PM Lee asserts that Singapore is not repressive in CNN interview

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By: Michael Han/

Singapore not repressive, PM tells CNN.

That was the answer to a question asked by CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour.

Her question was: “Whether Singapore could open up more in terms of free speech given the “pretty strict internal logic” it is governed by.””

PM Lee replied that “strict internal logic” was a “rather loaded term”. And adding “pretty” to it only made it even more unduly loaded.

So, is Singapore repressive then?

Well, the Google dictionary defined “repressive” as “inhibiting and restraining personal freedom” like in an autocratic, authoritarian or totolitarian state”.

I guess PM Lee’s answer as headlined underscores the “strict internal logic” applied to addressing questions of that nature put forward by a western liberal press trying to trap a politician in the same way the chief priests tried to trap Jesus when they asked whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar.

Jesus’ answer was vintage curveball when he said: “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; and render to God that which is God’s.”

I think that is the essence of PM Lee’s reply when he said Singapore does not inhibit or restrain personal freedom of her people and it is not a repressive state.

In other words, he is telling Amanpour that Singaporeans should render to the government that which belongs to the government, and to render to their conscience that which belongs to their conscience.

I admit that the two do not always meet or coincide, but their allegiances do not necessarily clash in such a way that one destroys the other.

In other words, there is still space for a healthy co-existence between government’s actions and the people’s conscience.

According to PM Lee, this healthy co-existence is demonstrated in the last electoral results.

He said that “the political scene is the way it is because that is the outcome of how Singaporeans voted during the general election.”

He added: “When does it change? It changes when the Singaporean electorate decides that this Government is not serving their interests, ceases to support this PAP team and, perhaps, hopefully supports another team which will serve them better. And then it will be different scene.”

He wrapped up his answer with this: “It is not the way it is because we are clamping down and preventing other people from contesting elections.”

Although I don’t entirely agree with his taking the last election as a measure for divining the people’s conscience (because it is too simplistic and some may say convenient), I however have to apply Jesus’ “rendering to Caesar” analogy to say that the majority of us have largely adapted to and lived with the conscience that the PAP team is currently the only viable and pragmatic choice for governance.

Moreover, they have the advantage of status quo and ruthless pragmatism in running the country.

Since the end of history, that is, the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy and elections as a form of political government has been the toast of the day with champagne glasses still clinking today.

It is definitely not the best system and it has shown to have terrorized the nation (as in Hitler’s Germany), disappointed the voters (as in Trump’s America), and inspired the people (as in Mahathir/Anwar’s Malaysia).

And as a political system, it may be the pick of the litter, but at least it is our own personal trash upon which we have opted for and adjusted to with flaws and all. It is also our way of rendering an accepted form of legitimacy to the people’s choice.

So, PM Lee’s reply tries his best to accommodate the way the system is with the most noble aspect of the people’s conscience, that is, a government of the day that has the majority of the votes, that is, all 69% of it secured by a largely fair, non-coercive election.

In essence, it still boils down to a healthy co-existence, if not a tolerable one.

But what I find rather condescending is that somewhere down the interview, Amanpour brought to PM Lee’s attention that “there is not a whole lot of tolerance for freedom of speech or public protest”. She appears persistent.

This is however his reply (as a whole):-

You can say anything you want, you can ask me anything you want…(pointing to Speakers’ Corner)…any time you feel you want to relieve your soul of some important thought, you can go there and spout forth…But if you insist on going to places you are not supposed to do this, then the rules will have to apply…(people can publish or say what they want on the Internet)…(But) you are still subject to the laws of sedition, libel and contempt.”

On Speakers’ Corner, I think by now the word “Corner” speaks more about it than the word “Speakers”. Tucked in one corner, I feel that many do not take it very seriously.

Like PM Lee said, “if you want to relieve your soul of some important thought, you can go there and spout forth”.

It is thus seen more like a place to ventilate spasmodically rather than to influence enduringly.

And I am afraid that there is more social stigma attached to that corner than a place where people recognises it as a seedbed for positive action and mass mobilisation.

As for the rules and laws as stated above, it is not the complete picture. Rules and laws are always man-made and not everyone of them is fair.

At the risk of crying over spilled milk of the past, the social outcry over the reserved presidential election is one example of how enacted laws can sear into the conscience of the people.

The other is the sibling rivalry. This is no doubt a sensitive subject and it is already one year old.

Yet, if anything, the upheaval it created is nothing less than “seditious, libellious and even contemptuous” since it had rocked the nation so much that it took an emergency 2-day session in Parliament to collectively endorse the rightness of the government’s action.

However, nothing came out of it. No one is held to account. It went by like the Trump-Kim Summit, that is, successfully addressed, contained and managed.

So, while I agree to some extent what PM Lee said about the electorate results, that they still have the support of the people at large, the social nuances are often lost when we reach for the lowest hanging political fruit instead of digging into the root (cause) of the tree.

At the risk of sounding trite, ours is not a perfect government. It is not. But, competency and efficiency in a largely technocratic manner is not something that we can deny the government.

In the end, it is about rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and then applying our conscience to collectively address the nuances that emerge from the cracks of government with a positive and proactive spirit to repair, bridge and close them.

Bottomline? It is still about keeping a robust and healthy co-existence between the government’s actions and the people’s conscience.

This article first appeared on the author’s page here. It has been re-published with permission.