A recent event provided testimony that Singapore is one of the “safest” places in the world. It has few disturbances to social harmony, and when it does, the agitator is swiftly put behind bars. The event also showed that the Singapore police force must have very few crimes to solve and very few law breakers to chase after, judging by the way they can afford to form human barricades to prevent Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician, and his supporters from staging a protest march to the convention centre where the IMF-World Bank meetings are held. Throughout the prolonged stand-off over the right to protest, changing shifts of police kept guard over Chee and his supporters at Hong Lim Park, the venue of the Speakers’ Corner. Six policemen even accompanied each one to the park’s bathroom, according to newspaper reports. In other words, the police must be very free these days.
A Bangkok Post article quoted a spokeswoman as saying that the police were “engaging” Chee and his associates. But not the way Christopher Obsburn, a 27-year-old British tourist, saw it: “I’m astounded by the police preventing the legitimate movement of people. There’s a disproportionate reaction and it shows another side to Singapore.”
The same article, however, contained an error:
Registering with police is required. Speakers are prohibited from discussing subjects that could ignore [ignite] religious or racial violence or threaten national security.
When asked about the police stand-off, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, minister for education and second minister for finance, said: “Our view has been very clearly articulated. It’s in the press, you can read it.”
There you have it. “Articulated” in the press, not “reported”. Another Freudian slip?
Freudian slip: A case of mind over mutter?
Frontline: Hong Lim
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Are you a sympathizer of this loser? He was sued many times by MM Lee and PM Lee but still want to create trouble. The government should deport him, not arrest him.
Being a fellow Singaporean, I pity your state of mind.
What if Chee is given the chance to become the PM of Singapore or perhaps yourself would like to run this country?
With all the articles you have written, I again pity you. Have you asked yourself what have you done for your motherland besides spitting at PAP.
Have your served your full national service liability or perhaps you are against it in the first place.
You do not understand what nation building is all about and all your articulate writing does not contribute to a Singaporean like myself and many more.
If you and Chee does not appreciate the way Singapore is built and run by PAP, which by the way was elected by the people for the people, you are always welcomed by many other foreign land that is full of envy of Singapore’s achievement.
Look yourself in the mirror and dare call yourself a Singaporean.
We do need not people like yourself and Chee to create social unrest for our small peaceful nation.
With all the stuff that you have written, I think you and Chee is the only people too free with nothing better to do but to pick a fight.
Grow up my fellow Singaporean and be responsible to your family and do something worthwhile for yourself instead of wasting your youth writing your piece against the country.
Hi anonymous1 and 2,
I agree with half of what you say – Singaporean achivements under PAP are indeed very impressive, and I am impressed.
However, I could never quite understand why such a successful government afraid of dissenting voices. e.g. if you do your job in the office properly, why so scare of critism from your colleagues.
Singapore ecomonic achivement has impressive as PAP effort to channel planned resources to focus on certain field has been very effective in the past. However, in this globalised world, to move forward, Singaporean needs to be creative.
To anonymous 2, perhaps you know what national building WAS about but not necessarily what it will be about.
To anonymous @ 12:23 PM:
Save the pity for yourself. You write as if you know me in person, when you do not. Like anonymous @ 12:57 AM, you chose to hide behind the cloak of anonymity to criticise someone whom you indiscriminately labelled “fellow Singaporean” (thank you, but I don’t need that unwarranted overture). What did the PAP call this kind of people – an armchair critic?
At least have the guts to stand out and give yourself a name, even if it’s not a real one. Otherwise, admit that you’re a coward who’s afraid to stand up for your own words.
Not to excuse or agree with everything said here by either Stephen or the Anonymous posters (in it’s entirety), I do admit that Chee SJ’s “Voice of Dissent” has come across as being as idiotic as police actions to prevent it.
Between his fasting (I mean way to go ghandi) and their over-reaction, It just goes to show how idiotic some opposition parties can be and how padentic the govt. is.
