The Words You Can’t Say in Singapore
American comic George Carlin in his classic monologue on the words you can’t say noted “we have thoughts but thoughts are fluid and then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought so be careful with words.” Words give us the ability to express ourselves and ideas. They give concrete meaning the ephemeral ideas that previously had no substance.
What scares oppressive governments about words is not the words themselves but what they represent: ideas. In the hit movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio noted that “an idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow….once an idea has taken hold of the brain it is almost impossible to eradicate.” Governments need to repress words, the concrete examples of the idea that your freedom to speak, think, and express ideas does not depend on the permission of politicians.
The politically motivated charges against Leslie Chew are abhorrent and an obvious attempt to crack down on the ideas of a Singapore populace that wants the freedom to think its own thoughts. The great multicultural city of Singapore with its variety of languages, foods, and people want nothing more than a similarly bustling marketplace of ideas and opinions. Innovative and dynamic cities and countries are marked not by fear and oppression but by openness and freedom.
Ideas spread because they cannot be stopped. Governments try to control words as a blunt tool to stop the spread of ideas and instill a fear in the populace. Fortunately, much like a virus, governments cannot control the spread of ideas. People talk. At coffee shops, at work, or on the subway. People talk. Only by instilling fear throughout society can government control the spread of ideas. Still, people talk.
Governments fear that people will realize that most people are fine law abiding citizens. Politicians fear being held to a high standard by the people they are supposed to serve. Governments need people to live in fear to create a culture that encourages oppression. This creates the perverse outcome where government action encourages the opposite reaction. Governments need fear to promote restrictions on speech, invasions of privacy, and excessive force.
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times do not need to write about the embarrassment beholden to the of the Singaporean judiciary because everyone already knows it. It is already an idea that has spread throughout Singapore and the rest of the world. How many times have opposition politicians won cases against the government or PAP?
No one needs the New York Times to point out that the Lee family has ruled Singapore nearly uninterrupted since 1959 for the idea of a dynasty to spring forth. The idea has already spread whether it becomes words or not.
Talk of nepotism had already spread far and wide before Bloomberg published a piece about Ho Ching being appointed the head of Temasek. These articles simply put into words the ideas that many people beyond these publications. Can the prime minister really exercise proper oversight of a major public asset manager when he falls asleep next to her every night?
Singaporean politicians and judges have brought disrepute to their legal and political system not the journalists. Journalists only put into words ideas. Rather than refuting the idea, the Singaporean politician and judiciary has chosen to trample the word. Unfortunately for them, the idea lives on.
The most telling thing about the Leslie Chew case is the general unimportance of his actions. When I write this, I mean absolutely no disrespect to Leslie Chew. Rather, I am talking about perspective. The Singaporean government judiciary will bring far more scorn, mockery, and publicity upon itself by pursuing this case than ignoring it.
It is also an amazingly cowardly act. Leslie Chew a Singapore resident wrote some mocking political cartoons, something that would in most every country not ranked 149thglobally in press freedoms, would be ignored.
If the Singaporean government wants to establish its credibility: sue me. I will gladly come to publicly defend my case. I have made charges that approximately $500 billion SGD are missing from public funds and while Singapore becomes one of the most publicly indebted countries in the world, the government sues a political cartoonist. It is a cowardly act to sue a cartoonist while attempting to ignore the $500 billion idea. It seems unlikely Prime Minister Lee and his lovely wife have the courage to file that lawsuit. I have the courage to respond if they are willing to file.
The idea that politicians gain respect by words or oppression has died. Unfortunately, the idea that politicians earn respect by their actions and behavior is spreading.
Note: I have no connection to Leslie Chew. I generally refrain from any comments outside my expertise on Singapore public finances, Temasek, and GIC. However, given that freedom of speech is a universal value which is under assault the world over, including the United States, I felt compelled to write. As usual, I make no endorsement of any politician, political party, or group.