“Sud, you better lay low,” one of my buddies said in May, after Foo Teow Lee, Singapore’s consul-general in Hong Kong, wrote a letter to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) questioning my integrity and motives.
Another friend said “they will come after your family.”
Another one said:
“Eh, your videos are getting more radical ah.”
“The one on race you just published.”
“That’s the same race video from national day! The same one you had praised last August!”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t watch, I just saw some of the comments….”
All this feedback from buddies gave me reason for pause. Should I stop my pre-election work on Singapore and go back to writing my book on China and India?
Thankfully, partly due to many opposing opinions from other buddies (keep going, ignore the noise), I continued and ended up writing a few more pieces and producing a series of election videos.
For those of you who enjoyed them, I think it’s important for you to know how the Singapore establishment and some People’s Action Party (PAP) fans have in the past two months tried to silence people like me.
On 5th May 2020, SCMP published a commentary of mine, “Coronavirus: is electioneering to blame for Singapore’s teetering pandemic response?”.
Many around the world enjoyed the piece. My former boss at The Economist Corporate Network sent me a message. So did the acquisition editor for my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.
In Singapore, the piece was especially popular among civil servants and doctors, many of whom feel that the ruling PAP, in its bid to hold an early election, had taken its eye off the biggest public health crisis of our generation.
They appreciated, in particular, this section: “The real heroes here are the same frontline workers being cheered globally, including first-rate health care staff and civil society groups, as well as the public service rank-and-file slaving away far from the limelight. Largely because of them, Singapore has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 fatality rates.”
A week later, SCMP published a letter in response written by Foo Teow Lee. Much of her letter is fair commentary, but her first paragraph includes this wild accusation: ”But it is quite clear that Mr Vadaketh, a Singapore national, is pushing a particular point of view meant to influence Singapore’s domestic politics, rather than writing for an international audience.”
This is a horrible thing for her to say about me, effectively that I have some hidden agenda behind my words, and that they do not reflect my honest opinion.
Immediately following Foo’s letter, PAP fans rolled into action.
Soon PAP fans called me a China agent and a traitor. This all appears like a coordinated effort by PAP fans to tarnish my reputation among Singaporeans. They wanted to stop content from me (and others) reaching you ahead of the election.
I responded with my preferred irreverent style in a Facebook post.
Still, these accusations of “traitor” kept floating around the web, repeated by the likes of Singapore Matters, which has a readership of 74,000 (though some may be fake accounts).
Among many other problems, all this contributes to the brutalisation of online dialogue and the sometimes poisonous social media atmosphere.
There is a clear link, in other words, between letters like this and the political polarisation we see in Singapore.
These (serious) accusations of “traitor”, which first emerged after Foo Teow Lee’s letter, caused a lot of grief to my family and friends.
Thankfully we soldiered on.
One takeaway from the recent election is a repudiation of the bullying culture. Singaporeans are just so sick and tired of it.
So imagine my surprise when I found out last week, macam Groundhog Day, that another Singaporean ambassador had written a letter protesting my work—this time Peter Tan sitting in Tokyo.
On 1st July 2020 the Nikkei Asian Review (NAR) published a pre-election commentary of mine, “Coronavirus and inequality threaten to unsettle Singapore election”.
NAR had liked my first piece for them last year (on Singapore’s bicentennial), and so had reached out to ask if I could do a pre-election one. I was horribly busy with the election videos then, but thought it might be a good idea.
Similar to Foo Teow Lee’s earlier letter, most of Peter’s was fair commentary, except for a few wild accusations.
First, he effectively called me a liar by saying that I spread an untruth, that “native-born citizens are well in the minority of the population”. Peter said this is an untruth but himself did not provide the actual percentage of native-born citizens. Why not?
Do note that this assertion is based on my calculation of 45.8% done in 2012 for another piece, “The End of Identity?”, published by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). At that point, Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division, part of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), had acknowledged my calculation. And IPS published the piece.
