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.
55 thoughts on “Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you”
You are obviously biased just by the adjectives you used. He may look meek and innocuous. I don’t care how one looks, I just want facts and logic. And most importantly, speak the truth, respect our leaders and bring the facts out in the open if you want to accuse anyone of wrong doing. What is an “ordinary people” of Singapore? Every time I read that someone on a platform utters that he is fighting or speaking for Singaporean, I wonder who gives him/her the permission to do so. If he or she wants to do so, he or she should join the next election as a political candidate. Then and only then, can he speak for those who elected him. I don’t remember having elected Roy to speak on my behalf.I am an ordinary person in Singapore who believe in working hard, who believe in savings, who believe my leaders are intelligent people with the well beings of the people at heart and most importantly who knows what perils this fragile country faces.
Thank you. I have some friends who, like you, want only elected politicians to speak for Singaporeans. My own view is that while this might have been possible, and even desirable, in early Singapore, in the world today, where intelligence and information is distributed, we actually need many different people–from the government, private sector, NGO, academics, bloggers, writers etc.–to contribute and speak on behalf of particular constituencies.
Obviously we have people like Lim Soo How who are just naive to believe in everything that the government or pigs tell them.
Dear Lim Soo How, thank you for articulating and channeling the “inner censor” indwelling the psyche of people of my generation (b 1963) like a ferocious gibbering spirit. “Biased” means (apparently) for you “having a viewpoint that differs from mine.” Actually it may help your engagement with the world (you obviously want to engage otherwise you wouldn’t have written) if you acknowledge that we are all “biased”, we all have a theoretical framework, and the challenge is to examine, identify and hopefully improve the subtlety and breadth of our “bias”. “Facts” – the word is etymologically derived from the same Latin word that gives is the word “manufacture”. If we think about it, so much that we regard as “facts” is just our mind’s way of making images of its “bias”. And “logic” is how we draw conclusions or make inferences from these “facts”. We all want to “speak the truth” about political and governmental matters in S’pore, but Sudhir’s point is about access to information which makes it difficult for us to see things clearly. Therefore, we have to conjecture and make inferences. This should not be mistaken as “not speaking the truth”. Also, we’re all happy to “respect our leaders” but wouldn’t you agree that respect has to be earned and deserved? We don’t need anybody’s permission to speak as or for the “ordinary people” of Singapore. Nobody has the exclusive right to do that – we all, even those who are armed with the best statistical data – can only form an image or have a “bias” of what it means to be an “ordinary Singaporean”. And we will be able to form better theories or “biases” (I am using this word in a special sense) if we listen to different people’s viewpoints. Neither should we be hassled or pressured to “join elections” as “political candidates”. Even if our viewpoint is “political” – for eg it is about what is good for Singapore, and how we can craft better policies – we can, and indeed, should express ourselves to our friends and community in an on-going conversation. Thus, you have expressed political views on this page, haven’t you Soo How? And here we are dialoging using about your views, and really, neither you nor I nor Sudhir have to “join elections” in order to engage in this conversation. Roy has done just what you are doing – albeit he has spoken at mass gatherings as well. Indeed, I believe I am an “ordinary person in Singapore” too, just like you. We may have slightly different viewpoints on some details (the role of “leaders” for example and what it means to “believe” that they are “intelligent and have the well being of the people at heart) but it helps both of us to engage and clarify our individual perceptions.
Lim Soo How, I thought you were being serious, until I read “I… believe my leaders are intelligent people….”
Ai Bee, I think Soon How sincerely wants to believe that his intelligent and morally upright elected political leaders (which quite honestly sounds oxymoronic to any cursory student of political science) will do right by him, and it genuinely disturbs and distresses him that their benevolent paternalism could be questioned by brash upstarts and marginalized (by the state monopolized media) figures. He does not want to know what he does not want to know. What he does not want to know are “not facts and not logical”. I have invited him to dialogue because he actually stands as a representative of a significant segment of my generation. I too, had to face many inner demons evolving out of that deep well I was cast into by my conditioning. So I have some sympathy with him as a person on the psychological level.
Thank you for a most insightful and courageous article, Sudhir. God has blessed you with a mighty pen to help address some of the wrongs of our fledgling society. May He continue to give you the strength to persevere.
Well Said……clearly mentioned….positively reviewed….”Thank you so much…Fully agreed.
As for Ï…believe my leaders are intelligent people”…….OMG!!!!
I would refer that statement to my leaders of yesteryears like Dr.Goh Keng Swee and Dr.Toh Chin Chye….
Wondering why still got so many lost sheep hanging around!!!
Just want to say this is a beautifully penned article. I also want to state my agreement (though I do apologise if this misrepresents your view!) that much of this comes from a government and civil service who has much to learn in the ways of engaging its people – and that if the government learnt to share its viewpoints and rationales, they might find themselves in a position of ironically greater strength rather than the weakness they seem to believe honesty breeds.
I agree. Openness and transparency will boost confidence in the government, even if it does cause some discomfort. I guess old habits die hard.
I saw the same things you mentioned as a former civil servant. As a researcher in the midst of my fieldwork now, I also experience how individuals working in institutions are fearful of rocking the boat, and would rather not be involved in issues they deem too sensitive. This is even when they acknowledge the benefits and good intentions of the research. And if it is as ingrained within local academia as you suggest, how do you suppose we can change this climate/culture of self-censorship?
Hi Luke, it will take a very long time. But I believe we need fundamental change, from the top–e.g. PAP politicians disagreeing publicly with each other–to the bottom–mainstream media journalists being allowed to write on whatever they want without fear–and everything in between.
I suspect your belief system and what you’ve mentioned is rooted on the ideal and premise of a Western-style democratic system of ‘one man, one vote’. My personal opinion is as much as that would be nice, this is Asia; and our geographical and cultural difference compared to the Western nations means that their systems of governance and checks and balances will not work as efficiently here. Hence, Singapore as a nation is straddling this dichotomy pretty well- after all, the media is a means to an end, and if the end is a prosperous country able to stand it’s ground in spite of unfriendly neighbours and a lack of natural resources.. then the means have done well thus far, isn’t it?
Dear Kelvin, we do have a “one (wo)man, one vote” system don’t we? I think everyone has different viewpoints about what ” democratic” means and it is probably worth examining what each of us means by “Weaterm/Asian style” democracy. Personally I find it really is not very helpful to label and dichotomies these things in this way. There is no need for us to settle for compromises saying “that would be nice”; we should engage in dialogue about the society we want. Even within “the West” (whatever that means) there seems to be a lot of “geographical and cultural difference(s)” but the one commonality we all share as human beings is a psycho-biology and thereby we can strive to understand and change ourselves and our societies. I really don’t think – and I believe neither do many other Singaporeans – that “checks and balances” have anything to do with a “West/Asia” dichotomy. The justification for “checks and balances” lies in the unchanging fundamental tendencies of human nature, some of us believe. It has to do with the nature of political dominance, and the need for transparency and accountability without which ultimately no country or economy can survive (I believe). I agree we have traveled a certain distance successfully – for now. But the formulas that worked in the past are being questioned today because they’re no longer suited to what we’ve evolved into (both as a species worldwide and as a polity in Singapore). Our continued survival and success as a nation may depend (I believe it does) on some crucial self-examination at this juncture. This is an intensely interconnected world where ideas and viewpoints are engaging one another continuously and the dominant mode of production in Singapore is moving towards the non-hierarchical post-industrial paradigm (yes, we can discuss what each of us understand by these big concepts). What needs to change to enable us to go forward?