Stephen, I’d also ask that you relak one corner… it is afterall easier to click on anonymous than it is to type a name. That having been said, allow me to offer you my real name (sorry my IC# will remain withheld)just so that I not incur ur wrath.
Whicher side all of you are for, do not quarrel. But I must say, I support Chee.Whatever Chee did is for the good of the nation, in the long term.
Kudos to Stephen for supporting Chee. If someone chooses to remain in the well like a frog, what can you do? Just smile, it is approved by our government.
Fair enough. You have the same right to your opinions that I have to mine. What many people fail to realise is that we have the tendency to shoot the messenger along with the message. Granted, Chee’s tactics are questionable (although in the political landscape, I’d argue that it’s allowable). But have we stopped to ponder about the underlying message he’s driving at?
If you put yourself in his shoes, would you have the courage to stand up for your own convictions (whatever those may be) the way Chee did?
Just in quick response to your reply Stephen, I’d be interested to know if your support is for his agenda or his “conviction”.
I can imagine one’s support for his underlying message for increased political freedoms etc, but I do regularly question his “fervour”.
I think it’s not only the right but the responsibility of citizens to question the government. Unfortunately I feel that people are a) not asking the right questions b) asking them in an unnecessarily confrontational manner.
Sure, I concede that there has been many an incidence of a disproportionate response from the government, but this could be stemmed if questions were asked or statements made in a more constructive manner.
Perhaps it’s just a case of poor me still being an idealist.
I’m not sure if I can fully grasp what you meant by “conviction”. I am a man of few “convictions”, or at least I think I am (compared to Chee).
The case of the man who has an intense conviction that he ought to do certain things is peculiar, and perhaps not very common. But it is significant because it includes some very important individuals. Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale defied convention in obedience to a feeling of this sort. In such cases, the individual conviction deserves the greatest respect, even if there seems no obvious justification for it.
Much as I would like to agree with your observations, I’m afraid I don’t buy them. I think you’ll agree that the PAP’s record (Catherine Lim? mrbrown?) speaks for itself. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, until the government has the courage to accept constructive criticisms without resorting to rebutting every critic line by line, we will have a long way to go.
You’ll know what I mean if you read the transcript of the “conversation” between Lee Kuan Yew and Jamie Han:
Just out of curiosity, do you know of a better way to ask questions that will elicit a better response?
Climate control in the Singapore Press
by Eric Ellis
The Australian, June 21, 2001
I’m sitting in the tiny office of Cheong Yip Seng, editor-in-chief of Singapore’s The Straits Times. And he’s waxing lyrical about the paper and its contribution to the tiny South-East Asian nation that he’s seen leap from Third World slum to First World wonder.
Cheong, 57, has been with the paper since 1963. He’s proud of the paper and its contribution to modern Singapore. And he’s proud, too, of the former intelligence operatives in his newsroom.
There’s Chua Lee Hoong, the ST’s most prominent political columnist. She might be Singapore’s Maureen Dowd, except The New York Times’s Dowd didn’t work with the secret police for nine years. There’s Irene Ho on the foreign desk. She was also an “analyst” with Singapore’s intelligence services. So, says Cheong, was Susan Sim, his Jakarta correspondent.
And there’s Cheong’s boss, Tjong Yik Min. From 1986 to 1993, Tjong was Singapore’s most senior secret policeman, running the much feared Internal Security Department, a relic of colonial Britain’s insecurities about communism in its Asian empire. Now Tjong is a media mogul, the executive president of SPH, Singapore’s virtual print media giant, which controls all but one of the country’s newspapers.
I ask the affable Cheong, as the “journalist’s journalist” he says he is, if he’s comfortable having such people in powerful positions on his editorial staff and, indeed, running the company. “Why not?” he beams. “These guys have good analytical minds… they are all
What’s wrong with this picture? For many Singaporeans, nothing. After 42 years of comfortable living in a near one-party state, and a wealthy one at that, it’s what you’ve come to expect.
