Associate Professor Teo You Yenn (left) with playwright Alfian Sa'at at the launch of her book, This is What Inequality Looks Like, 2018. (Source: Ethos Books / Facebook)

Prof Teo You Yenn: There should be no such thing as speaking out of turn in a democratic society

Assoc. Prof Teo said it is disturbing that ‘speaking out of turn’ is something that can be observed in contemporary Singapore where contentious issued devolve into mud-slinging rather quickly as people with more power tell others that they lack the ‘substantive right to voice’.

The sociologist who wrote the book This is What Inequality Looks Like, which delves into the realities of inequality in Singapore, first explained what ‘speaking out of turn’ means.

In an article titled Speaking out of Turn on her website, Assoc. Prof Teo said, “It is to speak when one is not supposed to, or towards a person or persons one is not supposed to speak to, or about something one is not supposed to speak on.“

The associate professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) explained that being accused of speaking out of turn means you’re being reminded that you have no right to speak and that your views are illegitimate because of who you are. This kind of illegitimacy, she explained, has more to do with the position of the speaker relative to other speakers in the field rather than the content of what is being said. It’s not about substance.

Assoc. Prof Teo goes on to explain that this can be used as a weapon by people in a place of power. Once that weapon is used and accusation is made that someone has spoken out of turn, that sends a signal to everyone else that it is now a ‘free for all’, said Assoc. Prof Teo.

She said, “Speaking out of turn—the existence of such a phenomenon—should alert us to this: discourse exists within a field of power.”

“Not everyone gets to make truth claims; not everyone gets to accuse others of speaking out of turn; few get to never experience being accused of speaking out of turn,” she later adds.

Assoc. Prof Teo stresses that marginalised groups often bear the brunt of this phenomenon.

“Marginality means bearing greater risks of being accused of representing narrow interests, violating larger interests, when speaking.  Marginal social groups never get to claim their views as neutral, universal views. “

Once a person or group is accused of speaking out of turn, attacks are made directly at the speaker – that they are ‘crazy’, ‘disrespectful’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘unqualified’ and ‘have vested interest’. Any attempt to turn the discussion back to the issue of the substance of the argument is futile because the focus remains on the fact that someone failed to follow the rules and spoke out of turn.

Eventually, Assoc. Prof Teo says people learn to tone themselves down and think strategically about when, where and how to speak so as to avoid being targeted in this way.

“It is labor, laborious, and over time it erodes the self, clips the tongue, blunts the mind,” lamented the associate professor.

She then questions why a person should care about this phenomenon if they are not the one being accused of speaking out of turn.

To answer this, she points the aspirations of society: “democratic,” “inclusive,” “harmonious,” “justice,” “equality.”

“All of these ideals point to the centrality of rights to voice,” she said. “A democratic society is one where people have rights—substantive, and not just as formality—to have thoughts and express them.”

She goes on to assert that a harmonious society requires a safe space for all types of people to speak, where society makes an effort to ensure that debate is open, fair, and safe so that inequalities and injustices can be redressed.

Noting that this doesn’t happen in the unjust world we live in today, Assoc. Prof Teo highlighted that “Drawing false equivalence—pretending that ideas are neutral and that each one is already valued equally as every other one—prevents the creation of space for addressing inequalities.”

She continued, “There is no public debate without public space, no new ideas can be generated that help us live better together, if only some voices can speak,” adding that this eventually leads to self-censorship.

This reminds us of the recent saga of Yale-NUS cancelling the Dissent and Resistance in Singapore (later renamed Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore) programme scheduled to be run by playwright Alfian Sa’at.

It was cancelled, according to the institution, because the programme’s materials “does not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent”.

Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong told ST that “The activities proposed and the selection of some of the speakers for the project will infringe our commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus.”

He added that the activities proposed will also entail elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities”.

Following the cancellation and resulting debates surrounding it, Yale University’s Office of the Vice President for Global Strategy released a report alleging that the Mr Sa’at was “not sufficiently aware of the legal issues involved in his module”, was “difficult to reach by email”, and was not open to recommendations of the institution on the programme structure.

In short, after cancelling a programme which was about dissent in Singapore which included classes on democracy and screenings of movies on activism and protests, the university followed up with a report that cast aspersions on the person who designed the program.

Mr Sa’at said in response to the Yale report, “This has given rise to a caricature of myself as defiant, reckless and incompetent. Some online sites with malicious intent have been only too eager to parrot and amplify this characterisation.”

He goes on to then rebut the allegations made against him in the report.

In her article, Assoc. Prof Teo cautions that we have to watch how leaders single out people for speaking out of turn and how they do or do not level the playing field for public discourse. Beyond that, she says we should then also look at ourselves and recognise that there should be no such thing as speaking out of turn in a democratic society.

“Justice, equality, inclusion, harmony—these are just words, mere rhetoric, until there is a field on which these principles can live.”