I believe Singapore’s socio-political system served it well in our early years. But given our current state of development, we need change. Badly.
Liberal democracy is not a Western concept. Look at Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen traces democratic traditions in Asia dating back millenia.
Rather than being culture-specific, there seems to be a rough correlation with income. As countries get richer, their citizens clamour for more rights. Singapore has always been an outlier here, but this is changing. Very fast.
Finally, is Singapore a prosperous country? Not for the 10% who have difficulty putting food on the table every day. Not for the 30% who have difficulty funding their own retirement. And not for the 50+% who say they will emigrate if given a chance.
From Daryl Lim’s FB wall:
I have quite a bit of respect for Sudhir’s opinions, but this article is just plain wrong on many levels, and I’m surprised Sudhir is valourising Roy to this extent. But I’ll pick on a small point which has irked me for a while in discussions of democratic government: that of transparency.
A big deal is made about “transparency”, as if democracies (liberal or illiberal) naturally need to provide this mysterious virtue. Any history of the concept will show that this is quite a recent demand. Furthermore, it can be argued that this demand has distortionary effects on how democracies work. In a democracy where “transparency” is an expected norm (ideologically constructed by actors such as Sudhir), any necessary or accidental concealment of the truth (which is much more common than outright lying) will appear to be conspiratorial. In fact, that’s almost exactly what happened in Roy’s case. Such a view of democracy might in fact work to deeply undermine it, and make the position of politicians more and more untenable. I am all for access to data: but let’s have a discussion on what this means, what data should be open to access, etc.
Furthermore, I don’t think the alleged information asymmetry in this case justifies Roy’s getting it spectacularly wrong. Some people will develop terrible theories regardless of how much good information they get. No amount of transparency is going to eradicate this tendency of democracy towards conspiracy, or indeed, the fallibility of human reason.
And follow-up comments to this post:
Daryl W. J. Lim In this short *ahem* dissent, I draw a bit on the work of Alfred Moore (Cambridge). http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org/people/dr-alfred-moore
Arjun Naidu I like your critique, but I’m curious. What do you make of Sudhir’s power-structures argument? I am generally sympathetic to such ideas, so to me this struck me as a valid point (in general lah, not sure about whether Roy is really the best mascot for this)
Daryl W. J. Lim Could you explicate what you think Sudhir is arguing here? I find the argument about unequal power structures incredibly cloudy.
Arjun Naidu I think he’s saying at least two things here. First, is that PM should not sue Roy (even though he’s entitled to) because as PM he has other options available to him than a civil suit and its attendant implications (bankruptcy etc). Am sympathetic to t…See More
Arjun Naidu But I agree that this is a rather cloudy piece. He’s trying to address almost anything that is tangentially relevant to the case, and maybe I am merely reading what I want to read out of it…
Elvin Ong I’m curious what are the “many levels” that you think this article is “just plain wrong”? I don’t think he has “valorized” Roy that much. Maybe a tiny bit about the good points that Roy has brought up, and about being at a relatively disadvantaged position information-wise (which we all are). Otherwise, he did explicitly say that Roy was wrong to insinuate corruption.
Daryl W. J. Lim Yep, I do agree with the first point, almost completely. But the idea that all of us (Singaporeans) should agree to this proposition is an ideological point, isn’t it? I know of people who think that the PM is right to do so. I wish Sudhir wouldn’t just make it seem as if it’s the PAP/government who are hanging on the old ways and the populace is swiftly moving ahead — there are a lot of people who do want things done the old way. And that’s democracy!
Hmm, but that’s expertise isn’t it? I am sceptical of the argument here, because it somehow places a strange value on political dissent, as if its very existence, regardless of its quality, is a good thing. We wouldn’t say the same thing about shoddy research, bad historical argument (that is poorly grounded in the evidence), etc., would we? I think I simply wouldn’t contribute to a debate unless I felt I knew enough, and had the facts at my command. For example: Roy is a healthcare worker. I wouldn’t presume to think my opinions on technical aspects of his work have any value whatsoever. I think Sudhir just hasn’t shown that it is necessarily POWER that’s the problem in this narrow instance. (Though yes, in the first sense of the lawsuit, that’s true.)
Daryl W. J. Lim Elvin Ong I address some of them in my reply to Arjun. There is too much: hopefully it’ll come out through questioning, and help to organise my thoughts. Well, what “valourise” means is to give something too much credit, which is exactly what I think Sudhir has done.
Elvin Ong Do citizens have the right to governance information? Maybe, depending on how much and what type. And that is a debate worth having which we are not having at the moment.
Do citizens have the right to political dissent? I think so. But how do we exercise this right carefully, prudently, and usefully is I think dependent on the answer to the above first question. Absent commonly accepted boundaries about state secrecy and transparency, one tends to argue on speculation/conspiracy, as you rightly pointed out. In his blog posts, I think Roy has done as much research as possible to dig out what is publicly available, but those are just not enough to satisfy any reasonable standards of argumentation, hence the subsequent leap towards speculation and insinuation. No, it wasn’t right for him to do that. I don’t think anyone is saying that it is.
Moreover, absent representative and accurate opinion polls, I’m not sure I would swing any way about whether PM is more or less “right” to sue Roy. There could be plenty of people either way.
So what is Daryl going on about? An incoherent jumble of concepts! Sudhir is not “valorising” Roy but invoking Roy’s experience to engage in a sustained meditation on socio-political issues in Singapore. Ai yoh! Transparency is not a “mysterious virtue”. Or no more mysterious than “justice”. It is an aspiration and a desideratum which we must dialogue about when we craft social polity. It is a “recent” demand because it is only comparatively “recently” that the bureaucratic/technocratic state has evolved with its monopolization of immense power over the citizen. After WW1 and WW2 it became even clearer that politicians should be made to divulge and disclose their dealings as far as possible because secret cabals and blind confidence in leaders could lead to disaster. Thus the demand for “transparency” conflates with the archetypal and primeval demand for justice. When Sudhir talks of “asymmetries” and the like the subtext is, precisely, that of (in)justice. It is not a “novum” or a mere “ideological construct”. Daryl, conspiracies are real and they do happen. Consider the curious case of Nixon and Watergate. But surely the mere likelihood that allegations of conspiracy will be made is no argument against the demand for transparency? By all means, let’s have lots of discussion on the nature and scope of transparency! But please let’s not treat the topic as a late uninvited guest to the political tea-party, a shady chap from the underworld of paranoid and off-the-wall “conspiracies”! Roy engaged in what some of us regard us an excess of rhetoric. Sudhir has dealt with this thoughtfully and compassionately. To use phrases like “spectacularly wrong” with reference to Roy tends to cast a chilling pall on all of us, doesn’t it? Human reason’ you concede, is fallible. Someday maybe soon, you or I are also likely to err and then I believe we’d want to be reasoned with rather than condemned with epithets like these? Finally, just because “some people” develop “terrible theories” regardless of the information available to them doesn’t amount to saying anything helpful at all – unless it is to say, that “other people” (like Sudhir) upon receipt of “good information” will with some success at least help their more intellectually infirm brethren to think aright! So arguably the solution to the tendency of democracies “towards conspiracy” is greater transparency!
