the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme and guiding principles for educational institutions in Singapore, Ong quoted part of Alfian’s poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, which was written over two decades ago in 1998, to give Parliament “a flavour of his thinking”.
Quoting Alfian’s poem, Ong read:
“Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,
Do not raise your voice against me, I am not afraid of your anthem”
Later part of the poem says:
“…how can you call yourself a country,
you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums
ten minutes’ drive from the MRT?”
“This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa’at continues this attitude consistently in his activism,” Ong alleged.
In a Facebook post yesterday (8 Oct), Alfian said that he has “seen comments” about Ong allegedly “getting into office through the ‘backdoor’ route of an ‘easily electable’ GRC, that he’s overpaid, that he’s hopeless at literary interpretation”.
He suggested that “someone” else may have drafted the relevant part on behalf of the Education Minister.
“I doubt that the good Minister would have had time to comb through all my Facebook musings or all my published output to look for something remotely ‘incriminating’ so as to force onto me a ‘disloyal anti-national’ image,” added Alfian.
Referring to a figure of speech used by Ong at the end of his speech, Alfian urged “commenters to avoid making their criticisms personal”, and to instead take a hit at the government’s “policies, programs, agendas, and ideologies”.
“At the end of the Minister’s speech, he mentions “In some societies, individuals are more concerned about how far they can extend their fists; but Singaporeans worry about when our fists will reach other people’s noses.”
“I believe this is an adaptation of the aphorism: “your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begin.”
“I completely agree that whatever we do, we should not hit other people’s noses. And I take this to mean that the exercise of our rights, including our rights to criticism, should not cause harm—bodily or otherwise—to another individual. So I’d like to make an appeal here for commenters to avoid making their criticisms personal.
“You can direct your criticisms instead at policies, programs, agendas, ideologies. You can question how the government has chosen to define ‘academic freedom’. Those things don’t have noses,” said Alfian.
Alfian also clarified in one of the comments under his post that the need to remind the public not to launch personal attacks against the Education Minister arose out of “being on the receiving end of ad hominem attacks” throughout the episode, which he described as “weirdly dissociative”, and that he does “not want it to happen to other people”:
Several commenters applauded Alfian for producing a measured response in the face of a heated situation, and suggested that the Minister should take a leaf from the playwright’s book:
One commenter argued that the problem also partially lies in the “tendency for some leaders to take things extremely personally” even when the public is merely “critiquing policies, programs, agendas and ideologies”:
One commenter highlighted a positive outcome for himself out of the saga, namely that he has discovered Alfian’s literary work after Ong had quoted part of the writer’s poem:
Pro-establishment factions launch personal attacks against Alfian, criticise veteran diplomat Tommy Koh’s defence of playwright
Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh was among several public figures who had spoken out in defence of Alfian, stating that the latter is “a loving critic of Singapore” and “one of our most talented playwrights”.
In a Facebook post on Tue (8 Oct), Prof Koh stressed that Alfian “is not anti-Singapore”, adding that freedom of speech should not only be limited to views that concur with the establishment, but also those that are contrary to the government.
“I admire very much his plays, Cooling Off Day and Hotel. It is of course true that some his writings are critical of Singapore. But, freedom of speech means the right to agree with the government as well as the right to disagree,” he added.
Pro-establishment factions such as a Facebook page called Singapore Matters have in turn criticised Prof Koh’s defence of Alfian, going as far as to cite Alfian’s post from 2012, in which Alfian narrated in an interview with TODAY that he “would love to become a Malaysian”.
“Alfian Sa’at is consistent in loving Malaysia, and comparing Malaysia favourably against Singapore”, charged Singapore Matters yesterday (8 Oct), adding that Alfian had described his “identity as a Singaporean” as being “simply that of a hyper-urbanised Malaysian”.
“Prof Tommy Koh said that ‘freedom of speech means the right to agree with the government as well as the right to disagree.’
“That’s true. We can and we do sometimes disagree with the government on certain stances or policies. BUT we can disagree without being disloyal to Singapore,” the page added.
Alfian earlier in his explanation of his poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, highlighted that Education Minister did not quote the poem in full, in which it originally appears as seen below:
Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem
although the lyrics are still bleeding from
the bark of my sapless heart.
He elaborated that the context in which the line “I am not afraid of your anthem” appears “makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart, and that in spite of saying ‘I am not afraid of your anthem’ (bravado) I am actually afraid of hearing it and having it rouse patriotic feelings in me”.
“And I am afraid of this patriotic love because it is so involuntarily, it comes from a primordial and irresistible place from deep inside.
“I am afraid of these volcanic feelings because I want to protect myself from loving something too much,” Alfian said, alluding to his love for Singapore.
“Just stopping on the word ‘anthem’ might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state,” he added.
Alfian was originally due to become an instructor for the cancelled “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” programme at Yale-NUS.
The programme, which was renamed “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”, was scheduled to be run by Alfian and programme manager Tan Yock Theng of NUS. It was originally set to take place from 29 Sep to 5 Oct.
In a Facebook post last Fri, Alfian revealed that contrary to the allegations made in a Yale report on the cancellation, which he said painted him as “defiant and intransigent”, he was open to removing certain elements from the original programme itinerary and substituting such elements with others, in light of sensitivities arising from current developments.
An example of such, according to Alfian, included removing the screening of a documentary on Hong Kong civil rights activist Joshua Wong after a Yale-NUS representative – who he addressed as “Person D” – on 11 Sep raised concerns pertaining to the ongoing protests in the city.