On deference, discourse and defensiveness

Straw men and superiority

It’s convenient, isn’t it, when one is making an argument, to deflect all criticism of that argument by tackling a single counterargument? Even more convenient when that counterargument is a straw man. It’s a convenience that some of the Singaporean press and Singaporean politicians are fond of, and one that I’ve seen quite a bit in the days after Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

Take this opinion piece by Joyce Hooi, for example, which I understand has been doing the rounds in social media in Singapore (even Singapore’s prime minister has shared it on his Facebook page). You don’t have to get very far in the article to see what I mean — the headline reads ‘By gum, the West is wrong about Singapore’, as if ‘the West’ is a singular, monolithic bloc of critics. Never mind that ‘the West’ is in an increasingly existentialist crossroads, the latest symptoms of which are their (its?) inability to agree whether to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to agree measures to take against Russia, to agree military intervention in Syria. Apparently, if there’s one thing ‘the West’ can agree on, it’s their opinion on Singapore.

And what about this complaint about The Guardian devoting an entire article to chewing gum:

After Lee Kuan Yew died, The Guardian newspaper devoted an entire article to his policy on chewing gum. Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin’ chewing gum. This is like being complimented on your English.

Ms Hooi neglects to mention that this article was published in the lifestyle section of the newspaper’s website — and, of course, The Guardian publishes plenty of articles about random nonsense, and not just in its lifestyle section, just like many modern newspapers. And it must be convenient also to omit mentioning the other articles published by The Guardian on Mr Lee’s death, including an editorial and an obituary, both of which are quite even-handed and nuanced. Amongst other ‘Western’ publications, The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Economist also published fairly balanced obituaries (although Ms Hooi would be disappointed to find that two of those dare to mention the ban on gum!).

In another widely shared article, Calvin Cheng, a former ‘Nominated Member of Parliament’ in Singapore also resorts to the convenience of amalgamating the ‘Western press’:

The Western press has relentlessly trotted out the opinion that Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore’s undeniable economic success at the cost of fundamental civil liberties.

Mr Cheng, however, goes one further, criticising the self-righteousness of some of his ‘Western’ friends, before — without irony! — implying that they are not civilised people:

Some of my Western friends who have never lived here for any period of time have sometimes self-righteously proclaimed, no doubt after reading the clichés in the media, that they could never live under the ‘stifling and draconian’ laws that we have. My answer to them is simple: are you the sort to urinate in public when a toilet isn’t available, the sort to vandalise public property, the sort that would leave a mess in a public toilet that you share with your others? Are you perhaps a drug smuggler? Because we execute those. Or maybe you molest women? Because we would whip you. Are you the sort that would get drunk and then get into fights and maybe beat up a stranger in the bar? Back home you may get away with it but if you are that sort, then maybe this place isn’t for you.

In short, are you a civilised person who wants to live in a civilised society? Because the things you cannot do in Singapore are precisely the sort that civilised people should not do anyway. If you are, you have nothing to fear.


Nuance seems to be missing from a large part of the discourse in Singapore, which is (perhaps) understandable in a time of public grief. But in its place, some Singaporeans seem to have turned to a familiar and comforting defensiveness, which I would argue is encouraged by a siege mentality that Mr Lee and the Singapore government have fostered.

Ms Hooi writes, ‘It must be nice to be Western and superior. It must be nice to judge from afar a grieving and poorly understood nation that is often confused with China.’ Why conflate being Western and being superior? Isn’t there a superiority in implying that no one outside of Singapore understands the Singaporean nation?

This defensiveness and sense of being wronged and misunderstood suffuse any discourse between Singaporeans and outsiders. As a former permanent resident in Singapore with plenty of Singaporean friends and acquaintances, I can attest to this, at least anecdotally. I myself have been told to mind my own business (in slightly nicer terms).

To caveat the above, I have debated Singapore and Singaporean politics with some of my Singaporean friends, and I’m not saying that all Singaporeans are unwilling to engage in any discourse with outsiders. However, too often there is a temptation, not always resisted, to resort to the ‘you’re an outsider’ non-argument.

I’m sure many would say that there is no need for Singapore to debate with outsiders its political system and its way of life. I’m not sure I agree with that; surely a state and/or has an interest in ensuring that it is not ‘poorly understood’? And if one is so proud of one’s political system and way of life, would one not be vigilant about answering criticism and recognising criticism that is deserved? Why does it matter whether the criticism is from inside or outside?

One particular notion that really riles me up is an old chestnut that foreigners are ‘interfering’ in Singapore’s affairs by writing negatively about Singapore. This is best embodied by its government’s turbulent relationship with foreign publications (read this illuminating article published by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism or this shorter read).