Hi Arthur, I don’t think it’s fair to say that I put forth an incoherent jumble of concepts. Just because you disagree doesn’t mean I’m being incoherent. Firstly, I don’t think you quite understand the meaning of “valourising”: I simply mean that Sudhir is giving Roy too much credit. That’s all that means.
On transparency, I’m pointing out that it is not necessarily a good thing: it is a recent ideological construction that can distort democracy. Considering it’ls recent appearance, I think the onus is on its advocates to show that 1) it’s beneficial to democracy 2) it is at all linked to the need for justice. You’ve simply asserted the point by stating that it conflates with justice. This is the discussion you’re trying to submerge, in fact: you want a discussion on the “nature and scope”, but not a discussion on the very concept and its ideological underpinnings.
The rest of your criticism is not really substantive. Yes, conspiracies do happen. So what does that mean for how democracies run most of the time? And criticising my rhetoric is a bit pointless: yours is arguably a lot more inflated and unhelpful. On the last point, all that’s being said is this: regardless of how much good information is provided, false theories will develop. No amount of transparency will resolve this point. So what do we do in this circumstance?
Another problem with our mainstream media is that the journalists have gotten used to being spoon fed by the government. I used to work for a stat board and dealt with the media so I know what’s going on. For major events, not only did we prepare Press Release Statements for the media, we also had give them Q&As and other Factsheets. So before the journalists even write a single word, everything had already prepared for them. It works for both parties in a way. The Government ensures that their word gets out, and the journalists can take it easy. Of course, this leads to all kinds of problems when democracy is concerned because the media is supposed to be a watchdog.
Absolutely. Journalists in many countries rely on press statements, but in Singapore they place unquestioned faith in them–leading to laziness. In my first of two articles on the mainstream media, I point out one gross error that was down to blindly copying a press release.
There’s some real wisdom in this piece. I’m convinced your beliefs are tad idealistic however. Your reference to a true democracy has honestly never in the history of man kind existed in the ways i think you might imagine a “proper democracy” might, where a perfect balance between both moderation in control and freedom of rights exists. which in my personal opinion makes your conception of democracy ironically quixotic. But on Roy, aye, fair enough.
Also, haha, I think Lim Soo How is entitled to the belief that his leaders are intelligent. It’s odd that such comments would come after a long piece that attempted to champion the right of a person to have an opinion and being taken seriously for it.
Isn’t it just as intellectually lazy and irresponsible to say wrong is ok as long as it is done by “the weak” against a key figure of the government leviathan? (I’m dropping “ignorant”. But just as well, knowledge is not a sufficient condition for sound argument.)
Isn’t it irresponsible to say that as long as the wrongs are tangentially linked to legitimate requests that the wrongs are then legitimated? (Now I’m dropping “intellectually lazy”.)
Isn’t it detrimental to society when irresponsible “dissent” (especially that which is sensationalist and publicty seeking) drowns out less sensational but significantly more responsible “dissent”?
“My friends and fellow Singaporeans”, “I will continue to speak up” for good sense, “to protect us.”
Dear Convexset, a series of rhetorical questions and straw men!
“Wrong is ok” – no one is saying that! But in each case where “wrong” is alleged (and “defamation” is a “wrong” or tort), there are defenses or at least mitigating/extenuating circumstances. The juristic mind or that of the moral philosopher insists on going beyond the social or circumstantial label. This is what is meant (I believe) by intellectual diligence and responsibility. The fact that someone “weak” has attracted the overwhelming ire of “a key figure of the government leviathan” is a salient circumstance in any inquiry, surely. It is counterintuitive for the “weak” to risk life and liberty and fortune by provoking the strong and mighty. So why did it happened? Was there provocation? Was there a perception on the part of the “weak” that there was a perception of a conflict between two social goods and a that moral choice had to be made? What is it in the social and political circumstances that gave rise to this perception on the part of the “weak”? Should the “leviathan” treat this “wrong” conduct as meriting a crushing response or should some sel-examination on the leviathan’s part be called for? Some restraint? Some cognitive dissonance?
Your second question has the same structure as the first. Interestingly, civil disobedience and specifically Gandhian satyagraha or its USA variant practiced by Dr King comes to mind. Again, merely posing the question the way you did is a mere parody of the profundity entailed in these matters.
Was Gandhi’s and Dr King’s dissent not, in a way, “irresponsible,”sensationalist” and “publicity seeking”? There’s no easy answer to questions like these and that is why it behoves us not to be intellectually lazy here. Arguably, often the connivance/passivity/acquiescence of people in the face of perceived injustice is far more “detrimental to society” than the type of activism you implicitly censure? Would Germany have been better off if more Germans had done the “wrong” thing by saying no to legalized and institutionalised evil?
I wish, I wish….you will engage with your self-posed questions.
Errata: “Was there a perception on the part of the “weak” that there was a perception of a conflict between two social goods and a that moral choice had to be made?” should read “Was there a perception on the part of the “weak” that there was a conflict between two social goods and that a moral choice had to be made between the two?”
Wrong is not OK. Wrongs are not “legitimated”. And the reason irresponsible “dissent” drowns out less sensational dissent is because the government and the mainstream media chooses to focus on it. Have you ever wondered: why doesn’t the government take on and have constructive debates with responsible dissenters? Instead, it only arrows in on the fringe and pulverises it.
… by promoting sensationalist nonsense tangentially linked to legitimate issues (this is what you are doing), you are (regardless of your intention) being part of the machine that draws attention from responsible critique. Dissent is not uncommon in Singapore. So you are valorizing evils you claim to not support and encouraging more to adopt that strategy for political gain. And the more people do this, the further we move from reasoned democracy and the closer to either one of authoritarian supremacy or a conflagration of demagoguery.
… isn’t that politically expedient? Just like a faux apology and take down, then making the material available (to all in the world) by disseminating it covertly?
The government has their intellectually dishonest strategy. It’s not right to do evil to counter evil?
An intelligent leader is one who can convince a nation of 5 million people to accept their proposal for a million dollar pay package. This is beyond doubt.
Yes anonymous, nice indeed 🙂 but painful for the rest of us Singaporeans who disagree with the pay package. I don’t think they necessarily convinced us, they may have brainwashed a good percentage of Singaporeans, but basically have left the rest of us no real choice in the matter.
I am here addressing DARYLLWJ.
Hi Daryl, I want to have a friendly argument with you but no quarrel.
No offense meant; incoherence like “elegance” in mathematical proof is somewhat of an aesthetic judgment. I saw a mass of abstractions and metaphors piled atop one another and I squealed “incoherent”!
