13 October 2005

Calibrated Coercion

Blogger Cherian George wrote an article about the Singapore government's use of "calibrated coercion" to stifle the expression of dissenting opinions. Here's the article. Notwithstanding the fact that ST journalist Carl Skadian thinks that bloggers are worse than porn stars, the Straits Times went on to publish blogger Cherian George's article.

Chen Hwai Liang, Press Secretary to the Prime Minister, then responded with a strongly worded letter to the ST Forum expressing, shall we say, some unhappiness with Cherian's view. Personally, I feel that the Prime Minister's Office generally missed, or chose to miss, the real point of Cherian's article. But I shall not elaborate - if you are interested, you can read Cherian's further response to Chen Hwai Liang in the ST Forum today, or check out the relevant hyperlinks over at Singapore Angle.

The purpose of my present post is more modest. It is simply to quote a certain part of Chen Hwai Leong's letter and invite you to take a closer look at the underlying implications:
"...... zero tolerance for law breaking does not equate to zero tolerance for dissenting views. On the contrary, we encourage people to speak up and express their opinions on national policies and community life, so that out of the diversity of views a consensus can be forged, and a better decision made for the good of the nation.

Dr George's critical article was published in The Straits Times, contradicting his own claims."
Heheh. There you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. (Please be clear hor, Hwai Liang, I meant that figuratively, I'm not saying that you're a real horse, therefore no defamation). Hwai Liang has just told you that:

(1) Dr George wrote a critical article;

(2) Dr George's article was published in the Straits Times;

(3) This shows that the government tolerates dissenting views and encourages people to speak up and express their opinions.

Now Mr Wang will tell you what (1), (2) and (3) also show. If we accept what Hwai Liang said to be true (please be clear, hor, Hwai Liang, I am not saying that what you said is not true, therefore no defamation - I express no view on whether what you say is actually true or not true), then it follows that:

(a) critical articles can only be published in the Straits Times if the government tolerates them; and

(b) therefore the government can control what is or is not published in the Straits Times; and

(c) therefore the Straits Times is government-controlled and not exactly a "free press".

"Yawn", I hear some of you say, "What else is new, Mr Wang? We already knew that the Singapore press is ranked one hundred and thirty-something or forty-something in the world for press freedom. Tell us something new, Mr Wang."

Well, I guess I'm just pretty tickled by the fact that the above conclusions follow logically and directly from the utterances of none than the PM's Press Secretary himself. Hehehe.

Finally, I thought it was pretty funny that Hwai Liang mentioned "zero tolerance for law breaking". Funny because just very recently, on 7 October, we saw a law-breaker in a highly publicised case being let off. No jail, no fine, no prosecution, just a warning. And the law-breaker wasn't even named.
Oct 7, 2005
Police give stern warning to protester

By Leslie Koh

THE Case Of The Eight White Elephants has finally been wrapped up.

The punishment for putting up eight cutouts of cartoon elephants in front of Buangkok MRT station to protest against its non-opening: A stern warning from the police.

The placards, they said in a two-paragraph statement issued yesterday, did not cause public annoyance or a nuisance. But they did infringe on a law requiring people to obtain a permit before putting up posters or exhibits for public display.

So the police have issued a stern warning, instead of prosecuting the person who did it. They did not name the culprit.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the Elephant Man should have been prosecuted. I'm actually pretty happy that he wasn't. But it does go to show that Hwai Liang wasn't not quite right about "zero tolerance", was he?

(Wait - please be clear, hor, Chen Hwai Liang, not saying that you're dishonest or stupid, just saying that you're not quite right, nobody's perfect you know, so you can't sue me for defamation, anyway I call on the defences of (a) justification and (b) fair comment, this clearly being a matter of public interest).

There's also an ST article on 10 October hinting at the identity of the Elephant Man:
Oct 10, 2005
'Fight' to open Buangkok MRT station goes on

By Lydia Lim
GRASSROOTS leaders of Punggol South will fight on to get Buangkok MRT station opened.

And they will come up with more unusual ways to get the message across.

Grassroots leader Sunny Leow told reporters yesterday: 'We'll still be very creative, but within the law.'

Mr Leow, 54, chairs the Punggol South Citizens' Consultative Committee.

The businessman is believed to be the one who received a police warning after an investigation into the placing of eight white-elephant placards on the road divider outside the station.

The incident became a national talking point.
So here we have another clue as to another possible good reason why the law-breaker was not prosecuted. It could have been rather embarrassing for a certain committee in a PAP constituency, and a certain PAP Member of Parliament, could it not?

(Wait, nobody sue me ok, let me explain, I've never believed in zero tolerance for law breaking, I believe that we must always be flexible and creative and leave room for discretion and human judgment in the criminal justice legal system, I think that thie Elephant case was handled wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully.)


Recruit Ong said...

1 country 2 system!

the PAP way or the highway!

Huichieh said...


(1) Dr George wrote a critical article;
(2) Dr George's article was published in the Straits Times;
(3) This shows that the government tolerates dissenting views and encourages people to speak up and express their opinions.

Your claim isL it follows that:

(a) critical articles can only be published in the Straits Times if the government tolerates them; and
(b) therefore the government can control what is or is not published in the Straits Times; and
(c) therefore the Straits Times is government-controlled and not exactly a "free press".

I'm not so sure about (a). I agree that (b) and (c) or something like them is implied by (1)-(3), which, in summary is simply:

(4) Even though Dr. George's piece is critical, ST nevertheless published it, thus showing that the GOV tolerates dissenting views, etc.

The force of which is lessened considerably without the assumption of (b) and (c), or something like them anyway. And I don't think Hwai Liang would necessarily disagree. I've always thought that it is part of the official line that ST is not a "free press" on the model of the press houses in the "liberal democracies".

But I don't think it follows from (1)-(3) that (a). Supposed Dr. George published the piece on his blog (which he did), and let's imagine that it was widely disseminated (e.g., got tomorrow'ed). Instead of (4), we can imagine Hwai Liang saying something like this:

(4') Even though Dr. George's piece is critical, the GOV did not force him to shut his blog down, or prosecute him, etc., etc., thus showing that the GOV tolerates dissenting views, etc.

ivan said...

it might also mean...

(a) There is free press in SG (evidenced by the critical article published)
(b) As such there is no calibrated coercion (as there are avenues for free expression).
(c) Citizens are encouraged to participate freely WITHIN the limits of the law (ie. only through legit avenue)

Anonymous said...

Woah - very cheem I dun understand

all i know is that the letter and the actual article is wen bu dui ti. "text dont match subject"(literally translated)

very strange leh...
very curious - its trying to say something else to the REST OF US...

but i dun quite get it..

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