Think about it:
– in 2012, both PMO and IPS knew that I had said that native-born citizens are in the minority of Singapore’s total population. No problem.
– in 2020, Singapore’s ambassador to Japan now says I am spreading an untruth by repeating the same point.
Why? Some have speculated that the actual number is far lower than 45.8%. Some have suggested that with possibly continued high immigration in the future, this number is going to fall dramatically, i.e. this data point is now a lot more politically sensitive than it was eight years ago.
So instead of providing Singaporeans and the world with the truth, easier to just distract and call me a liar.
Second, Peter also questioned my motives, saying that I am attempting to “fuel xenophobia and social divisiveness”. This is just so nonsensical that it almost doesn’t deserve a response. For new readers unfamiliar with my long history of trying to build bridges here, check out my response to that recent NYT article on Singapore.
Some friends in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have told me that these words did not come from Foo Teow Lee or Peter Tan, but somebody else in the establishment. (This is speculation, of course, until I am shown evidence.)
“Foo Teow Lee and Peter Tan have no choice.”
“Really? No choice? Cannot resign ah?”
Oooh, how I love it when elite civil servants, addicted to their canapés with Carrie Lam and Shinzō Abe, enjoying their BMWs and their business class seats, banking their million-dollar salaries that will buy them mansions and magical family holidays at Le Cordon Bleu, oooh how I love it when they tell me they have “no choice.”
Dear elite civil servant, if you feel you are being used for a political agenda that is not part of your JD, don’t tell me you have “no choice”. Just admit that you “choose money”.
The greatest joy from my recent election videos has been the fact that it touched some kids. Some as young as ten have been watching. Three teachers, one in Vancouver, have already used the videos in their classrooms.
One of my oldest friends from St. Andrew’s School sent me a video of his eleven-year-old mimicking this segment from my second video (on natural aristocrats): “Fair play, hard work, meritocracy, all buang. Out the window.” I couldn’t stop smiling.
Some parents have thanked me for empowering their kids (even as the parents themselves seem to be getting sick of my voice). Some have said that the videos give them hope that their children will grow up in a Singapore where it is OK to be who you are, it is OK to stand up for your beliefs.
Far more than any short-term electoral awareness, all this stuff means the most to my team and me.
To be sure, many others throughout the course of history have been bullied far more than I have by these two ambassadors and PAP fans. I did not write this post to fish for love or sympathy.
More to simply say that, in the same way my team and many others have offered me support in the face of these bullies, I will support any young person in Singapore being bullied, whether during job recruitment, whether online or walking down the street, whether being bullied for your opinion or for your accent, whether being bullied by fans of the PAP or the WP or the SDP (or any other party). If you are being bullied, I will offer my support.
My best friend read the above and says it is “too grandiose a promise”. Aiyah, ok, perhaps my support is not worth very much. Just saying I’ll do what I can lah.
And if my written word isn’t effective, I will set up my camera and expose these bullies on video. (The Foo Teow Lee and Peter Tan special: Akan Datang.)
To be clear, in so far as it is relevant to this discussion, I’m not a huge fan of the incipient “cancel culture”, especially its more vicious elements. (See David Shor.) But let not certain excesses of the West become a reason for inaction.
Singaporeans are in the process of improving our democracy, not by aping the West, surely not, but by doing it our own way. Part of that is improving discourse by calling out bullies.
That is the only way to deter future bullying.
So no, my dear friend, while I appreciate your concern, I am not going to “lay low”. There are many young people in Singapore who are tired of the bullying. They do not want me to lay low.
Those days are gone.
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1. Editorial debates on my SCMP piece. We spent a fair bit of time deciding on one of the concluding lines here:
“We may never know the extent to which political considerations stymied Singapore’s response.”
One of my readers told me to remove this line because this is an opinion piece and this line dilutes the thrust of my opinion.