I do understand what valorising means and I do not think at all that Sudhir is giving Roy “too much credit”. Sudhir has reflected on the social and cultural and political dimensions of Roy – including Roy’s awesomely successful recourse to crowd funding (which has netted around $107k – the money kept flowing in even after the declared goal of $70k was attained in 4 days). If anything Sudhir is a tad too uncritical in accepting that Roy’s infographic did unequivocally insinuate what LHL insinuates it does; do peruse Roy’s Defence on-lime sometime. Also, the elephant in the room: Tharman, who was side by side with LHL on the infographic has prudently and sagaciously refrained from suing or even demanding an apology. I guess, Daryl, that the perception and judgment of whether “valorization” has occurred is also analogous to an aesthetic judgment?
As for the connection between justice and transparency, I tried to explain that the relative “recent appearance” of the transparency discourse has to do with the cultural/socio-economic changes humanity has undergone since the age of agricultural production and orgsnisation – specifically the increasing power concentrated in bureaucratic cabals able to exert quasi-absolute control over the bodies and psyches of citizens by deploying the massive technological armamentarium at their disposal. This power has undergone an exponential upsurge in the age of information technology as a means of production and a resource for social organisation and control. Hence, the increasing clamor for transparency and accountability. This is how I interpret as being well founded Sudhir’s lament about asymmetries which pervades his essay.
My demand for transparency in the use of a pan-optical resource that can know me in an intimate manner, and control me as well, is a just demand. Now of course you can say, this is ideological and a construct, but really, everything we say or can say about politics is an ideological construct. You speak of democracy as if anybody could define it – this can’t be done, surely. Really. But we can still talk about it!
In other words, we can speak of various social arrangement we approve of and we can “valourize” these as being “more democratic” if they approximate our heart’s desire, but we’d mostly be talking about what is just or unjust. I embrace and acknowledge that my language – indeed all discourse, including yours – on subjects such as this is at one level “inflated”, “not substantive” and “unhelpful”.
Yes, I freely concede that what I say is Rhetoric – but it is Rhetoric in its old liberal arts sense of a kind of discourse that combines aesthetics, logic, polemics, poetics, etc in order to persuade and impel us to act. It is not futile and unmeaningful at all, and we are allowed to mingle playfulness with earnestly held convictions or aesthetic or moral judgments. Sudhir’s essay does just that that. Using metaphorical phrases like “ideological construct”, “beneficial to democracy”, “ideological underpinnings” is perfectly fine as long as you don’t start acting like you’ve attained to a level of precision and specificity that is unwarranted by this subject matter. Talking of “matter”, these days even theoretical physicists are epistemologists when speaking of “matter” (it is no longer “never mind”). Let’s continue to argue and dialogue: along the way you and I may be impelled to make choices or change our perspectives in consequence of what the other has said. That would be a boon indeed!
This is how friends talk. Unfriendly talk is when (say) a Jainil Puthucheary lambasts a Catherine Lim for being “inconsistent”, for injecting gratuitous moral opprobrium and odium theologicum into a national dialogue initiate by a poet when she attempts to essay forth a novelist’s unique perspective on what may be a national malaise. Or when people are hectored and berated or excluded and disqualified because they’re said to belong to the unwashed multitude. Or don’t use textbook definitions.
And maybe some who overhear our conversation will join us and contribute their own idiosyncratic imaginative visions of the New Jerusalem. Not just an Edmund Burke or David Hume or Gibbon, but also a Samuel Johnson or William Blake! I think that this is what Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics meant as being the quintessence of democracy. I’d like Singapore to be that archetypal Athens or Alexandria where good polity is inseparable from good conversation between friends. I conclude with the offer of an olive branch to you if I have offended you. You are obviously a learned man (I am perfectly happy to concede even more than I) with thoroughly thought out opinions and I look forward to engaging with you in future if you do me the honor again.
Hey Sudhir, thanks for writing this. I’ve been posting articles I’ve read about Roy on FB because I think what he’s doing is important and my heart goes out to him too. Surprisingly a couple of my friends and family in Singapore have questioned me on my support for him, it seems they’ve completely written him off because of that one mistake he made. It really feels like many people are too lazy or ignorant to read up more on this issue or educate themselves about the details concerning the Roy Ngerng case and the issues with the CPF, instead they’re quick to lay blame and point fingers. Roy Ngerng is not perfect and he made a mistake comparing the CPF to the City Harvest Scandal, but even so, he raises very pertinent issues that affect the survival of Singapore’s most vulnerable and the daily lives of the rest of us. I definitely think that there is a real need for more transparency and accountability among the government institutions in Singapore. There definitely needs to be more freedom and open debate in the press and media. I’m glad for the internet and how it affords us a space to for this. I’m glad though that you brought what Nicole Seah posted about Roy in your article too, because I think her understanding of the matter was rather shallow and misleading. I was rather put out when I read it and I commented on her post, but have yet to hear back from her. Anyways, thanks again. Now I’ve found your blog I’ll be reading more of it.
Dear Meowmeow, adapting what Sudhir says, Roy is teaching us all – not just “how to disagree” (although this is an important lesson) but also to read and parse the meanings of words and images which unconsciously dominate us to our own detriment. The “laziness” you speak of is like the sleep of reason and conscience, the sleep of Psyche, the state if the Sleeping Beauty, wrought by the magic of artful words and ritualistic mummery.
Roy’s “great mistake” turns out, upon closer inspection, to be something altogether trivial – so trivial that the savvy Tharman, who jointly with LHL was the subject matter of Roy’s infographic, has not even bothered to send out through his lawyers a letter of demand for an apology. I invite the many fine intellectuals who read and contribute to this website to study the text and images in Roy’s offending blogpost, and the way LHL’s lawyer has deduced a specific and utterly horrendous “allegation of criminal misappropriation” from it. Roy’s “apology”, extracted in terrorrem of the archetypal Singapore Defamation Suit, is neither here nor there. We surely have the duty of scrutinizing text and context! Never mind what the Court ultimately opines – we cannot delegate our conscience!
If “intellectuals” disagree on interpretation of Roy’s infographic, let us at least acknowledge that such differences exist. When someone is being figuratively crucified as “the enemy of the people” (MOH had to get into the act, and PMO’s press secretary had to trumpet it abroad in the Economists’ pages – ie Roy’s transgression involved some vast and awesome “national interest”), doesn’t it behove those who regard themselves as intellectuals to at least mutter, “oh, give him the benefit of doubt”? Rather it is the “common man” who has recognized the archetypal political dimensions of the Roy saga and has clamored for his defence.
Which of us, in the heat of passionate debate, the ventilation of ardently held opinions, might not say something which someone powerful and wealthy may transmute into an offense worthy of social humiliation (on the international stage in the case of Roy!) and complete and utter financial ruin? Sudhir was accused by someone of “valorising” Roy because Sudhir appears to have allowed his moral and sympathetic sentiments to flow into a poetic meditation on Roy’s plight (bearing in mind that anyone of us or our loved ones may be in Roy’s place) – surely when the contest is so egregiously uneven, when one of the combatants has the odds so fearfully stacked against him, “the quality of mercy is not strained….”? In fact, Sudhir appears to accept a tad too uncritically that Roy has “done something wrong” which Sudhir must dissociate himself from (he does so twice in his essay in the spirit of “for avoidance of doubt” – as if any sane person could every imagine Sudhir accusing LHL of criminal misappropriation just by treating Roy humanely!).