Walls may not have ears in Singapore, but many locals aren’t fully convinced they don’t. And so they’ve affected this curious idiosyncrasy, which I call the Singapore Swivel.
I’ve seen it constantly in the two years I’ve been based here. It happens when discussions graduate from small talk to opinions. The interviewee goes “off-the-record”, the voice lowers to a whisper, and the head slowly turns left-right-left-centre, scanning the location, checking who’s within earshot. The Swivel speaks to the probably unfounded suspicion that the “wired island” is monitoring your activities.
Some Singaporeans talk of their country’s “climate of fear”, more charitably described as a “contract” with their leaders: keep our economy soaring and we won’t challenge the restrictions imposed on our civil liberties.
Step out of line in Singapore and you will be politely requested by the regime to step back. Do it repeatedly and openly and be prepared for the state machinery to crank into action against you, as it did in 1987 against lawyer Teo Soh Lung and businessman Chew Kheng Chuan. They were among the 22 Singaporeans detained, some beaten and
tortured, by Tjong’s ISD for being suspected “Marxists” – a charge roundly denied and one from which even the Government has backed away.
Teo and Chew were held without trial for more than two years, often in solitary confinement, in a cell their captors called the “Shangri-La suite” in a sardonic tribute to Singapore’s famous five-star hotel. A slight, 51-year-old lawyer who keeps a poster of Martin Luther King Jr on her office wall, Teo remembers Tjong as “Mr Beady Eyes”.
“He was a sneering character; he had very shifty eyes,” she recalls. “He never beat me himself … I disliked him intensely, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.”
Independent Singapore’s first Harvard College graduate, Chew, 43, has a different sense of Tjong. He quite liked him. “I saw him probably 20 times during my detention,” remembers Chew, now a successful businessman and chairman of The Substation, one of Singapore’s few forums for alternative theatre. “He was always quite polite. Tjong
seemed to take a shine to me. I think he was intrigued by me, wanted to know what made me tick.
“I think he was baffled by how someone who’d been to Harvard could possibly be in this situation. I found him a lonely man, a somewhat solitary person.”
That Chew and Teo can talk openly about Tjong and their ISD experiences shows how far Singapore has liberalised in recent years. The Government says it is committed to openness and airing contrary views. But the message seems to be taking its time to sink in at the ST.
Take the way it dealt with a hot local topic recently – ministerial salaries. On June 29 last year, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son) announced massive pay rises for cabinet ministers. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s annual salary would jump 14 per cent to $2.25 million, or $187,000 a month,
five times that of the US president.
On May 11, six weeks earlier, the independent Hong Kong-based think-tank, the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, released a survey of expatriate businessmen on political leadership in Asia. The survey ranked Singapore as Asia’s most capable government. The findings were carried by the major wire agencies on May 12, in Hong Kong by Agence France-Presse and by the Reuters bureau in Singapore.
In Singapore the story didn’t appear in the ST until June 26, when it was splashed across the front page headlined “S’pore Govt rated top in Asia”. Three days later the Government announced the ministerial pay increases. That same day, the ST carried another excerpt of the same PERC report, headlined “PERC: Govt’s economic policy makes the difference”.
From June 30 to July 7, as controversy raged in Singapore salons about whether already well-rewarded ministers deserved their increased salaries, the ST evoked PERC’s rosy view of Singapore’s Government another four times.
Is it just a coincidence that a six-week-old report became front-page news in Singapore just days before the Singapore Government justified its massive pay rise?
“If you want to arrange the facts in that way, I suppose that you do have a case,” says editor-in-chief Cheong. “But I’m a newspaper and I must accept information that is given to me and then I make a judgment whether I want to use or not use it.”
Other times news judgment can appear downright wacky. In early 1999, Lee Kuan Yew wished to The Wall Street Journal that someone would invent air-conditioned underwear – because that way “everyone can then work at his optimum temperature and civilisation can spread across all climates”.
