by Teo Soh Lung
Minister of Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung’s long sermon in parliament touched on many things.
What was most alarming for me was his singling out of young people who had committed no wrong. He was brutal in his comments, clearly forgetting that as a minister of education, he has the responsibility to be fair to all Singaporeans. Indeed, he has a duty to protect them and not to speak ill of them in parliament where he has the parliamentary privilege.
Mr Ong Ye Kung reminds me of the time when the first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew singled me and several others out because he could not accept criticisms of his policies and was afraid that they would join the opposition parties. As a consequence, 22 people were detained without trial in 1987 and at least two Singaporeans residing abroad at that time were accused of an imaginary plot to overthrow the government.
I told Internal Security Department (ISD) officers investigating my case that the government had made a mistake in arresting me. I also told Dr Tan Cheng Bock at a Feedback session soon after my first release from prison that the government should not be seeing ghosts everywhere and assuming that people who disagree with its policies had bad intentions. I was naïve.
It was sometime after that I realised that ghost hunting was a systematic method of destroying critics of the government. Periodic ghost hunting instils deep fear in society.
Today we are witnessing ghost hunts again. Homes have been raided and young people are summoned to police stations for petty matters; lawsuits and criminal prosecutions have gathered pace and many cases are pending in court.
Fear permeates every segment of society and a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness is felt by all who dare to think. Even institutions run by educated and intelligent people are not spared.
Believing in one’s inability to correct a wrong that is perpetuated by the State becomes a convenient excuse for apathy. When bad things happen to friends, it is better to avoid them. That way, people are immunised from trouble or at least they hope they are so immunised.
Mr Ong said of the cancelled Yale-Nus programme that was to have been conducted by poet and playwright Mr Alfian Sa’at:
“… this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education….”
How did he arrive at that conclusion? Did Mr Alfian Sa’at wriggle an invitation to conduct the course? Did Dr P J Thum, Ms Kirsten Han, Mr Seelan Palay and Mr Jolovan Wham conspire to design the course for Mr Alfian Sa’at? Where is the evidence?
From Mr Ong’s speech, it is clear that it was Yale-Nus that invited Mr Alfian Sa’at to conduct the course. Mr Ong quibbled over “invitation”. He said: “there was no special invitation to Mr Alfian Sa’at. He had previously been hired by YNC as a part-time instructor to teach a playwriting course in the first half of 2019. So when YNC called for project proposals, faculty members and other teaching staff like Mr Alfian Sa’at were invited, and he responded.”
Everyone can see that Mr Ong is simply trying to say that Mr Alfian Sa’at was not “specially” invited. But so what? An invitation is an invitation. Mr Alfian Sa’at did not volunteer to conduct the course by applying to Yale-NUS.
Yale-NUS should inform the minister that he was wrong to cast blame and ill motives on Mr Alfian Sa’at and the other young people. If anyone is to be blamed, it is the administrators of Yale-NUS. It, therefore, owes Mr Alfian Sa’at and all those who agreed to participate in the course a public apology.
Another serious and uncalled for comment of the minister is the mention of Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Seelan Palay as having been “convicted of public order-related offences”. Mr Ong knows full well that the “offences” are simply acts of civil disobedience which in other countries, including developing countries would not constitute crimes. Many notable people in history have been jailed for disobeying unjust laws. Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi are just two examples. Does Mr Ong consider King and Gandhi criminals?
The minister went on to criticise Dr P J Thum and Kirsten Han of New Naratif for receiving foreign funds and looking up to Dr Mahathir to “take the lead in lobbying for the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression and inquiry in South-east Asia”, because Malaysia was “a beacon for many who are struggling for democracy. Not just in Singapore but in other parts of South-east Asia”.
Is the minister jealous that Singaporeans do not look up to him for the promotion of democracy? And why is it wrong for Dr Thum to suggest that Singaporeans should celebrate East Malaysia’s independence day which is 16 September and which also happens to be the birthday of Lee Kuan Yew? 16 September 1963 could well be Singapore’s independence day since it was also the day we joined Malaysia and got rid of the British. Why was 9th August 1965 preferred?
I think we have to ask the first-generation People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders for choosing 9 August. Maybe they considered being part of Malaysia as being colonised by Malaya or Malaysia. Maybe they didn’t want to mix a birthday with a liberation day. I don’t know.
As a citizen who has experienced the madness of the PAP government and who once disbelieved friends’ warnings that Lee Kuan Yew ruled by fear and the Internal Security Act has always been used against political opponents, I am exceedingly concerned about the fallout from this Yale-Nus saga and other recent incidents. Is the PAP now silencing another generation of young people so as to discourage them from joining opposition parties? Is the chicken being slaughtered to teach the monkey again? If this is the case, and I hope I am wrong, then I say that it is very wrong of Mr Ong and his colleagues to waste the nation’s talents in this way.
This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.