Defamation law is a unique species of tort law, the one most susceptible to political (ab)use. Surely this is obvious? Defamation law in Singapore is too grave a matter to be left in the hands of legal “experts” alone. Surely this again should be obvious by now. The Courts’ opinions do not and cannot be the sole criteria of justice and equity – why else do we have multiple appeal procedures, and our revered ex CJ Chan Sek Keong is on record for commending the rigorous scrutiny of the Courts’ judgments. Why else have legislation that tells the judges how to sentence criminals and that even reverses prior judicial decisions? Singaporeans should, I am saying, take joint- ownership of or stakeholdership in the development of the law in areas such as defamation and constitutional law.
Our fellow-Singaporean, lawyer and academic Jothie Rajah, has written an illuminating and learned book called “Authoritarian Rule of Law” wherein she distinguished between “rule of law” and “rule by laws”. If law is something we entrust entirely to a putative infallible caste of “experts” (protected by real or imaginary immunity from criticism) appointed by political elites, we’re bound to end up with “rule by laws” – any act can be legitimated just by going through some inherently vacuous procedural steps.
Law, like intelligence and information, is “distributed” in a society, and especially in today’s post-industrial society. To adapt and adopt Sudhir by analogy: “in the world today, where intelligence and information is distributed, we actually need many different people–from the government, private sector, NGO, academics, bloggers, writers etc.–to contribute and speak on behalf of particular constituencies”. Even aspects of Catholic teaching refer to “sensum fidei” (or the “sense of the faithful – ie lay Catholics) as a source of dogma! I hope no one will make the straw-man criticism that I am invoking complete anarchy – maxims like these are guidelines to balance other political maxims, for eg, “Daddy knows best”.
Rule of law requires citizens’ participation and vigilance. It is not sufficiently appreciated in Singapore that law is a mutating and evolving construct. Even in “objective” science, writers like Kuhn (“Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) have demonstrated this quality pertaining to “scientific law”. How much more in matters having to do with human societies!
Let me coin an aphorism: revolution (the volcanic upsurge of indignation towards perceived injustice) plus constitution (the tempering and moderating desire for rule of law) equals evolution.
Angering LHL or provoking him to “act angry” (perhaps a theatrical posture calculated to have us revert to being gibbering compliant circus monkeys – it seems to work doesn’t it? That’s what the Economist article said) is Roy’s earth-shattering and sky-rending sin, really – and in my book it is no sin at all. Or, put another way, I for one, do not desire a political leader who operates this way – I am not “anti-PAP” because I do applaud Tharman for pointedly NOT toeing LHL’s manner and acting in this manner. I would happily troop to the polling booth to “vote PAP” if there was a genuine evolutionary change from their latter-day leadership style epitomized by LHL’s suit against Roy and the bazooka attacks on mere gadflies.
Living in constant fear of massive retaliation by the rich and powerful for anything you might say has crippled Singaporeans’ intellects and shriveled our spirits for too long. With the greatest respect, I am appreciative of Singaporeans like you, Meowmeow who take the trouble to pierce the veil of propagandistic appearance and engage in the task of awaking Singaporeans to their creative and autonomous potential – which by the way is the only way we’re going to survive, thrive and flourish economically in the long run.
Dear Arthur, I just read this comment 6 years after you sent it. I’m still rather tech challenged at the moment so I hope you will be patient with me. Thank you for your encouraging message and deeply insightful approach to this matter. I will continue to ponder on what you have said to me.
Thanks for your feedback. Yes, you’re right, I was also quite shocked that many people, including some of my more diligent friends, wrote him off without even knowing what he said. Almost as if the spectre of a LHL lawsuit was enough to convince Singaporeans that Roy is a demon.
Hi Sudhir, social ostracism of dissidents as part of an overall re-framing of reality perpetrated by a monolithic and monopolistic media….but thankfully (and you, inter alia, are blessed proof of that), the Veil of the Simulacrum in Singapore has been rent. You may note that dismayingly many “intellectuals” (otherwise scrupulously and even compulsively “diligent”) fall prey (willingly?) in large numbers to the Sorcery of the Simulacrum, with its alternately seductive and terrifying specters. By contrast, the unwashed netizens/idiota seem courageous, acutely perceptive, and refreshingly sane. Roy is their heroic non-anonymous icon. The earthy and often scatalogical tones and registers of their comments are easy to fault, but the “common” people are not deficient in substance. So many of your “friends” I bet want to consign Roy to the class of the contemptible and infra dig. That is exactly how LHL and his people denigrate them, once boasting of themselves being “flame proof” and impervious to such as these. You valiantly refuse to do so, and so some “intellectuals” say say: oh, he’s valorising Roy; one supercilious sounding troll on this page even ridiculously accuses you of valorising “evil”. Does (post)modern “enlightenment” mean, for some of the intelligentsia, abandoning the quest for truth, justice and freedom in order to show their serviceableness as Regime-upholding Sorcerer wannabes? Who wants to be a Roy Ngerng when one can be an XYZ, vaunted and anointed as a “public intellectual” lording over the fiefdom of a lavishly endowed “think-thank” at his command? I think one of the main problems of the PAP in its latter-day decadent phase is that it seems to rely on a cabal or “brains-trust” of (erstwhile?) very smart people who have convinced themselves that “manipulation of perception” is what government is all about. But when one peddles in or conjures up so many specters, without any guiding pole-star of ideals or anchor in the human reality, one becomes a disastrously inept “sorcerer’s apprentice”. It was both sad and funny too, to see Chua Mui Hoong lambast the latter-day PAP for its political insubstantiality. Keep up the marvelous work, Sudhir. As an older Singaporean I salute and honor your work. I am getting copies of your book Hard Choices for my friends and inviting them to ponder and discuss what you, Donald Low and the other contributors are trying to teach us – both what to think about and also modeling how to do it. The long-banished Liberal Arts (including the “Rhetoric” that semi-educated “humanities technicians” reflexively condemn) are returning to our blessed isle through these efforts! Notice how those who appreciate your efforts massively outweigh the nay-sayers.
Hey I know you– you were from “UP AND ON” … its a good read but there surely those who claim its against the common viewpoint.
Leveraging different views provides a balanced argument.
Not every facet may be correct or agreed by someone but that your own personal viewpoint and should be respected by others. 🙂
Up and On! 🙂
Hey Arthur, you lamented that most people take it as a given that Roy did indeed defame LHL. Thanks for bringing up that point. I personally don’t think that Roy defamed LHL. He was suggesting the possibility of corruption in the CPF and bringing up the City Harvest Scandal as a thought experiment: nobody would have expected such a Church like City Harvest to be capable of corruption on such a huge scale, just like how, up to this point, nobody would have suspected that the CPF could ever be tainted by corruption. What people fail to see is that he was making an analogy of the POSSIBILITY of something completely shocking, but given the paucity of information and arbitrary changes in CPF policy and minimum sums, it was a still a possibility.
