Jan 31st 2018 by cheriangeorge • 14 Questions • 4081 Points
UPDATE: Thanks to those who posed questions, and everyone who visited tonight. Have to take a break now but I will be back tomorrow (1 Feb) at 4pm UTC+8 to answer more questions.
About me: I am a Singaporean professor of media studies based at a university in Hong Kong. I’ve been writing about politics and media for 30 years, first as a Straits Times journalist and then as an academic. I wrote my latest book, ‘Singapore, Incomplete’, because I feel something's missing in our national development.
We are a middle-aged country with a mature economy – but the political system still treats us like children. As the government prepares to transition to a fourth-generation leadership, my essays look at the unfinished business of political liberalisation and multicultural integration. I cover topics like censorship and fear, race and religion, elections and voting, and prospects for political reform. Whether you’ve already read the book or you’re waiting for the movie, I welcome you to ask me anything.
Get your copy of the book here
What are the differences between working in HK and SG as an academic? I'm Singaporean and I understand that you've faced political pressures here. What about in HK where the government is under influence by Beijing?
Would you consider coming back to Singapore as an academic if you are given the opportunity?
What advice would you give to Singaporeans to make the country better?
- Everyone expects Hong Kong universities to come under increasing pressure from Beijing. There are already some signs. Professors who have had leading roles in the democracy movement have been penalised. However, Hong Kong is still one of the freest academic settings in Asia. That freedom is expected to gradually decline, but even then it will probably remain very free by Asian standards.
- I've really not needed to think about moving from Hong Kong, which has been good to me.
Thanks for the insightful reply. I also feel that Singaporean students are sometimes pressured by their educators and expectations to play it safe when it comes to assignments and research. For example, to replicate a study just to get good grades instead of venturing to research less-studied fields. The unfortunate fact is many of us want security and certainty. Could it be that we've been too "well-taken care" of that we would rather not rock the boat so long as our rice bowls can be kept intact?
You raise important points, but I wouldn't want to over-generalise. The truth is that there are many educators in Singapore who work very hard at encouraging students to be more creative and well-rounded. And I regularly meet young Singaporeans who are everything one hopes they would be.
But, yes, there is certainly something about our culture that isn't conducive to innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. Many others have commented on this and studied the problem for years, and there clearly aren't any quick fixes.
"Unfortunately, many Singaporeans have decided not to care because they think they can get enough information and ideas elsewhere."
In that sense maybe the "alternative" media like the TOC hasn't really been doing us a favour at all. I appreciate the alternative coverage and the existence of such channels is a counterpoint to the MSM. But to many, the fact that the alternative media exists is enough already. It is not! We're still seeing crap on MSM and we expect alternative media to provide another view point while we sit back passively and "see show". Sorry for the rant but I feel that the quality of our Straits Times is really quite shameful. I'm not even sure who's responsible for this!
On the long list of people to blame, alternative media are probably near the bottom. And in fact MSM would probably be even worse if not for the competition from alternative media. But you do raise an interesting point. It's probably fair to say that in the course of their self-promotion, alternative media may have been too effective in convincing people that they could do without big media, because these little blogs could supposedly fill the gap. In that sense, the mutual animosity between MSM and alternative media was never healthy. The truth is that they were always symbiotic. A healthy media ecosystem requires strong MSM as well as strong alternative media. But that's not how either side behaved. They each trash-talked the other.
Thank you. Can you give examples of how the absence of a FOI act diminishes public accountability in Singapore?
Good question. It's not something I have directly studied, so I struggle to come up with examples here. But, OK, here's one. We know that the public sector does some mysterious form of security vetting before people are given jobs. There are Singaporeans who have been offered jobs by statutory boards and universities, and then suddenly they are told that they can't be hired. And it's hinted to them that they haven't been security cleared, though there's nothing in writing. So you have this situation where a citizen finds himself locked out of a job (by the country's largest employer) and he has no clue why. In a country with a freedom of information act, he would have the right to see the information that the government holds about him. This is important, because it could well be the case that his file contains outdated or misleading information, and it's on that basis that he's been blacklisted. But in Singapore, he's helpless. He can try his luck and ask, but you can bet he'll get no satisfaction.
I give this example because many Singaporeans buy the false line that freedom of information is some weird idealistic right that will result in military secrets being leaked and so on. No. There are very good reasons why ordinary citizens would benefit from this right.
OK, here is another example. There are many concerned Singaporeans who believe that some deeper inquiry is needed into SMRT mismanagement. In most such cases, public appeals for independent commissions of inquiry are brushed aside. With a freedom of information law in place, citizens would be able to get some of that information whether or not an official inquiry is launched.
In the case of courts and rulings in cases of human rights, would logic-trees/logic-gating, being transcribed publicly in rulings, help? I always found it interesting that philosophy students of logic have this system to break down and analyse arguments, yet this is hardly ever disseminated to the public. It could, idealistically I admit, serve to break down the legalese that keeps the general population down.
Or, read books like "Living with Myths", which have done the work for us – helping us see through ideology. (https://www.ethosbooks.com.sg/products/living-with-myths-in-singapore)
What would the core elements of such civic education be? I have noticed that any talk of human rights is frowned upon. The education ministry also talks about civic virtues like responsibility, without the mirror aspect of rights. Other mature democracies always mention "rights & responsibilities" together, but not in sunny singapore.
Yes, education about rights is crucial. Democracies are founded on two main principles: majority rule and equal rights. Without the latter, democracies are prone to the "tyranny of the majority", including intolerance and violence against vulnerable minorities. Some of the dark stuff going on in the US, Europe and elsewhere is happening precisely because majority communities have been convinced by populist politicians that democracy is simply a numbers game.