Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

ST Editor warns PAP 4G leaders not to engage in “politics of dominance” and thumb down critics

Yesterday (13 Oct), Straits Times Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong wrote an opinion piece on ST warning 4G leaders from the People’s Action Party (PAP) not to go overboard and become perceived not as the dominant force leading the country, but as the domineering party ready and willing to thumb down its critics (‘PAP and the politics of dominance‘).

“I was disturbed by the way Education Minister Ong Ye Kung cited a few lines from Alfian Sa’at’s poetry to paint him as someone who might be disloyal to Singapore,” she wrote.

In particular, Ms Chua a literature student herself, was not pleased with the way Minister Ong had interpreted Singaporean playwright, Alfian Sa’at’s poetry titled “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, which was written when Mr Alfian was 21.

Minister Ong brought up Mr Alfian’s poetry during a recent Parliamentary debate on why Yale-NUS cancelled a controversial module on dissent, which Mr Alfian was supposed to teach. The minister said that the university was right to cancel the course and his ministry supported the decision. Academic freedom did not give anyone carte blanche to misuse universities for political advocacy, he said.

Ms Chua explained about her displeasure with the minister, “As a literature student, I know well enough that the views expressed by the narrator of a poem written in the first person should not be conflated with the poet’s own.”

“A male poet may write as a woman, or child; and a poet may write in the voice of an animal or even, as in the nursery rhyme, as a teapot. Writing ‘I am a teapot’ does not mean the poet sees himself literally as a teapot,” she added.

“It is simplistic to ascribe sentiments expressed in a form of literary fiction – a poem – directly to the poet.”

She further noted that Minister Ong, who graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science, should have known better to cite a few lines of Mr Alfian’s poem out of context and brand him being anti-Singapore.

Indeed, many netizens have talked about this on social media, with some expressing disappointment that a key PAP 4G leader can be so “uncompromising”.

Ms Chua opined that this episode when viewed in the context of a series of recent events these couple of years, when the Government has come down hard and strong against its critics, or has been uncompromising in spelling out red lines not to be crossed, PAP wants to continue to be the dominant force in Singapore extending even beyond electoral politics to also control public opinion and public discourse.

“In the brick-and-mortar agora of the past, it could make sure its voice was not only heard but also pre-eminent. In the agora that is the Internet and social media today, the PAP Government fears its voice might be drowned out, or diluted,” she said.

“This explains both its vigilance over mainstream media and its keenness to use legislative tools at its disposal to control the Internet space.”

Ms Chua thought that the PAP 4G leaders may be thinking that the “politics of dominance” would continue to carry them ahead to waves of electoral victory. She said, “In the area of political contest, or issues to do with political freedom, the PAP continues to operate by a familiar playbook that includes the occasional use of strong-arm tactics to counter critics.”

“However, the 2010s is not the 1980s, or even the 1990s,” she warned, referring to past tactics of silencing critics by the PAP before the turn of the century.

“Those of my generation and older, born in the 1960s and earlier, have seen partisan politics playing out, close up, throughout the last three decades. We saw political opponents slapped with defamation suits and bankrupted; we saw opposition politicians’ characters called into question (some deservedly). Whatever we may have felt, many of us could not exercise our choice at the ballot box. We were the Walkover Generation, in constituencies with frequent no contests,” she added.

“Today, those in my generation, in their 40s and 50s, are stable family burghers, stalwarts of their companies, leaders of corporations who understand the need for stability and good government. But Singaporeans also have a strong sense of fair play. Being dominant is one thing; coming across as bullying or unfairly targeting frailer opponents is quite another.”

She noted that today’s electoral landscape and voters are different from the past’s. “The opposition is stronger, and keen to contest in every constituency”, she said. Indeed, starting from 2011 GE, every constituency has been contested by the opposition.

Ms Chua further revealed that in the recent Yale-NUS episode, some of her Facebook friends who are young civil servants have even come out openly to defend Mr Alfian and disagree with the Education Minister.

Indeed, in the Yale-NUS episode, it was Minister Ong who came out looking the loser with him facing many personal attacks on social media while Mr Alfian urging netizens to confine their criticisms to the policies, not the person.

“In fighting to retain its dominant position in the Singapore political and intellectual landscape, the PAP Government has to tread carefully that it does not go overboard and become perceived not as the dominant force leading the country, but as the domineering party ready and willing to thumb down its critics,” she warned PAP.

Ms Chua is probably afraid that if the PAP 4G leaders continue to “thumb down” its critics in the enlightened era of social media and Internet, the dominant PAP might just lose its dominance in Parliament one day, and the editors in ST might just end up driving Grab.