The big “mistake” I think, was in using that analogy which that left himself open to attack by LHL. As Sudhir brought up, this “mistake” would never be a problem in more developed democracies where people can tolerate “the messiness and noise and misjudgements and misinterpretations that accompany any democratic transition and that often live long even in the oldest of democracies.” In more developed democracies, the leaders of countries don’t use defamation lawsuits to silence voices of dissent because that only reflects the deep insecurity of the leaders themselves. This “mistake” is only a mistake because it took place in Singapore where self-censorship is the norm and the expected behavior that a “good citizen” should have. I mean if Barack Obama were to sue every person that he thought defamed him or who made in-your-face insinuations about him, he would never be able to do his job, because he’d be mired in lawsuits 24/7 and nobody would take him seriously.
The irony is that Roy has argued very well for the most part. If you read his other articles, he asks very pertinent questions that need to be answered. There is a real need for accountability and transparency in government institutions. This is something that most Singaporeans have been oblivious to up till now. He made a tactical error by bringing up the City Harvest Scandal in that context. LHL and his team of lawyers are capitalizing on Roy’s tactical error and using that to shut him down because they realize what a real threat he is: they went so far as to demand that he remove other articles he wrote about the CPF which were in no nature defamatory. In my mind, this just shows how much of a felt threat he was to the establishment. And now Roy has become a caricature of a rabid dissenter by many unthinking, unquestioning Singaporeans, partly because of the information asymmetries and mostly because of a lack of tolerance for debates that are not 100% academically sound, nuanced and water-tight. As Sudhir said, we expect citizens “to debate like Stephen Sackur.” The crazy thing is that most people in Singapore don’t know who Stephen Sackur is and don’t have any appreciation or patience for academically sound articles in the first place. Instead they love shallow, controversial FB posts from pretty faced politicians like Nicole Seah that contrives to be logical and level-headed, but on closer examination, fails to deal with the deeper issues at hand. People love simple, shallow statements like that, which allow them to label and quietly put away unsettling questions that would require uncomfortable thoughts and choices. If many more Singaporeans were willing to ask the very same questions that Roy asks, then the end of the PAPs reign would soon be over. The biggest irony is that all the other people who are pointing fingers and judging Roy are the very ones that are guilty of misjudgments, misinterpretations and very shallow arguments. The very same people that whose passivity, shallow thinking and convenient choices have allowed the PAP to remain in power for so long.
I just chanced upon your blog and read your article. I recently read the book Hard Choices and agree with much of your and Dr Donald’s Low views.
I am not able to write so eloquently and intellectually as you but may I share some of my thoughts on CPF / Roy Ngerng, Catherine Lim’s recent comments about “Sporeans” losing trust with PAP and some general views about PAP.
The governance of Singapore is too top down with PAP being too controlling fearing to ease some regulations. I read the book by Mr Cheong Yip Seng on how the government controlled the media. Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong are not as tight fisted as Mr Lee Kuan Yew but there is still a fair bit of control by PAP in various forms. I wish the mainstream media is bolder in disagreeing with the PAP when it feels that the PAP has erred.
The PAP government made some serious mistakes in the past decade (housing, public transportation, immigration and healthcare) and the onus is on them to correct these missteps, although it would take some years before we would see full results. But some may never be totally resolved, eg. the astronomical rise of HDB flats in the past several years. They did lower the prices of BTO flats but they are still quite expensive when we benchmark their prices against the income level of the lower and middle income earners. Their argument that bigger subsidies have been given to help more Sporeans buy their first HDB flat is weak to me, subsidies can easily be removed anytime and are also dependent on the surplus. I would have much preferred that they simply reduce the BTO prices even more.
Because of the missteps in the past decade, I have become less supportive of the PAP leaders even though I recognize that the government has done much good for Singapore and its people in the past 50 years. I especially dislike the PAP leaders to be quite so thin-skinned in being quick to sue and too proud and slow to admit their mistakes and take remedial actions. While I was glad that we have more opposition MPs since 2011, I was sad to lose an effective minister (Mr George Yeo). Having said this, I don’t think that any opposition party is ready to take over the rein of governing the nation, certainly not in 2016 or perhaps for another one or two more general elections.
I am a recent retiree and a few years before I turned 55, I already make numerous extensive queries with the CPF Board, did my own sums, consulted with my bankers and financial planner so I understand the structure of CPF quite well. It is true that the CPF system is so monstrously structured that even after my in-depth research I still could not grasp all the details so I can empathise with fellow Sporeans on this. The government fails badly in communicating with the people on CPF, and in fact on quite a number of other policies. Policy makers, both PAP and top civil servants, seem to enjoy making policies complicated; many of the policies are good but when they are so couched in complexities they confuse people and may also be rightly or wrongly perceived by ordinary folks to cloud over sinister motives.
The CPF system is generally sound but it could be tweaked to better serve the people. I support giving some leeway to citizens to manage some of their money at the age of 55 (certainly more than just $5,000 for those who don’t meet the minimum sum requirement) and allowing those who can no longer be employed (whether due to ill health or other valid reasons) to begin to draw down their CPF. Retain some money in the Retirement Account but generally many would welcome the flexibility to exercise discretion in the management of some of their own CPF money. The interest rate could also be raised a little in good times, maintaining a minimum of 2.5% for the OA.
I wish Mr Lee Hsien Loong did not sue Mr Ngerng for defamation. I do think that Mr Ngerng defamed the PM – I read Mr Ngerng’s article. To me there was obvious insinuation that the PM misappropriated CPF money. I had hoped that after Mr Ngerng apologized for the article that the case would be closed but alas he went on to circulate his article, cut a video, etc. If he had not done so, there is a good chance that the PM would have dropped the suit. His is a smart man and Mr Davinder Singh is a top lawyer (and an ex MP) and both would surely know that this suit would cost the PM political goodwill. To some extent Mr Ngerng is the author of his own fate in this case and in some ways he is making political capital out of it. In this context, while I feel somewhat for him as an ordinary citizen I cannot condone his wanting to milk something out of it. But I am against his sacking by Tan Tock Seng Hospital (they could have warned him of his performance and gave him some time to tide over this legal suit). I am also very much against MOH jumping into the fray to say it supports Mr Ngerng’s sacking. Hey, it has no direct link with Mr Ngerng’s employment so why butt in?
Dr Catherine Lim is a fine novelist (I read some of her books). Probably because of her roots in being a novelist, she can really dramatise her comments. I read her letter to Mr Goh Chok Tong about the great divide years back and I also read her recent open letter to the current PM. In my mind, she made too much generalisation. For sure the PAP government lost trust with a section of the people, certainly a bigger section than what it was than in the past two general elections which partially explained why it lost the Aljunied GRC; the Workers’ Party has also been most effective to whip up anti-PAP sentiments in the past few GEs. But I think a majority of people have not broken faith with the PAP – I don’t know the percentage of people but it likely hovers in the range of 50 – 60%. Small majority but an absolute majority. So Dr C Lim’s claim that “Singaporeans” don’t trust PAP anymore is incorrect. For someone who is a master of the English Language surely she understood that when she wrote as such she was implying that the majority of Sporeans no longer trust PAP. That was a tad presumptuous when she had no empirical evidence to back up her assertions short of just relying on anecdotal incidents like the recent vandalism, the R Ngerng legal case and his supports, etc.. Her claim was too sweeping so I took her words with a pinch of salt.