My response was that we need to leave it open for the reader, partly because it is difficult to distinguish political motives from economic. So, was it really “electioneering” that distracted politicians initially from dealing with the pandemic or was it perhaps their attempts to keep the economy going? Of course, the two are not unrelated (“It’s the economy, stupid.”).
Anyway, I am glad that the Op-ed began with a question: “Coronavirus: is electioneering to blame for Singapore’s teetering pandemic response?”
And I am glad that we included that concluding line.
2. For those who believe that electioneering did not distract politicians in any way from the pandemic…
Exhibit A is Josephine Teo, Singapore’s manpower minister. We know that on the last weekend in March Josephine Teo was hobnobbing with prospective constituents in Jalan Besar.
From 2006-2020 Josephine was a politician in the Bishan-Toa Payoh district.
More than three months before our election, why was Josephine spending time in Jalan Besar, a new GRC for her? Couldn’t Jalan Besar’s incumbent politicians take care of their residents? Why was Josephine Teo there? Why wasn’t she fully focussed on the dormitories under her care?
A little over two weeks after her politicking, Singapore was facing its worst humanitarian crisis since independence.
This is just one of many examples of the PAP’s pandemic politicking.
3. Editorial debates on my NAR piece. There is a line here that irritated some of my non-establishment readers:
“Yet the government’s perceived pandemic lapses, which have led to 44,000 confirmed cases, have reminded the electorate of some long-standing grievances which opposition parties, more competent and diverse than ever before, will seek to exploit.”
Some argued that I should not include the word “perceived”. Some said I should use much more forceful language, e.g. “wilful ignorance”.
I, however, felt that I must include “perceived”. While many Singaporeans believe this to be the case—hence it is “perceived”—I would probably need a longer-term horizon and more in-depth knowledge to be able to say with certainty that they are indeed “lapses”.
Saying “perceived pandemic lapses” is fair and reasonable, in my opinion. Peter Tan obviously disagreed.
This was one of those cases where people on both sides did not like my phrasing. Which in some weird way comforts me.
4. Why do ambassadors engage in character assassination of their fellow Singaporeans?
It is worth reiterating that I have no problem with criticism of my work or opinion. It is ad hominem attacks that are problematic, that transform the likes of Foo Teow Lee and Peter Tan into bullies.
There is a clear alternative, of course. Foo Teow Lee and Peter Tan could have just written their own Op-eds with alternative opinions to mine. That would mean they would have had to go through the same rigorous editorial processes that writers and editors everywhere do.
But perhaps that is too much work for them. Easier to simply rely on the government’s right-of-reply to push out their dross.
There is, of course, a long history of the PAP government engaging in character assassination of Singaporean commentators this way.
Many people in Singapore and overseas have asked me about these ridiculous letters. They are, in my opinion, making a mockery of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Shame that you can’t see it.
5. Good job, The Straits Times. I was impressed by The Straits Times’s reporting of Peter’s letter and my response, which I think showed both sides positions fairly.
6. What is Singapore’s foreign-born population?
In multicultural societies globally, not just in Singapore, the foreign-born population is a data point that analysts look to when assessing immigration and integration. So what is Singapore’s?
Unfortunately the fact that Peter Tan failed to provide the actual number of native-born citizens simply adds to the opacity and mystique around the PAP’s actual immigration and population plans, as highlighted in the election around the “ten million” debate.
I hope in our new parliament Singaporeans will get a lot more clarity and transparency on all these population and immigration numbers.
This will allow our country to collectively make better decisions about our future.
7. More delightful attacks from PAP fans. Enjoy.
Some PAP fans decided that Inderjit Singh, their own former politician, is also a China agent. Go figure.
I love this one. Apparently this one claims that, instead of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), I am actually part of the Armoured Regiment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). If nothing else, these PAP fans have a very active imagination.
And finally, the very latest! The above quickly followed Peter Tan’s letter last week.
Top image credit: IndianFolk