Friday, 29 May 2009

The Emperor’s new clothes

In a letter that appeared in the Straits Times forum online (“Whatever the issue, let’s learn to argue well”, 27 May 09), Ms Lisa Li, a GP teacher, made the case for arguing well. She says, “… given that Singapore will always have a diversity of views which cannot ever be fully censored, I suspect we will not stop arguing. Our best course of action is to learn to argue well.”

Her letter was a riposte to the individual(s) who had lodged a complaint with the MOE – her employer – about an earlier article she had written and posted on her Facebook page. In that article, she had refuted the notion that discussing homosexuality during GP lessons equated with promoting it. More importantly, she had also dispelled the fallacies surrounding notions of homosexuality, ‘social norms’, and ‘mainstream society’ – (fallacies that the ministry implicitly supported) – and made the plea for critical thought. Her argument later became relevant to those who chose to lodge a complaint instead of reasoning with her. She said, “To my knowledge, what I wrote was based on reason and anyone who disagreed with my logic, facts or opinions could easily have rebutted me openly.”

What is of note here is that because of a complaint to the ministry, she ‘had to’ remove that note. This is an act of censorship that is directly linked to the government’s gag on civil servants. Civil servants are legally-bound from publicly expressing their personal opinions on government policies. And Ms Li’s opinions had run counter to the government’s positions.

To be censored and then plead for free debate in a heavily censored newspaper is a comical case of cruel irony.


But yet, this is only one of many forms of censorship and control that can be found throughout the Singapore state: the array of legislation and licensing (be they procedural or arbitrary), the invisible and retroactive OB markers, the propagandized education system, and the strict and hierarchical society, just to name a few, that culminate, purposefully, in the docile (but productive) Singaporean and the all-powerful (and wealthy) government.

To put forth this question: Why this degree of control? And to this extent! Perhaps this would reveal the fact that for all the sugar-coated rhetoric about more openness, the ruling regime’s continued control takes precedence over the societal benefits that a freer-thinking and critical nation can bring about. (That might of course bring about the downfall of the exalted PAP.)

Ms Halimah Yacob, MP and deputy secretary-general of NTUC, was quoted a few days ago about how workers can cope in today’s volatile world: “We need to look hard at our education system and see how best to produce workers who don't just work hard but know how to think out of the box and ask questions.”

Our students leave school not knowing how to ask questions?

The inability to ask questions accompanies the failure to think critically. Though in Singapore, to ask questions and to think critically might be to risk teeing off reason from treason. Just ask the late JBJ, the exiled Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong, the incarcerated Chia Thye Poh, even our beloved larrikin Chee Soon Juan. Is it any wonder then that we have adults telling each other to ‘shut up and sit down’, themselves behaving like infants, though quite resembling how the government treats its citizens?

Perhaps our education system has failed us, becoming also a front for indoctrination, serving more the government of the day than the betterment of society – and creating not a little dependence, condoning the assorted discrimination, and helping to perpetuate a sometimes injustice.

The MOE’s stance regarding the discussion of homosexuality during GP lessons is instructive in this respect. It states: “GP lessons are meant to promote critical thinking and discussion on contemporary issues. [However, they should also] adhere to social norms and values of our mainstream society.”

This is a glaringly incommensurable position to take. For the essence of critical thinking is to thoroughly evaluate, even denounce, what might happen to be majoritarian dogma. To be asked to be critical but yet having to toe the status quo is not only to navel-gaze, it is disabling intellectually and politically, and it makes a sham out of the purposes of education.

This instance of navel-gazing is best exemplified in the government’s decision to retain Section 377A of the penal code that criminalizes homosexual activities. Ostensibly, this law remains because of the rumblings of the ‘conservative majority’, who in turn makes up ‘our conservative society’. But the government seldom pays heed to this ‘conservative majority’, (if it even exists), and will not hesitate to resort to force if necessary, to get its way, to get things done. In any case, this ‘conservative majority’ is the segment of Singaporean population that is most amenable to political control and manipulation. After all, they are the perfect product of the Great Singapore System. The model most dependent on the government.

In reality, 377A demonstrates how the government exploits and perpetuates for its own purposes, social prejudices and bigotry. These are misconceptions that the government can effectively eradicate, and morally-speaking, it should.

But it does not, because 377A is a critical foundation for the ruling regime’s ideological control over the state, the various phallic paragons of masculinity: the ‘traditional patriarchal family’ as a microcosm of patriarchal Singaporean society made traditional. These become structures of control that feminize, and therefore deracinate, what is not a mirror-image of pater-PAP – that is male, Chinese, heterosexual, socio-economically and educationally privileged. It is through the false notion of the ‘traditional family’ that enables the State to home in to our own true families so that the Singaporean nation can be micro-managed and panoptically-controlled, in fact intimately so.

When it comes to tradition, rare in Singapore is what that can claim to be tradition-al. This is because ‘traditional’, or, ‘Confucian’/‘Asian’ if you prefer – all social inventions in themselves – is merely a euphemism for the efficacious modus operandi that ultimately enables the ruling regime to harvest the financial riches bequeathed through the neoliberal global economic system that is wholly controlled by the West. That is, the un-traditional, liberal, individualistic, ‘decadent’ West that our supposed Asian traditions and conservative families and ‘Confucian’ government are so disdainful of. 

Abolishing 377A would unravel the entire fabric with which the ruling regime clothes itself – garbed for power and for wealth. Hence the fabrication of fallacies such as the ‘conservative majority’, ‘traditional values’, and ‘critical thought (but, please,) within the status quo’.


To return to Ms Li’s contention and to take it further, the crux of the issue is not about the importance of critical thinking, of learning to argue well. To do so, one must first be able to argue without recriminations and repercussions, especially from the State. To have a place to practice, to speak truth to power, so to speak.

For when critical thinking meets the climate of fear, it is unsurprising which one gains the upper hand. For those who argue for critical thinking and for arguing well, shall have to first argue against wanton censorship, unjust laws, and illiberal state power (and perhaps a 'shut up and sit down' education system too) – trappings that Ms Li’s admirable arguments have inevitably fallen victim to. In other words, they shall have to argue against an empire of control that consolidate the power of the PAP.

The crux of the issue, then, is a singular argument for fulfilling the ideals of democracy. Distilled to its essence, it is really about the human spirit free. Real democracy, that is, missing in this current country. Not the farcical model dressed in the pretty but superficial label of ‘Liberalization’, soon to be brocaded with more NCMPs, permanent NMPs, and fewer and smaller GRCs. These are merely the predictable alterations made possible by a Parliament that can tailor the Constitution according to its desired fashions, and a Party that retains domination and tyranny as its inner linings, all so as to better fit its finery of power, its permanence of kings.

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