My apologies for this long long message.
Dear SY Tan,
I want to focus on the following words you wrote: “If he had not done so, there is a good chance that the PM would have dropped the suit. His (sic) is a smart man and Mr Davinder Singh is a top lawyer (and an ex MP) and both would surely know that this suit would cost the PM political goodwill. To some extent Mr Ngerng is the author of his own fate in this case and in some ways he is making political capital out of it.”
Dropped the suit? Really Mr Tan? You conveniently left out the demand for hard cash. A lot of hard cash – we still don’t know how much, but but 5k was said to be “derisory”. For many of us this sounds like a ton of stonking dosh. Sorry was never enough, right from the outset. How much did/does LHL want? 50k? 200k? He never said – he blustered mightily with gale-force fury, but he never said. Some reckon $200-250k.
You repose to much confidence in LHL being a “smart man”, echoing the “intelligent men” of an earlier comment by Mr Lim Sow Bee with reference to our political leaders. But surely we know all too well how “smart men” make horrendous errors; check out Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes for examples galore. There’s also the poignantly entitled Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room by McLean and Elkind that’s quite instructive.
God help us if we allow ourselves to be complacent because we believe we are ruled by “smart” elites with “capacious minds” (I think this was LKY’s phrase). And remember this is a leadership that has repeatedly been caught left footed – the aura of exceptionalism, that faux Cloud of Glory, has long since departed from our political leadership. They need us now desperately for feedback and major policy shifts and actually we are wiling to work with them – but alas they instead flee from us, engage in wayang “conversations” and when confronted hiss venom, sedition trials and defamation law suits. That at least is the perception of many (but not yourself of course).
“Wise” trumps smart anytime, especially if you are a political leader. Many, including Tan Kin Lian publicly (and privately I am sure) advised the PM to back off and take the 5k and the apology proffered by Roy. He could have done so, but alas, he kept hardening his stand and upping the ante by condoning sub judice letters by MOH and PMO adjudicating on Roy’s culpability locally and abroad when the case was still before the courts.
A really smart man like Tharman, who seems to have some political savvy as well, did not even take the step of appointing a lawyer to send a threatening letter to Roy. Since you’ve read Roy’s article I am sure you’d agree it “defamed” Tharman as much as it did LHL.
You see, Mr Tan, it is always a client’s decision to initiate legal action; the client takes responsibility for the political fallout. In most cases there is very little a lawyer can do except advise about the machinery of justice.
A savvy leader with prudent political sense doesn’t initiate action that generates so much ill-will, poisoning the political space with fear and anger. All of us only too vividly recall LKY’s crude “hatchet man” speech. LKY got away with it – he weighed the measure of goodwill he had outstanding against the potential fallout. I think he calculated shrewdly. LHL has now unequivocally signaled his recourse to the “hatchet man” strategy of government – a significant shift in policy and style of leadership. But it comes at a time when even at the highest levels of government there are admissions of an affective divide or “distrust” between rulers and ruled. LHL is not in a position to invoke LKY’s “hatchet man” strategy at this point.
Roy “making political capital” – but whatever do you mean Mr Tan? Roy continues to advocate and champion the concerns of a multitude of disempowered and marginalized people; such causes have been his calling since his youth (do read the humane article on him in yahoo news). He’s not joined or set up a political party although he’s won the undying gratitude of multitudes.
If you mean that his well deserved popularity, which LHL’s “hatchet man” moves exponentially increased, has political ramifications for LHL and elements in the PAP’s leadership identified with him, you are of course correct.
But in whatever happens next in this saga, the focus shifts to LHL – from that first letter of demand authored on his instructions by the archetypal Singapore-style Defamation Lawyer, Davinder Singh (this itself has symbolic overtones no Singaporean could miss), LHL is “the author of his own fate”.
Roy now recedes into the background and in the foreground the tragedy of LHL’s political aptitude or ineptitude (something no less a personage than Chua Mui Hoong of ST alluded to albeit couched in terms of the “new” PAP’s overall political ineptitude) continues relentlessly towards its inevitable denouement. I am concerned for what this means for Singapore. (Chua Mui Hoong used the adjective “worrisome” as I recall).
I wish your overall easygoing assessment of the affairs of state and state of affairs were justified. But it may not be.
Errata: “an earlier comment by Mr Lim Sow Bee” should be “an earlier comment by Mr Lim Soo How”. Apologies.
Dear Convexset, now you are coming out making allegations instead of posing loaded questions. And beneath the high falutin polysyllables your posting is isomorphic to the denunciations by a handful of cognitive infiltrators in the peoples’ forums interspersing the thousands of voices clamoring for an end to bullying and oppressive conduct legitimated through “rule by laws”. I should congratulate Sudhir that his website has attracted the notorious IBs. Your accusation that Sudhir is “valorising evil” is audaciously ridiculous. “High class” trolling. Tsk.
Hi mr Sudhir. I really appreciate the fine points you are making: “about how there should be a myriad of dissenting views, and all theses dissenting views will contribute to a better discourse…” this is an ideal preached heavily by the academia, and I personally agree that we need both agreement and disagreements.
on the other hand, after researching on this topic for years, the conclusion I come to is that such views are may be idealistic at times. (especially so when it comes to issues like politics). Power, authority, control will find its way into such debates, whether overtly or covertly, in all societies (at end of the day, maybe its human nature after all).
somewhere along the page you highlighted Japan, Korea, Taiwan as examples. But even in these countries, informational asymmetries exists in their own way. No doubt information in these countries are not as actively state-regulated as compared to Singapore, and there seem to be a pluralism of information. However, information in these countries are free yet not free. (the same can be said for other developed nations such as the USA, which claims to be a bastion of freedom and democracy)
Dear Mr Avalon,
Yes, I know about the $5k offer of damages by R Ngerng and that PM Lee rejected it but omitted it and did not comment on it. Believe me that I did not conveniently left this out but it slipped my mind when I was writing my comments earlier. We do forget some things at the time of writing or speaking. I am quite sure that i would also inadvertently missed acknowledging or writing about something in this message (I have this bad habit).
I would have preferred that PM Lee accepted it but he did not. I have no way of knowing for sure so am merely speculating when I say that if Mr Ngerng had offered a little more (I do not want to indicate a figure because I have no idea what amount Lee would have accepted), PM Lee might perhaps have accepted the offer. Only he and Mr D Singh would know. Perhaps both thought that the 5k offer was way too small for someone of a PM stature – not necessarily a good thought and more so when he said he was suing in his own personal capacity but that was their call.
PAP, and especially all three ex and current Prime Ministers, are on record saying that suing someone who defamed them or other PAP ministers and perhaps also including other PAP MPs who do not hold any cabinet positions, must sue to clear their name if they were defamed. Somehow the three ex / current PMs do this like a badge of honour. I personally don’t agree with their philosophy; Mr Goh and Mr Lee H L probably were schooled by the older Lee on this. I would have wanted so much for PM Lee to rebut Mr Ngerng for his wrong accusation in his facebook account, robustly if need be. I would respect him more but unfortunately he did not.
