Bread. 8 November 2009
Sucking demigods' toes
I sometimes wonder why people don't seem to feel embarrassed. They hold
high positions; they can't be stupid to have gotten to where they are. Yet
they kowtow to their political masters so low, they not only kiss their
feet, but suck their toes.
They would say the most absurd things to defend their masters against criticism, not in front of a classroom of kids, but in front of a plenary of lawyers visiting from the United States. In doing so, they achieve the exact opposite of what they think they are doing. Instead of fending off criticism, they give their audience proof that Singapore is a banana republic.
I am of course referring to the suck toes speeches made by both the Law Minister K Shanmugam and the Chief Justice when the New York Bar Association held their convention in Singapore a week or two ago.
Other bloggers have torn apart Shanmugam's speech , so I need only to keep my comments short. Basically, he said since investors, Americans among them, come to Singapore, therefore, we can't possibly be "a repressive state that controls the people's thoughts".
"They do not have to come here. We do not have any natural resources. Our main selling point is that there will be good value added when they invest here, their investments will be protected and that we are a stable democracy."
The Law minister must be living in a bubble that does not include places like China, Vietnam, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Angola. He may also think that the American lawyers convening in Singapore are geographic duds who have never heard of such places either, because these places would prove the lie. Lots of investors, Americans among them, head for China, Vietnam, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Angola, reasonably confident that their investments will be safe and profitable.
By Shanmugam's measure all these places are stable democracies too that make no attempt to control people's thoughts.
* * * * *
Two things struck me, assuming the report to be correct. Firstly, where in the constitution is there placed a "high social value on reputation than on free speech"?
Let's look at Section 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. What does it say?
Does any plain reading of those words tell you that there is "a higher social value [placed] on reputation than on free speech, where they conflict"? How does our Chief Justice read the constitution?
Chan also referred to the "political, social and cultural values of Singapore society" as a yardstick with which to determine the balance between defamation (and appropriate damages) and the freedom of speech. He suggested that our values are different from other societies, in that ours value freedom less and reputation more. Thus, our high sensitivity to libel and slander and hefty damages imposed on culprits.
My question would be this: How does he know that? What surveys have been done to support this view about values? Or have our courts merely taken our government leaders' words at face value -- that Singaporeans prefer the balance to be struck in a certain way?
Is merely taking the prosecution's or plaintiff's case at face value how our courts go about weighing evidence? Wouldn't such a habit be grossly contradictory to the rule of law?
* * * * *
It is this blindsidedness that makes otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people look like fools. Or at least, inexcusably careless.
The authors of the book Men in White were probably misled by the same tendency. Yoong Siew Wah, a former director of the Internal Security Department in the 1970s was surprised to find himself mentioned in the book in what he described as an "unflattering" way, in an episode linked to Francis Seow, a former Solicitor-General turned opposition politician, incurring Lee Kuan Yew's ire in doing so.
According to Yoong's blog, the passage in Men in White read:
Yoong blogged that he wrote to the publisher, Singapore Press Holdings, to point out the error:
The book authors just failed to check. If Lee said so, it must be right -- is the subconscious attitude. And do you know why that subconscious attitude is so seductive? Because it frees us from the risk of finding out that Lee was wrong. That would create a dilemma: to stand by your research or to please the demigod.
* * * * *
This reminded me of a rather bizarre way the Straits Times concluded a feature article recently. The bizarreness only served to underscore how not independent our press is.
Bylined Jonathan Eyal, Straits Times' Europe correspondent, the feature 'Europe opens up to gay politicians' (14 October 2009) provides an overview of the trend in European countries where out gay politicians reach high office.
Pointing out that in earlier generations, suspected-to-be gay politicians often kept their sexuality under wraps, because illustrious careers could easily be ruined. This, even when rumours were untrue. General Guenter Kiessling, the commander of Europe's allied ground troops, resigned in 1983 amid false accusations of his homosexuality, the article recalled.
The feature article then discussed outsiders' perception of this trend.
After what was a reasonably informative discussion of the matter, the last sentence suddenly turned to Singapore, even if it didn't actually name us:
It's completely unnecessary. It comes across as a hand-holding "Oh, don't worry, we can still control our own fate and fend off this contagion." It reeks of defensiveness and fear.
It is also wrong, for it is not quite a choice for governments as that last sentence said, it's a choice for the people. When people's attitudes change, so will opportunities for gay politicians change. Was this mistake deliberate? It could well be -- a sort of prostration before our demigods acknowledging that yes, sir, you should be the ones in control of Singapore's fate.
I have the faint suspicion that the last sentence was not even written by Eyal, but inserted by a local editor, horrified that the article might be seen by his political masters as an attempt to "normalise" homosexuality. That might be seen as "championing" a cause, something which our "independent" media have no independence to do. It is this palpable fear in the hearts of journalists and editors of crossing invisible lines that lead intelligent men and women to produce such sycophantic prose.
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