November 1999

Book: Self-censorship - Singapore's shame
by James Gomez, published by Think Centre, 1999




It can seem a mystery to some observers why Singapore is so politically sterile when economically, we don't lag too far behind developed-country status, and when there appears no great evidence of secret police standing around every street corner. Yet, there is little political debate, and what passes for debate is so often castrated and one-sided (like the press carrying ministers' speeches ad verbatim, with no independent commentary), it's almost an insult to anyone's intelligence.

Certainly, a closer look will show you how extensive is the government's control over the media and interest groups. The trade union federation, for example, is headed by a cabinet minister, and all major newspapers and broadcast media come under Singapore Press Holdings or the Media Corporation of Singapore, both government controlled. The Societies Act and the Public Entertainment regulations (which control any public talk [2]) severely hinder free speech and free association. Through these powers, the government imposes restrictions on groups and discussion forums, and may even ban them entirely.

Opposition parties are impeded in many ways. They are accorded only marginal attention by the press and television. They are denied facilities by the State's agencies (e.g. the Housing and Development Board), which let us note, are not supposed to favour any particular party, yet the People's Action Party (PAP) gets facilities for their branch offices quite easily. And of course, opposition figures have been dragged into court and sued for disproportionately huge sums of money by government ministers. This can have a seriously gagging effect.

But still, the average citizen isn't watched on a daily basis. He is free to move about and read widely. He is free to say whatever he wants to his friends, and even to ministers whenever they appear in public. He grumbles a fair bit in private, but why doesn't he even try to speak up?

James Gomez puts it down to self-censorship, and there is no doubt that there is a hell of a lot of it in Singapore. His new book, Self-censorship - Singapore's Shame, throws unaccustomed light on this disgraceful aspect of Singapore society.

The two main elements of political culture, as Gomez explains, are political attitudes and political behaviour. He shows how Singaporeans' political attitudes have been shaped by the political system created by the PAP to suit themselves. For example, Gomez writes, "the government has been able, in the 1990s, to sell the idea of an 'Asian Values' system, which renders western-style democracy as culturally alien. Modeled after Confucianism, Asian Values is said to entail a belief in good government by honest men and includes a reverence for authority. As such, direct opposition is not to be encouraged; instead consensus building is to be supported."

"As a result, demands for political space are often represented as the wants of minorities. For instance, the demand for political space is frequently depicted as a concern only of ethnic minorities, the English-educated, sexual minorities, academics and some eccentric elements of society… The argument from ethnic culture attempts to paint alternative views as dangerous, anti-establishment, unreflective of the aspirations of the majority and as 'fringe' interests."

The economic argument has also been well rehearsed. People have been taught that speaking up too critically can endanger the good life. One can see this "in the way individuals and groups preface their remarks about politics, especially their desire for greater political participation, with accolades for the ruling party and its leaders, as well as with expressions of gratitude and loyalty."

Then of course, there is fear. No one in Singapore is untouched by hearing about the Internal Security Department and their weapon, indefinite detention without trial, or by the weeks of headlines about certain opposition politicians being sued to bankruptcy. Even a careless public remark, infringing some unknown out-of-bounds marker can lead to trouble. "[Immediate] superiors advise their junior workers on the wisdom of engaging in particular political activities or associating with certain people and their causes. Failing to adhere to such advice is viewed as courting risk in losing one's job, being demoted, being passed over for promotion or transferred to lesser departments in the organisation."

The result of such sensitisation to the dangers of meddling in the political arena, we can see today. Citizens accept, "either genuinely or grudgingly, that political participation in the Republic is the 'exclusive' domain of the People's Action Party" such that it is even the responsibility of the PAP to put into place various safety valves such as feedback channels and nominated members of Parliament. Under such a model, "any attempt, whether by an individual or group, to create political space -- an uninhibited area for political articulation -- has the effect of causing great uneasiness among much of the population. Even if a conscious effort is made to demonstrate balance in delivery and perspective, alternative political views are essentially seen by the majority to be strictly adversarial to the ruling party and likely to carry political consequences."

"[The] majority of the people see the alternative views of individuals and groups as illegitimate and therefore label them as oppositional…. a challenge to the power of the ruling party."

