Singapore: No Bullet Was Fired in the Harming of Our Cartoonist.
Yesterday’s attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been seen quite rightly as an assault on the fundamental values of liberal democracy and freedom of expression. The attackers claimed to be avenging the Prophet Mohammed but this attack was not about Islam. Instead it was all about intimidating us from expressing our views and our beliefs where they are something that the attackers do not like.
Watching commentators across the globe condemn the brutal murder of these eight cartoonists and seeing the huge crowds that rushed out to stand vigil not just in Paris but in London and elsewhere, I couldn’t help but think of our political cartoonist Leslie Chew banned films from local filmmakers such as Martyn See, Mirabelle Ang, and Tan Pin Pin, as well as imprisoned septuagenarian author Alan Shadrake and embattled human rights lawyer M Ravi.
No bullet was ever fired in this war on freedom, no one was disappeared in the night (although thousands have fled the scene) but the Lee family and their government have just as surely slaughtered freedom of expression in Singapore as any terrorist with an AK 47. In fact they have the whole nation cowed in fear, living on land the government owns, forcibly contributing tax dollars to secretive funds the Lee family manages and the Western Press is dead, bowed or complicit.
Anyone who thinks it is a faceless bureaucracy or a board of censors making these decisions should read here:http://theindependent.sg/blog/2013/10/07/how-lky-changed-my-life/
While murder is an extreme way of achieving these goals the terrorists differ only in degree and the power at their disposal from the world’s authoritarian governments that give themselves the right to control what we can read or say. Authoritarian governments globally have not shied away from murdering journalists and those who ask inconvenient questions, whether it is Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Egypt or countless other countries throughout the world. In other countries journalists, cartoonists, bloggers and ordinary people are imprisoned or sued by regimes that dislike what they say or in the name of religious dogma. Examples include the use of lese-majeste laws in Thailand, blasphemy laws in Pakistan or criminal defamation and sedition laws in South Korea or Malaysia.
We can expect the PAP ministers to condemn the attacks today as barbaric and an assault on civilized values. But the PAP Government and the Lee family have achieved a degree of control over what can be said in Singapore that would be the envy of many authoritarian regimes and of the terrorists who committed the atrocities today.
Since they came into power the PAP and the Lee family have sought by all the means at their disposal (and they control all the means) to control the press and ensure that people are intimidated or prevented from criticising them.
I remember a cartoon from the 1970s published in the Singapore Herald, a short-lived and solitary experiment in independent media that soon incurred the wrath of Lee Kuan Yew and was shut down. The cartoon showed Lee Kuan Yew in a tank crushing a baby. The baby was labelled something like “A Free Press”. After that the PAP made sure that no one could read any views other than those they allowed in their State-owned or –controlled media. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act followed soon afterwards ensuring that the Government has a veto over the ownership and appointment of the editorial staff of every newspaper. Though this was not even necessary in the case of broadcast media and many print titles, which were all controlled by Temasek.
Seriously who needs to send their zealots to Syria to train with ISIS when they can learn everything they need to know here.
The foreign press has been intimidated into silence by defamation suits and threats to restrict their circulation in Singapore. The Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Economist are just a few of the publications that were sued for saying things that are said every day about politicians and institutions in the West.
When Western governments speak out now about the need to send a strong signal to Islamic extremists that the West will not be intimidated into silence I can only recall the spineless way they failed to support their media in their battles with the authoritarian regime in Singapore and have these restrictions declared a breach of Singapore’s obligations under bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. With the lack of support pretty soon most publications found it expedient to regurgitate the PAP’s version of history. These include the myth that Singapore was a mangrove swamp before Lee Kuan Yew transformed it or that Singaporeans have willingly sacrificed their freedom for the promise of prosperity.
The use of defamation laws, detention without trial and politically motivated prosecutions on bogus charges have been successfully used in parallel to create a climate of fear and stop Singaporeans from speaking up. A trumped-up charge was used to remove my father from Parliament because Lee Kuan Yew was unable to answer his questions. Subsequently he was sued into bankruptcy to prevent him from standing again or even speaking at election rallies. He became a virtual non-person just like dissidents under the Soviet regime which was condemned so forcefully by the West.
The climate of fear and self-censorship is still as strong as ever despite the PAP pretence that there has been liberalization.
Dr Chee was silenced. The ReformParty suffered a media black out during GE 2011 ( but still they won a greater share of the national vote than SPP for example). I am banned from attending debates and talks at our national universities and one university even attempted to prevent me from being in the audience. Of course Hri Kumar tried to keep me out of a consultation on CPF, dodged my questions and then resorted to lying and smearing me. Mr Chiam was himself the victim of vicious smears as all opponents of the Lees have been. Leslie Chew, the cartoonist, was arrested and held in jail without bail for an extended period. Academic Cherian George is this week finding out for himself that there is no such thing as being a mild opponent of the regime as he experiences the same backlash we have all suffered.
My own family (and I) were subjected to maybe some of the most extreme versions of this- threats of rape, violence and even death in an attempt to silence me and crush plurality of thought. This off the scale attack on a politician’s family members was aided and abetted by both Government and alternative media and the silent complicity of the other political parties.
What is most depressing is that, in contrast to the spontaneous rallies that have erupted in France and elsewhere in response to the murders of the journalists, Singaporeans have been mostly silent just as they were over what happened to JBJ or the alleged Marxist conspirators.
It is a blot on Western values that authoritarian regimes like Singapore are not only tolerated but held up as shining examples for democracies to emulate. Only Jim Sleeper got this right when he so vehemently and intelligently objected to the liberal values of Yale being compromised through setting up an offshoot in authoritarian Singapore.
It is pure hypocrisy if the reaction to this barbaric attack is just about combatting the threat from Islamic extremism and does not grasp the wider lesson about standing up everywhere for universal values like democracy and freedom of expression.
Just now on CNN Bruce Shapiro editor of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University in New York spoke about the attack which he categorised as an attack on journalism:
” People are united in saying this is an attack on journalism. We as journalists now are saying ‘we are all Charlie Hebdo’. This is part of a global pattern of using journalists as a capillary system for fear and terror. Whether it is terrorists in Paris, whether it is ISIS in Syria, whether it is Narco gangs or politicians who have assassinated journalists in Mexico, in every case it is about seeing the only value of journalism as a corpse to spread fear… and that I think is at the heart of this. Are we going to stand up in general in the memory of great cartoonists but not stand up for the value of independent journalism and value of satire in democracy. That’s what’s at stake here, democracy.”
As Martin Luther King said, ” In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. There is little doubt that democracy, plurality of thought and freedom of expression would have great difficulty finding a friend in Singapore.