The Dawn of the Super-Empowered Singaporean – An Open Letter to the People of Singapore (and Catherine Lim too)

I had thought to keep quiet during this period of Singapore’s transition. But what is happening has perturbed me as an ordinary Singaporean. Indeed it should perturb Singaporeans of all political stripes and ideological colours. Free speech and dignity is under threat.

Dear all (including Catherine Lim),I agree with you that there is a crisis of trust. Many people no longer trust the institutions of society, whether it is the government, the civil service and the judiciary. It’s a problem for other public sector servants too: our teachers, nurses, doctors and policemen.

How did we come to this sad situation? Is it because of politicians suing each other for libel? PAP politicians’ legal actions are well known: JB Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong and so on. Even Mr Chiam See Tong in the 1980s sued Minister S. Dhanabalan [1] for what was said at an election rally. Dhanabalan made a public apology and settled out of court.Or is it something deeper than lawsuits?Is there now a climate of poison and hate in public discourse? Extreme partisans on different sides painting each other as unwilling to listen or incapable of caring.

We must debate and discuss where our country is going, especially with all the big changes happening around us: America, China and Japan jostling for influence in Asia. Russia invading Ukraine and changing the tone for how small countries face off with big powers. Indonesia and Malaysia in transition.

But how we debate issues matters too because that sets the tone for our democracy.I don’t want Singapore to become a false democracy of demonisation where hate is whipped up because it makes for good online viewership and better advertising revenue.Today people are talking past each other, not with each other. Truth and facts become a casualty when what matters is perception and public relations rather than finding out what really happened.

Fiction in literature wins prizes and awards. A writer with flair and imagination can take us beyond the bounds of reality, to worlds that live only in fantasy.Critical debate is part and parcel of democracy. A well written critique opens the mind to new angles and builds public awareness of important issues. It can shape discourse among the intelligentsia including the civil service.But writing outright lies about other people, as some commentators have done, is a different matter.Would Catherine Lim be as sanguine if somebody accused her of wanton plagiarism in her writing? Or of embezzling money from her publisher? Would she be as conciliatory were her own author’s integrity under public attack?Perhaps such things do not matter to Catherine Lim. But they matter to every public servant doing their duty, every hardworking Singaporean earning an honest living.We may not earn big salaries but each of us is born with dignity and the right to a rightful reputation.Should a nurse be told to keep quiet in the name of “freedom of expression and open debate”, if a member of the public makes a false allegation that she was stealing morphine from the hospital pharmacy? Or would we support her in defending her reputation, even if it means going to court, even if the false accuser is a well-connected famous blogger with rich supporters?

The problem is not that PM Lee is taking blogger Roy Ngerng to court over a false allegation. If anything, we need the authorities to support more public servants in defending their reputations against unjust, false accusations.Otherwise the day will come when every one of us has to kowtow to super-empowered individuals who can destroy a worker’s reputation at a stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse.

[1] Online article on S. Dhanabalanhttp: Link -> S. Dhanabalan
The letter was circulating in the email.

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