I’m sure there must be plenty of people who are hostile to Singapore and wish it ill will, but to indiscriminately label foreign criticism as ‘interference’ hinders engagement and, in the case of the foreign press, amounts to undisguised censorship.

I must admit that I am hesitating even as I write this, because there will surely be Singaporeans telling me to butt out.

But why can’t I write this? If you think you can refute what I’m saying, then do so. Don’t attempt to silence me by claiming that I have no right to write about a country I’ve left, or resort to attacking a straw man or my credibility.

I can’t help but agree with David Plott, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who states in the Columbia article referred to above:

The question arises, why does someone like Lee Kuan Yew fear this kind of reporting? And, you know, I can’t answer that question for him, but one of the concerns I have is that it reflects a fear of his own people. A fear of how his own people will respond to critical views of him.

(By the by, wasn’t Mr Lee fond of criticising the supposed drug-ridden, violent, uncivilised cities of the West?)

Death and deference

Perhaps the discourse has been a little stunted because it is too soon after Mr Lee’s death to criticise his policies and legacy. On this, others have more about this with more eloquence than I ever could: see this by Glenn Greenwald and, in the context of Mr Lee’s death, this article.

Mr Lee didn’t have much time for self-introspection:

I did what I thought was right, given the circumstances, given my knowledge at the time, given the pressures on me at the time. That’s finished, done. I move forward. You keep on harking back, it’s just wasting time.

Is it wasting time though? How can any society progress without learning from the mistakes of the past? I know I’m overstating my case here, and by no means am I equating wartime atrocities with anything that’s happened in Singapore, but just look at the divergent paths that Germany and Japan have taken. One is a deeply introspective country, the other has trouble coming to terms with its past. Which country is stuck in a rut?

And what about justice? Does Singapore want to be like China, where any mention of the Tiananmen Square incident is forbidden or highly censored, where the Communist Party’s version of the truth is unquestionable, where no one has been brought to justice for killing non-violent protestors?

I don’t think you can lock people up without trial, brush it off as a ‘nasty thing’ as Mr Lee did, and move on.


Life in Singapore, for many, is extremely comfortable, safe and even free. Ms Hooi and Mr Cheng are right about that, as is Sahana Singh, author of another popular recent article crying foul about the lies in ‘Western media’. But they are either ignorant or deceiving themselves if they think that there haven’t been trade-offs. Poet Alvin Pang, while unfortunately parroting the ‘Western media portraying Singaporeans as sheep’ trope, has a succinct list of some of these trade-offs (see also this by Bryan Cheang).

I don’t necessarily agree that these things are strictly ‘trade-offs’, because I disagree that they are necessary for the success that Singapore has achieved. But ‘trade-off’ is a convenient label for the price that Singapore has paid for its political system and way of life.

The thing is, perhaps it isn’t people like Ms Hooi, Mr Cheng or Ms Singh who have to pay the price of these trade-offs. Their ‘freedom’, security and economic development is paid for by the blogger who is punished for falling foul of the government, by the migrant workers who aren’t provided with something as basic as a proper lunch, or aren’t paid in time or at all, by the dozens of their fellow countrymen detained without trial, bankrupted and/or exiled for daring to follow their convictions, by the filmmakers who aren’t allowed to present their work on their society to that society, by the heritage sites which are no more, and by the LGBT community which is only recently beginning to find the confidence to openly advocate for its rights.

It’s a pity if Singaporeans think all that to be a price worth paying.


One thought on “On deference, discourse and defensiveness

  1. You have quoted and agreed with David Plott, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who states in the Columbia article referred to above, as follows.

    “The question arises, why does someone like Lee Kuan Yew fear this kind of reporting? And, you know, I can’t answer that question for him, but one of the concerns I have is that it reflects a fear of his own people. A fear of how his own people will respond to critical views of him.”

    But given my understanding of the late Mr Lee’s combative character, it is hard to believe that he would “fear” his own people and that he cared about critical views of him. I tend to believe what he had said in his own words, given that he was a strict talker famous for being “correct but not politically correct”, as follows.

    “What role would men and governments in new countries like the mass media to play?… The mass media can help to present Singapore’s problems simply and clearly and then explain how if they support certain programmes and policies these problems can be solved. More important, we want the mass media to reinforce, not to undermine, the cultural values and social attitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities.
    [Several paragraphs later] Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”
    – Lee Kuan Yew’s Address to the General Assembly of the International Press Institute at Helsinki on 9 June 1971

    In my opinion, David Plott’s above views reflected his prejudice on the late Mr Lee which is so common among western journalists. I think that’s exactly the reason why Singaporeans are so “defensive” as you have pointed out.

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