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Simon Tay responds to Leslie Fong: Singapore today can’t be compared to ancient Greece

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'Feedback is important, but there are limits, especially in times of urgency'

Singapore — Singapore today can’t be compared to ancient Greece, according to Singapore’s Ambassador to Greece, Mr Simon Tay.

He rebutted former Straits Times editor Leslie Fong’s Greek-themed explanation for public unhappiness over the Government’s recent handling of Covid-19.

Mr Fong, in his “thymos” article published in The Straits Times on May 20, referring to ancient Greece and Rome, said there was a need for people to speak up.

Mr Tay countered society would do well to avoid strife in these trying times.

Quite a few have sent me the commentary by Leslie Fong about the mood in Singapore today as well as his use of the word …

Posted by Simon Tay on saturday, 22 May 2021

Mr Fong sought to explain why Singaporeans, who were appreciative of the Government’s effort to contain the pandemic last year, now feel let down by the failure to prevent the entry of the B1617 variant from India.

He used the Greek word “thymos”, which he explained as “spirit” or “spiritedness”, adding that “spirit”, “reason” and “emotion” form the three parts of a person’s soul, according to Greek mythology. It is used to describe the inner force that moves a person to speak out or act in resentment against those who brush him and his views aside because they consider him uninformed or incapable of understanding the truths they know, he explained.

Mr Tay published a reply on Facebook, addressing Mr Fong’s article, as well as the use of “thymos”.

Mr Tay is aware that many are working from home, coping with children and daily tasks, and there is considerable concern over Covid-19.

“I feel it too, and rightly so. Our leaders recognise the pandemic as the crisis of a generation,” he acknowledges.

He mentions how Finance Minister Lawrence Wong described the current Covid-19 situation as being on a knife-edge. That is why he feels every citizen has to be on guard, follow the new guidelines and take precautions against the new variants that transmit more easily than the Covid-19 of 2020.

“But more than concern and due action, there has been anxiety, grumbling and anger. It is hard to gauge how broad or deep that anger is. Depending on your circles and social media feeds, this is perhaps limited to a relatively small but loud constituency. Or it might seem a groundswell growing into a large wave, perhaps even a tsunami of discontent,” he notes.

He notes, Mr Fong argues that people have a right to speak up and should be encouraged to do so in any time of difficulty, as it is a positive contribution.

However, Mr Tay takes a different view.

“Listening to citizens should be true of a democracy in normal times,” he acknowledges. “Yet what about public discourse in a time of crisis, a war, and pandemic? Might there necessarily be different rules and some circumscriptions?”

He questions the need for such conversations during these trying times.

“Ancient Greece was a direct democracy in which all citizens discussed and voted on key issues – meeting up to 40 times a year as an assembly. As such, thymos was one key to ensure active and thoughtful participation from citizens – and even then most studies suggest only about 10 to 20 per cent of Athenians participated,” Mr Tay explains.

He asserts that this is no longer possible today, elaborating that “today’s democracies are no longer direct but are now delegated. Elections are held for Members of Parliament to represent people and for executive government to take charge of much larger societies and over complex decision-making processes.”

“Feedback of course continues to be important. But there are limits, especially in times of urgency,” he says. He stresses that while there is a need for alternative voices, during a crisis, society would do well to avoid civil strife.

Mr Tay notes that while there are ways in which the Government can listen and communicate, the citizens also have their part to play in maintaining peace. “Much also depends on our own attitudes as citizens,” he concludes.

Denise Teh is an intern at The Independent SG. /TISG

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