Yawning Bread. July 2006

The inutility of speaking truth unto power




In the article Income inequality widens markedly, I described the latest data from the Household Survey.

The most striking thing was that about one third of households in Singapore had less income in 2005 than five years earlier in 2000. Meanwhile, the richer households had noticeably higher income.

For such an important statistic there was a dearth of commentary in the newspapers. After carrying a report each, I could see no further articles on the subject in the Straits Times, Business Times or Today.

Then a commentary appeared in Today by well-known blogger Mr Brown. He and his friend, Miyagi, write regularly for this newspaper.

In his characteristic style, Mr Brown treated the subject with biting humour. He wrote, "Household incomes are up, I read. Sure, the bottom third of our country is actually seeing their incomes (or as one newspaper called it, "Wages") shrink, but the rest of us purportedly are making more money."

"Okay, if you say so," he added. "Except we are not able to leap over high costs in a single bound."

He went on to note recent announcements about increases in electricity rates and taxi fares.

"We are very thankful for the timing of all this good news, of course. Just after the elections, for instance," he added.

"It would have been too taxing on the brain if those price increases were announced during the election period, thereby affecting our ability to choose wisely."

A day later, the Press Secretary to Lee Boon Yang, the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, came out with all guns blazing. Writing to 'Today', she took issue with Mr Brown "pouring sarcasm on many issues".

She denied that the release of the survey results was deliberately delayed till after the elections: "The results of the General Household Survey was only available after the General Election.... There was no reason to suppress the information."

After dealing with the specifics, she wrote: "Mr Brown's views on all these issues distort the truth. They are polemics dressed up as analysis...."



Mr Brown is entitled to his views. But opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newpaper should meet higher standards. Instead of a diatribe mr brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.

It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.

-- 'Today' newspaper, 3 July 2006, letter from K Bhavani

Once again, the government is telling the newspapers not to give space to any talking point that the government has not approved; they must not "champion issues". No one can claim to be non-political if he criticises the government, Bhavani wrote. The equation that she insisted upon was, effectively, this: if you criticise, it must mean that you are out to undermine the government. If you're out to undermine, then you are no longer neutral, but a partisan player. If you're partisan, the government reserves the right to destroy you.

This is an old, old streetfighter's challenge from the Lee Kuan Yew days.

But meanwhile, there is censorship. Mr Brown's column has been suspended by the editors of Today. All of us saw that coming, didn't we?

* * * * *

I just came back tonight from watching the Korean film "The king and the clown". It's a period drama based on a historical story of a cruel despot, King Yon-san, in the early 16th Century.

The main protagonists are two itinerant jesters, Jang-saeng and Gong-gil. Gong-gil is somewhat effeminate and other reviewers have referred to this character as gay. I'm not so sure. He could have been transgendered rather than homosexual. Nor was it clear what the relationship between Jang-saeng and Gong-gil was. The more masculine Jang-saeng was certainly very protective of Gong-gil, but was it romantic love or family obligation?

Anyway, the two of them were entertaining people in a public square performing a skit mocking the king, when guards came to arrest them. The begged for their lives to be spared if they got one chance to perform before the king. If the king laughed, they would escape execution. Fortunately, he did.


Soon, a very senior court minister found a use for them. He directed them to perform skits with oblique references to corrupt officials, as a way of drawing the king's attention to the problem. It succeeded and a guilty minister had his fingers cut off.

At the same time, the king took a fancy to Gong-gil and spent time alone with him. Much of that, Gong-gil spent performing puppet plays to amuse him, but often these plays had veiled messages, in an attempt to influence the ruler's actions.

Soon after, the jesters were asked by the court minister to do a skit about the queen mother (who was not the mother of the king) and other concubines of the previous monarch. It was the court minister's way of getting the king to avenge the death of his (the king's) mother. Again, the minister succeeded.

So more and more, it looked as if satire and oblique story-telling could rouse a king to do the right thing against grubby ministers and hangers-on from the previous reign.






I thought it strange that Bhavani also said Mr Brown "should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly."

This must be following on Lee Boon Yang's fears that anonymous bloggers were prone to spreading falsehoods and dangerous ideas, and thus a threat to Singapore.

The funny thing is that Mr Brown is not anonymous. Most bloggers know his real name is Lee Kin Mun.

Bhavani and the Ministry of Information didn't have this information?


But the problem was that the king himself was hardly a wise ruler. He was quick to temper, capricious and unconcerned with his people's welfare. Would witty satire move him to be a better ruler?

In the end, the answer would be seen to be 'No'. One cannot reform a bad king by "non-partisan" commentary, however pointed or well-intentioned. When it didn't suit his purpose, Yon-san ignored them all. So much for speaking truth unto power.

Eventually, his ministers and generals became so disgusted by Yon-san's misrule, they mounted a coup to depose him. Only power speaks to power.

Yawning Bread 


Please note, I am not suggesting that the government of Singapore is corrupt, capricious or ill-intentioned.

But what I am suggesting is that there may be a point beyond which no amount of clever commentary will change things. If you're unhappy with things as they are, you may need to get your hands dirty, and either help with or participate in party politics, perhaps with opposition parties, or even within the ruling People's Action Party.

Only power speaks to power.