At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.
I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)
Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.
What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.
My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.
The government claims it wants constructive, honest dialogue with ordinary people on Singapore’s future, but then does little to foster the open, transparent, safe, intellectual environment that is a prerequisite for that dialogue.
It is difficult then to believe that these attempts at “dialogue”, including the much-ballyhooed “Our Singapore Conversation”, are anything more than wayang.
Put another way, if ordinary citizens such as Roy and I had much better access to data, information and communication channels—including unbiased media outlets that openly discussed, say, the pros and cons of the CPF system—then I might be more critical of him right now.
But given the stifling intellectual climate here, I see all this mostly as a very necessary part of this long transition from one-party authoritarian rule to a more democratic and civil state.
Many Singaporeans seem to hold onto a utopian dream—one the establishment happily feeds—that Singapore can suddenly experience a transformation from an illiberal and relatively closed state to a burgeoning, mature democracy; from establishment hegemony over discourse to a flourishing, diverse, civil conversation; from a climate of limited public access to data to one where ordinary people write rigorous, evidence-based commentaries.
Few are willing to tolerate, much less engage with, the messiness and noise and misjudgements and misinterpretations that accompany any democratic transition and that often live long even in the oldest of democracies.
It seems like we all missed our ride on the dialectical time machine. Before 2011: you the citizens are not supposed to speak out. After 2011: you the citizens are supposed to debate like Stephen Sackur.
In my mind, it is not enough for the Roy Ngerngs of the world to craft better arguments. Society must also learn to deal more constructively with the Roy Ngerngs of the world.
I think it is important to note that Roy’s article is not simply about the prime minister, as many seem to believe. It is also about getting a fair rate of return on CPF funds; about retirement adequacy; and about the difficulty many have in meeting the Minimum Sum. All of which are important issues to a large segment of Singaporeans.
The one unfair and unnecessary insinuation is his hook: a sensationalised graphic at the top of the article that seeks to draw parallels between the alleged City Harvest scam and the CPF system.
In that context, then, a lawsuit seems like the bluntest, most medieval tool one could wield. In today’s world, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys ends up only angering the monkeys.
If you have yet to read Roy’s original piece, it’s quite easily available by searching online.
In the wake of Roy Ngerng’s controversial dismissal from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, one editorial saw fit to contrast Roy Ngerng with four people: Sylvia Lim, Worker’s Party chairperson, Daniel Goh, another Worker’s Party member, Donald Low, my co-author of Hard Choices, and myself (see here).
The point being made is that lest Roy’s “recklessness” and subsequent slapdown disenchant you, rest assured that dissent is indeed tolerated in Singapore. We four are the cheery proof.
I have two critiques of this kind of thinking. The first is that it propagates an elitist conception of debate and dissent. All four of us “dissenters”, by virtue of our jobs, have access to people, information, writing advice, and communication tools that somebody like Roy does not.
Society is setting a very high bar for tolerable dissent if only academics and writers are adjudged to be dissenting properly. Even though the elitists may not like it—and it represents a marked shift from Singapore’s traditional modus operandi—I believe we need to foster an environment where everybody, from Chairman to satay man, feels confident expressing his/her dissenting view.
We are far, far away from that ideal. Every other day I meet somebody who longs for the good old days when politics and policy in Singapore was the preserve of a tiny cabal of straight-A bureaucrats. There are long debates one can have about the value (or not) of elite governance, but I believe it has long lost any relevance to Singapore.
A diversity of ideas from a diversity of people is needed to boost Singapore’s resilience in today’s world. It is quixotic to believe that we can build a democracy that produces only “good” ideas or comments. Singapore needs to get better at expecting, accepting, and tolerating the good, the bad and the ugly.
To be clear, this is not a defence of fallacious statements. I will reiterate that it was wrong for Roy to insinuate (without proof) that Lee Hsien Loong has been swindling CPF monies. But if we are trying to build a society where dissent is tolerated, then our leadership and societal response to Roy must be calibrated with a much softer touch.
Rather than seeking to demonise Roy—including disgusting attacks on his sexual orientation—we should debunk his sophism and then seek to understand the roots of his malaise. Does he really believe the government swindles CPF monies? Do other Singaporeans believe this? Why isn’t there better understanding of the CPF system? Why isn’t financial literacy better? Are there any flaws with the CPF system? How can the system be improved?
My second critique is that this article seems to imply that it is easy to express reasoned dissent in Singapore. That is hardly the case. In truth, there are all sorts of obstacles in front of academics and writers such as myself.
For every issue and topic in Singapore that I feel confident writing about, there is another that I am unable to broach because of these obstacles.
In other words, the evidence of dissent should not be confused with an acceptable climate for dissent.
Data and information gaps hamper analysis
One of the greatest myths about Singapore’s government is that it is transparent.