A news editor on a mainstream Australian newspaper might hand the item to a wry columnist. The medical writer might consult some physicians as to whether the nation was in good hands. And the science writer might ring boffins to see if boreal boxers were
Not at the ST, which ran it as a straight story on page one. A month later, it published a 1455-word feature quoting local academics and engineers hot for the idea – with an illustration of how a “cold suit” might work.
Lee is famously intelligent and while refrigerated undies are a fantastic notion, anything’s possible. The cooling Calvins inspired a book The Air-Conditioned Nation, by former ST journalist Cherian George, who views Singapore’s success through the prism of air-
conditioning. He writes that Lee designed this air-conditioned nation “first and foremost” for the comfort of its citizens, believing they are more interested in money than “high-minded political principles”.
“Central control” is a feature of air-con, writes George, and “comfort is achieved through control”.
George could have added to that last line “and through people like Tjong Yik Min”. Tjong, 48, led the ISD though one of Singapore’s most paranoid periods, the attack on “Marxists”. The following year he was awarded a gold public administration medal for services to the state.
Tall and owlish, Tjong seems the quintessential behind-the-scenes operator. Although one of Asia’s most powerful people, there is not one interview or feature published about him appearing on any media database. His home number is unlisted and he ranks just a few lines in Singapore’s Who’s Who – listing his job at SPH.
Tjong rarely makes public appearances. Even those who have regular contact with him know little of his family or personal life. It is believed he is married with children, and enjoys karaoke.
“He has a very good mind, very sharp, very focused. He’s not just a blind loyalist and I think is a true believer in the Singapore system,” says a local TV personality who knows him. “He arrived at that view after careful intellectual consideration.”
Mention Tjong’s name in Singapore and three things usually come up. Paramount is that he ran the ISD during the 1987 blitz. Second, is that he was a classmate of Lee Kuan Yew’s son and prime ministerial heir apparent Lee Hsien Loong. And third, is that he’s of Indonesian-Chinese extraction.
In Singaporean terms, the first speaks to the wariness many Singaporeans have of the ISD. Part CIA, part FBI, part Secret Service, the ISD is the hammer the Singapore Government has engaged to whack – sometimes literally – real or imagined threats to
The second reference speaks to Tjong’s perceived influence with Singapore’s premier political family. Says James Minchin, author of the Lee Kuan Yew biography No Man Is an Island, “The civil service is full of people determined to do their master’s bidding and Tjong falls into that category.”
The third reference is controversial in a country where race and nationality can be politically charged. It alludes to his family name, rendered in the style of Indonesian Chinese, generally regarded as country cousins by Singapore’s ethnic Chinese ruling elite.
But there’s a fourth aspect to Tjong, which he again refused to confirm or be questioned on. Several sources claim his older brother was once suspected by Singaporean authorities of being a communist – one source even says he heard it directly from him, adding that the brother was once “deported” to China in the 1970s.
The claim, which would be shocking in a nation that via loyal functionaries such as Tjong has assiduously rooted out its suspected communists, thickens the mystery surrounding Tjong. But in the context of the region’s painful post-colonial transition to independence, the speculation simply speaks to the myriad struggles of the era, within nations, and often families. As for Tjong, his loyalty to Singapore is unquestioned. Media asked Tjong repeatedly for an interview and for answers to a series of questions but he declined. SPH spokesperson Liew Kim Siong says Tjong “prefers to keep a low profile”.
Tjong’s official SPH profile says he left the civil service in 1995 to join SPH. On paper, that’s correct. But a predecessor as intelligence chief, and as media titan, Singapore’s President S. R. Nathan, provides a clue about how power flows in Singapore between
the public and private sectors.
A 1974 law gave the Government direct control over print media via the introduction of so-called “management shares” of publishing companies, which allowed the Government to select who could hold this stock. This way the Government didn’t need to nationalise the press but could influence its board.