"The connection between alternative expression and illegitimacy is pressed home further in the way the PAP speaks about members of the opposition parties. They are characterized as dishonourable men without the interests of the citizens at heart, lacking good academic credentials, as being publicity-hungry, capable of only bringing the country down if elected, and as unable to deliver the material benefits that the population wants. A self-confessed partisan local media further reinforce such representations. Thus, individuals articulating alternative views immediately run the risk of being labeled as 'bad characters' …. and as bearers of risks."

Given these attitudes that have been so well imbibed by our population, how are they manifested in behaviour? Gomez points out that it operates at two levels: self-censorship and private citizens' censorship of others.

"Self-censorship takes place when an individual who has an alternative political viewpoint on a certain issue, instead of articulating it, chooses to evaluate the consequence of doing so. Based on a supposed rational calculation of the situation, that individual opts to modify his or her opinion either in speech, written form or act to a milder version, or refrains from expressing it altogether. Although people in general may wish to think over issues before publicly commenting on them, in the Singapore case, such self-censorship is acute…. There is an extreme anxiety when an individual has to deal with or come close to what may be deemed as political."

"Even when political views are expressed, often it is buried under so much euphemism that it serves no function."

Private censorship of others is equally prevalent. Gomez's analysis is that it is a two-step process. "Firstly, one calls attention to a person or a group engaged in expressing alternative political remarks or action and asks others whether this is politically sensitive or desirable."

Then, "in calling to attention, the act of alternative expression… is immediately taken as negative and dangerous to others in the social environment."

It is funny how sometimes Singaporeans treat the law as an absolute moral standard. Something is morally wrong if it is against the law. Although it could also be read as a question of fear, one suspects this attitude of 'the law is always right' shows up again when alternative political expression is attempted. "A significant feature in the process of censoring others is the use of legalistic arguments, pointing out how such activity contravenes the law."

Other devices to restrain the outspoken include suggesting that the timing for alternative views is yet to be ideal, or advice "to package ideas and action in euphemism in order not to alienate the many".

"A tremendous pressure is thus exerted on the affected subject and bystanders to conform to 'experience' and the comfort level of others, and to move via 'consensus'…. Family, friends, colleagues, members of one's non-profit organisations will singly or collectively begin to add on to this pressure."

"They feel they may suffer personally if they are closely linked to someone with strong alternative political views."

Gomez also makes some interesting observations of our culture here. In assisting the rulers to act as a check on fellow citizens, it is "evidence of a condition where people prefer to choose the authority of the state rather than to trust one another…. It confirms an absence of bonding between people at many levels and planes…. There is no respect for debate and disagreement. In such an environment, tolerance, a willingness to accept the articulation of opposing views, is absent… People don't know how to disagree without being disagreeable…. The principal form of debate descends into inquiries or investigations of one sort or another, often targetting the moral dimension of the advocate."

Gomez lists some useful suggestions for rectifying citizens' political impotency. This includes political education, a local human rights charter, and a public complaints bureau for persons who feel they suffered politically motivated setbacks in jobs or other areas.

This book itself is political education. No reader comes away without being newly aware of the subtle ways in which the private Singaporean disenfranchises himself and those around him through self-censorship. It's a must-read for those who want to understand why this place feels so sterile, and for Singaporeans who care about our future.

© Yawning Bread 



  1. Self-censorship - Singapore's shame should be available at MPH bookshop, Stamford Road. If not, contact the publisher: Think Centre, Towner Post Office PO Box 1423, Singapore 913235.
  2. This proved to be a pertinent issue at the book's launch on 6 Nov 1999. Gomez discovered that a Public Entertainment Licence was required for him to give a little spiel and for a guest to read a review of his book. To get a licence, an absurd three weeks' notice was required. The Singapore government boasts frequently about efficiency. One can form a company in a few days. Some foreigners have even migrated to Singapore and obtained an employment pass within the same three weeks. But a citizen cannot stand up and give a little talk about why he set out to write a book, without submitting himself to three weeks' of police background checks. Even then, the licence may not be granted. No reason need be given.
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