In reality, Singapore is far less transparent than most developed democracies. Information asymmetries mean that citizen-government dialogue is inherently unbalanced. It also confers advantages to the PAP over opposition parties. This is precisely why for years many of us have been calling for a Freedom of Information Act.
In a 2012 post (see here), I talk about how information asymmetries undermine Singapore’s democracy, and describe in detail how my attempts at accessing the most mundane of data, like public preschool spending, have been stonewalled by the Singapore bureaucracy.
There are many topics that I would love to write about, including migrant bias—does Singapore really show preference to Chinese over Indians/Malays and other Muslims?—but am unable to because data is not made available.
Some have told me that the best way to get the government to release data is to make an outlandish claim, forcing their hand. One memorable incident from 2003 involves four NTU economists who, relying on publicly available data, concluded that over a five-year period, three out of four jobs went to foreigners.
They were roundly rebuked by Ng Eng Hen, then manpower minister, who produced new data showing that out of every ten jobs, nine went to residents and only one to a foreigner.
Put another way, there is certainly a perception amongst writers that for some issues, one has to provoke the establishment before the public is accorded full transparency. Again, without excusing Roy’s comments, this helps better set the context for his actions.
Singapore’s mainstream media model is outdated and vulnerable to political capture
I have written at length about the problems with Singapore’s mainstream media, both in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, and in two blog posts (see here and here). These posts include several clear examples of poor—even shockingly bad—journalism.
In the context of Roy Ngerng, I would like to make a few points. First, if Singapore’s mainstream media had maintained an ongoing critical but fair conversation over the years about the CPF system, any false accusations or statements about it would have far less credence in society.
The simple fact that many Singaporeans do not understand how something as fundamental as social security works is proof, if any were needed, that this media model is broken.
Second, through its unconcealed bias the mainstream media has discredited itself throughout this episode. By failing to fairly and adequately cover the Roy Ngerng story, including the unbelievable crowdsourcing of his legal defence fund; and by attacking Roy’s sexual orientation.
Third, this CPF saga reflects the underdeveloped state of our mainstream media, where journalists are mere news reporters and not opinion leaders (unlike in every other developed democracy). I would love to read editorials on the CPF system written by senior journalists. Instead, what we mostly get is reportage of government comments and guest columns (some of which, no doubt, are decent).
Finally, political capture of media is a major problem here. One suspects that all editors have been given explicit instructions on how to portray the Roy Ngerng story. On a related note, it is an open secret that since the 2011 elections, the government has tightened the leash on our mainstream media channels.
This includes more stringent editorial controls as well as personnel changes—increasing the ratio of editors:journalists and parachuting bureaucrats into positions of oversight.
This is clearly an End of Empire moment: as the PAP’s dominance is ending, it is digging in its heels. But all this is happening precisely as Singapore’s electorate is seeking more mature forms of engagement.
While political capture of the media might serve the PAP’s short-term electoral goals, ultimately societal trust in the media and government may suffer. The trust deficit, in turn, primes the electorate for more vicious attacks on the government’s credibility and integrity.
If, however, citizens believe that the mainstream media is acting resolutely on their behalf—rather than serving narrow political interests—it will go a long way towards shoring up confidence in government institutions and programmes.
Our mainstream media journalists are, for the most part, well-intentioned and talented people who are prevented from doing a better job by archaic laws and restrictions. We just need to free them.
Stifling intellectual climate and self-censorship prevent a deeper dialogue
For an aspiring knowledge economy, Singapore has a suffocating intellectual environment and a crippling culture of self-censorship. In my mind, this affects, to different degrees, the ability of individuals and organisations here to promote a proper contest of ideas.
Let me share a few examples. Before I wrote an article arguing for a shift from a conscript to a professional army (see here), I chatted briefly with two professors in Singapore universities.
Both agreed broadly with some of my thoughts; however, neither was willing to go on record, for fear of professional consequences. Again, unlike in every other developed democracy, academics in Singapore will never publicly state their opinion on certain taboo or politically sensitive topics.
A separate but equally telling conversation was with a professor from another Singapore university. After the publication in 2012 of the paper Inequality and the need for a new social compact (see here), co-authored by Manu Bhaskaran, Ho Seng Chee, Tan Kim Song, Yeoh Lam Keong, Donald and myself, one of Singapore’s media outlets had asked him for a rebuttal.
Without knowing the names of the paper’s authors, this professor prepared a feisty, detailed rebuttal. “However, when I found out it was my friends Donald, Lam Keong and Manu who had written it, I withdrew my rebuttal,” this professor told me. “I don’t want to offend them by disagreeing publicly with them.”
Now, having known Donald, Lam Keong and Manu for a few years, I dare say they are some of the more disputatious blokes around town—as a kindred spirit, I say that with affection—and might have been quite chuffed about a public disagreement. Alas, it was not to be.