Editorial appointments could then be made by directors. A 1977 amendment prevented ownership of more than 3 per cent of a newspaper’s stock, which has had the effect of preventing alternatives to the ST group.
The rationale to change the share structure was to ensure that “undesirable foreign elements” weren’t able to control Singapore’s press. Happily for Lee’s Government, it also ensured a largely compliant press.
The Washington-based Freedom House’s 2001 measure of press freedom – a survey that wasn’t reported in The Straits Times – says Singapore has one of the most restricted presses in the world, ranking alongside Zimbabwe, Liberia and Iran.
In Singapore, there is no credible alternative to SPH. It publishes nine daily newspapers across Singapore’s four official languages.
The combined group circulation is more than 1 million – some 25 per cent of Singapore’s population – and by SPH’s own numbers, its titles are read by 4 million people every day.
The ST – described by SPH a “one of the most respected newspapers in the world” – is the flagship, circulating 392,000 copies daily. It even gives its name to Singapore’s stock exchange index. Last year, the company made $485 million, some 40 per cent of revenues, a profit margin Aus- tralian publishers dream about.
SPH’s only daily competition is an afternoon freesheet owned by the government broadcaster. The domination that SPH has over Singapore’s print media is as if every paper in Australia, bar one, was owned by the same company and the group president of that company formerly ran ASIO.
Chua Lee Hoong, Singapore’s most prominent political commentator, is very open about the fact that she is a former ISD “analyst”.
“It was on the [staffroom] noticeboard when I joined,” she beams.
But her colleague in Jakarta, Susan Sim, is in a quandary and for once it’s not the arcane politics of arguably the ST’s most sensitive foreign posting that’s got Jakarta-based Sim perplexed.
I asked Sim if it’s true she’s also ex-intelligence, as her editor-in- chief Cheong maintains. But she seems deeply miffed, even mystified at the notion.
Now I’m mystified. If intelligence services such as the ISD are Singapore’s “most valuable assets”, as Lee Kuan Yew once described it, how could that constitute a slur in Singapore? Surely as a good Singaporean, she’d have a stronger case if I said she wasn’t an ex-spook if she actually was? I ask her to clear it up by confirming or
denying. I get no response.
But Chua is not coy. “I’m not ashamed about [being ex-ISD].”
Chua is a classic example of the system working for Singaporeans, and Singaporeans paying it back. The Government sent her to Oxford University for a degree in politics, philosophy and economics. Her pro-government columns are perceived by analysts as insights into official thinking. “Is the ST a government mouthpiece?” she asks, then answers herself: “Yes . . . and no”.
It’s not China’s People’s Daily, Chua insists. “The key editors are not government appointees or necessarily [the ruling] People’s Action Party members but they are loyalists in a general sense. It’s true of every major institution in Singapore.”
Chua admits Singaporean journalists self-censor – “they do everywhere,” she says – but “editorial interference” is too strong a term to describe the input of authorities. “It’s much more subtle than that. I would say we are sometimes, but not often these days,
reminded to be mindful of the boundaries.”
Chua brings to her commentary “certain basic assumptions” about Singapore’s national interest. It so happens they often accord with the Government and its over-arching demands of its people.
Part of the challenge, Chua says, of being a journalist and possibly even being a Singaporean is testing boundaries that are “not clearly defined” by the Government, “perhaps on purpose”.
“It’s part of our culture, part of our maturing as a nation.”
That means little campaigning journalism and no established culture of investigative reporting. An underground press is virtually non-existent, in large part because of the Government’s restrictive press laws.
The system functions like a big corporation, designed to maximise profit. The Government maintains an upbeat information department, frequently holding press briefings lauding economic achievements but rarely or publicly discusses substantive matters of policy and politics.
“Government press control might shock one’s liberal western mindset, but this is now a well-entrenched part of national culture,” says Roland Rich, a former Australian ambassador to Laos and co-author of the book Losing Control, which analyses press freedom across Asia. “You get the government you deserve and in Singapore you also
get the press you deserve.”
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