For sure intelligent / bright people do not always make a good/effective leader (be in the business or political fields). But it does not take a lot of IQ for someone to know that it does not pay politically to sue and sue an opposition member or an ordinary citizen. Even a staunch PAP supporter may agree with this. Surely PM Lee cannot not know this but he felt compelled to do this (see the preceding para).
I believe that Mr Ngerng did not have a political ambition and in the initial stage was writing / speaking as a disappointed, angry or whatever person. But I think that after the legal suit was initiated, he somehow got emboldened, perhaps by the support shown to him by some fellow Sporeans, and then slanted or veered onto wanting to milk something out of it. We human beings, no matter how unassuming or ordinary we may be, can suddenly feel that we are heros with different ones supporting us or egging us on.
Mr Ngerng does have good points on the CPF but I don’t agree with all (as said I know quite well the CPF system works having spent a fair bit of time studying it in preparation for my retirement). Some of his supporters probably don’t know much about the system but are merely using Ngerng to further their own anti-PAP hatred. I have no problem with anyone criticising PAP but their criticism has to stand on facts and not mere hatred or dislike – when they do this they lose credibility, at least to me. I log into different websites to read, and mine mine I am shocked at the vitriolic of some internet users thrown at PAP. These people seem to HATE PAP to the core! Over time I don’t log into these websites anymore. I like to read others’ views but only if they are fair-minded in their comments or criticsim. I personally have issues against PAP but I will give credit when it is due.
I am not surprised if Mr Ngerng join an opposition party after this saga. There is nothing wrong with it of course but what I am saying is that if he had no political ambition earlier he might now have it. There will be some of course who will say that PM Lee forced him into it. Fair enough but I am not sure if Mr Ngerng was just merely egged on. Before he went full speed into the crowd funding, becoming a speaker at Hong Lim Park, he was speaking as an ordinary citizen and I applaud him for this but I am not so sure now. I especially felt that it was so irresponsible of many netizens who encouraged him to fight PM Lee all the way (this was at the stage when Mr Ngerng was given time to consider whether to retract his comments about the misappropriation). It is so easy to egg on someone when one stands on the sideline and can then walk away unscathed but the one left to hold the ball takes the full brunt of the repercussions. Of course we can now say that Mr Ngerng has already collected over $100k so what am I taking about. Two things: no one knew at that stage if he would be receiving financial support and I dare say that not all those who egged him on contributed to the over 100k. So easy to just talk and rant.
Let me put on record that I have some concerns about the way PAP is moving ahead. I definitely want them to relax lah / open up more space for freedom of speech in the mainstream media and not lay down internet rules. After 2011, the government has changed somewhat and certainly they have more room to do so. I dislike how some ministers conduct themselves when they are questioned, they still deny they could do better (eg I watched how both Mr Lui and Ms Josephine Teo responded about the still- existing public transportation problems and I cringed).
But I see some hope in some other ministers. Eg, To me Mr Shamugaratnam and Mr Heng Swee Keat are the stronger ministers (I think the Law Minister is quite good too) and I hope either one would become our next PM. So I am cautiously optimistic that PAP will gradually (perhaps too slow to many) evolve to be more democratic. They need too or they will be booted out in 2 or 3 elections. Perhaps at my age I am in my own way wanting to change slowly but surely and having PAP as the government all my life, I want to give them a chance to be better. At this stage I am not sure I can trust other opposition parties to take on the rein although I want more of them in the Parliament. But there are some opportunistic political people. Since Tan Jay See is a political figure I can say that I will never vote for him – he is a classic political opportunist to me.
I think it is important for Singaporeans to be able to speak up against the government without fear of being sued, losing their job, or worse. I think Singaporeans need to start “working smart” instead of “working hard” by utilizing TOR to anonymize their blogs. If the people feel safe enough to voice their opinion, change might happen sooner (and safer) rather than later.
Here is a comment from Ooi Kee Beng of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in relation to Singaporeans’ supposed inability to admit we’re wrong. He made this comment at the SIIA talk that I mention in my essay, but I think it’s relevant enough to reproduce here, with his permission:
A point raised during Q&A about how Singaporeans have a strong tendency to never admit to being wrong, is an important one; but to class it as arrogance, as done by someone during the follow-up discussion, is to miss the point.
In fact, one can say that Singaporean “arrogance” in this context is probably the long-term effect of growing up in a politico-cultural system (read schooling system) that punishes or rewards, with no third alternative available, i.e. no neutral space where thoughts and actions simply ARE, and are not Wrong or Right. It makes sense for the young mind to adopt the tactic of never admitting a mistake, thereby avoiding punishment, and thereby claiming victory (or at least non-defeat, by default). This is the SAFE CHOICE. A HARD CHOICE for society to make today is to begin a new culture in schools (and homes) where mistakes, ignorance, neutral acts and words, etc are seen as central unavoidable items in social intercourse, and in their learning and thinking processes.
So although one can say the arrogance is “culture”, it is nevertheless one that can be reformed. And I believe quite easily.
A new angle seems to have emerged around the CPF issue. Reading the first piece below seems to suggest that Roy’s infographics may not have been off-the-mark. If the assertions in the article are right (they appear plausible), then the flow of money out from CPF to MAS to GIC bears a striking resemblance to the City Harvest infographics. Sudhir, you may want to check out the following 2 pieces
“Laziness of msm” – Nah, the source of msm compliance can be traced to from what a cunning Regent scheming to overthrow the King said in a recent Korean period drama, viz, those least dangerous in society are those who can be baited by Reward, Fame or Power (Li, Ming or Quan – in Mandarin).
Similar parallels could be drawn when one casts one’s mind to the Civil Service, the Academia, the Professions and the leading lights of Industry/Commerce with the capacity to contribute to societal good (if only they choose to). There are precious few exceptions to the rule.
In fact, the PAP Govt (Front Benchers, Back Benchers, Civil Service) have honed their ARTFUL TWIN STRATEGIES of (1) “acting dumb whilst being clever” and (2) “dishing out enough truth”. That, I reckon, makes challenging the PAP even more formidable ….. because a “good” alternative political party would be out of their depths in dealing with so many chameleons at one go and a “not-so-good” alternative political party would be worse for our Country and our People.
Hindsight is precise science.
When one dissects laws and public policies across a wide spectrum over time, it is NOT difficult to suss-out (A) the witting loopholes and bypasses that “facilitate” gaming of the entire system that, in turn, (B) fuel the larger unstated political agenda that puts PAP’s party interests first and that of the Country or the People second.
It truly cuts across the entire spiel – be it HDB BTO/Resale, Private En Bloc Sale, Govt Land Sale, Medishield Life, CPF Life, PR/SC qualifications, Work Pass/Workers’ Levies/Workfare Grants, Childcare/Education/Scholarship grants, Healthcare subsidies, National Wealth Redistribution Schemes, Industry Grants (Job Credit Scheme, Productivity & Innovation Credit, etc).