Now I’m not sure if I should file this under “self-censorship”; “intellectual fear”; or “Asian face saving”. Whatever the case, it again speaks to the immature intellectual environment here.
Some people have recently pointed to the publication of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (see here) as proof that a climate of healthy debate and dissent exists here.
There were times during the book’s production process when Donald and I felt like it may be better to kill the project. The problems were all symptoms of the culture of self-censorship. I cannot think of any other developed country where we would have had gone through the same negative thought processes.
Moreover, there has been a depressing lack of serious engagement by the media or government on the book and its policy alternatives. (It could of course be because the book’s suggestions are not worth the paper they’re printed on.)
Finally, my most recent experience with self-censorship is directly tied to the Roy Ngerng case.
For the past couple of years I have been appearing regularly on Views on the News (aka First Look Asia), a morning show on Channel News Asia, where guests engage in short discussions with the hosts on various news stories of the moment. Guests have often been encouraged to suggest what stories they’d like to discuss. The hosts pick some; the guests pick some.
Two weeks ago, for the first time, I suggested a Singapore story. I felt that with 3,000 people gathering at Hong Lim Park for the CPF protest, this deserved our attention. It was no longer a story of just one kooky blogger against the prime minister.
After the CNA team had an internal discussion, I was informed that we would not be able to discuss the CPF story. There were several concerns, including the fact that it involved the prime minister.
Again, the culture of self-censorship had gotten the better of us. I don’t think there was anybody sending down directives to the show’s producers. They just made a judgement call.
I told them I felt it was wrong that we can discuss all sorts of other controversial, complicated issues—slavery in Thailand; racist textbooks in Hong Kong; a homicide court case in South Korea—but not certain ones involving my own country. The one we are physically in.
The next day, after the show, I told the hosts and producers that, as a matter of principle, I would no longer appear on it.
I felt a bit sad because they are wonderful, well-meaning people, and I always have a blast on the show. But it is important to take a stand against this culture of self-censorship, which infects us all.
I have shared these personal experiences, dear reader, so you have some insights into the climate for discussion, debate and dissent in this country. Despite our pretense at being an open, global, tolerant city, it is extremely difficult for any individual to speak truth to power and challenge prevailing orthodoxies.
Part of the problem, surely, is a certain self-righteousness and moral superiority that runs through every Singaporean, making it difficult for us to accept opinions that challenge our core beliefs. This gets elevated into a national, collective siege mentality when we have to defend the Singapore brand overseas.
I have just now returned from a discussion on Hard Choices at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs where several people, local and foreign, touched on this aspect. It plays out everywhere from the private sector and the civil service to public dialogue and small conversations.
How are we ever going to learn to disagree amicably if we believe so obstinately in our viewpoints?
This is arguably something all of us have to work on. Moreover, I believe we need leadership from the top. Many have already commented on some of the piffling, petty quarrels that pass for debate in Singapore’s parliament. A lot of room for improvement from politicians of all stripes.
Politicians also have to get better at engaging with commentators. Last week Janil Puthucheary, PAP MP, saw it fit to launch a tirade against Catherine Lim, perhaps our most famous writer, after she suggested, among other things, that “the people no longer trust their government.”(See here.)
He attacked her character—saying she “cannot be trusted to be consistent” and that her views are “jaundiced”—as much as the substance of her message. Perhaps Mr Puthucheary believed he was sparring with a political opponent.
Incredibly, Mr Puthucheary characterised Ms Lim’s Open letter to the PM as a “sweeping attack on our nation”.
Really? When writers depict their view of society, it is an attack on our nation?!?
In every mature country, writers serve as the voice of the people, the national conscience. But in Singapore, like in totalitarian states since time immemorial, writers are occasionally labelled as enemies of the state.
It is a very sad reflection of public discourse that Ms Lim’s views should be held in such low regard. The obvious corollary: if even Catherine Lim is not accorded a respectful dialogue…what about the rest of us?
It is for these many reasons that I am extremely sympathetic to Roy Ngerng’s plight. At the risk of pedantry, I will repeat one last time that what Roy implied about Lee Hsien Loong in his graphic was wrong.
However, in my mind, it is intellectually lazy, ignorant and irresponsible to criticise Roy’s fallacious insinuation without also acknowledging Singapore’s drastically unequal social power structure. Roy comes from a position of powerlessness.
It is not only establishment folk who trade in these facile grunts; even opposition politician Nicole Seah’s recent comments on the Roy Ngerng case lack sufficient depth and sophistication (see here).
Singapore needs to mitigate this unbalanced power structure by, among other things, improving transparency and liberalising the media, thereby democratising knowledge and cultivating dissent. Unlikely to happen soon, no doubt, as the wayang must go on.
That is why, oh Roy, my heart goes out to you. One of your enduring legacies, I suspect, will be in teaching us how to disagree.