The Performance of Public Dissent in Singapore

August 12, 2008


If you came to work or live in Singapore in the last two-three years, and were a frequent reader of The Straits Times, you would have had to disagree with Western critics of Singapore. Singapore does have a culture of dissent and public debate. Names like Ngiam Tong Dow, Philip Yeo, Lee Wei Ling, and more recently, Tommy Koh and Barry Desker would be familiar given their command of column inches.


Ngiam burst into the public’s consciousness in Oct 2003 with an unusually frank (for a civil servant) interview with The Sunday Times. The veteran with over 40 years of policy experience, and who was once the youngest permanent secretary at 35, spoke on a variety of topics, politics being one of them. In the interview he criticised the government’s hoarding of local talent vis-à-vis scholarships; observed that Singapore was “bigger” than the PAP (a real the-emperor-has-no-clothes moment); chastised civil servants for behaving like little “Lee Kuan Yews”; and lamented that the civil service was prone to an “auto-pilot” mentality.


Philip Yeo, former head of EDB and A*Star had an infamous spat with Dr Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute (a statutory board with the government), over the government’s R&D strategy of lulling big time scientists and going only after glamour research like gene and cancer research. A lot was at stake given that the government had invested over S$5billion in the lifesciences but the real brow-raising factor was the unabashed questioning and critiquing of government policy by Dr Lee, even if she was MM Lee’s daughter.


The most recent semblance of “public debate” came when Barry Desker, director of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote an op-ed in The Straits Times complaining that the newly minted ASEAN Charter was a letdown. In response, Tommy Koh, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large and head of the High Level Task Force in charge of the Charter, issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Desker’s criticisms. Desker returned the favour in the Forum Page the next day observing that the Charter had failed to take in many of the recommendations from the Eminent Persons Group Report, the latter of which has been acknowledged universally as unusually bold and visionary for Southeast Asia.


Ngiam, Yeo, Lee, Koh and Desker all have one thing in common – they’re high ranking (or formerly) civil servants. What do we make of this?


Government apologists would say that robust debate and dissent is alive and well in authoritarian Singapore. Critics point to the fact that they are highly trusted figures embedded in the establishment may have something to do with the space that was accorded them. But what can we deduce from this display of “public dissent”?


First of all, only specific forms of debate and dissent are permitted. Civil disobedience, for example, a key form of dissent is morally and culturally argued by the PAP to be alien to Singapore; a terminally porous argument when we look at the political pluralism of the 1950s. (The PAP also likes to remind us that civil disobedience is unlawful [aren’t there such a thing as bad laws?] but this is as insightful as saying water is wet).  Only quiet petitioning and letter-writing, preferably playing out in the well controlled arena of The Straits Times, is considered acceptable vehicles for dissent.


Secondly, the personalities and identities of dissenters are crucial. As a corporatist state, it is not surprising that the PAP holds a deep distrust of the masses and ordinary individuals. A commonly heard refrain from PAP leaders to critics is: “What is his agenda?”; as though only critics have agenda, and that having an agenda is necessarily a bad thing.


Thirdly, and following from above, if dissent from the masses and the likes of Chee Soon Juan is considered unacceptable, then who in Singapore can dissent? In a corporatist state, there is a strong administrative and ideological consolidation of the elite and highly educated within the government. This consolidation is legitimized by the myth of meritocracy. No wonder then that top ranking civil servants are trusted to dissent in public sphere (one assumes they have no agenda).


But all this does not answer two questions. Why now and why so many in such a short space of time?


The march towards global city status demands adopting international norms. These norms, for better or worse, are often influenced by Western political values. Hence the gradual liberalization of our censorship regulations since the early 1990s. A global city must be seen to be culturally, economically, and politically vibrant. The PAP, under PM Lee Hsien Loong’s administration, has had to negotiate between the calls for a more pluralist public sphere and the need to retain the authority to set the limits for debate. The PAP resolves these contradicting impulses by performing public dissent.


Like all performances, the performance of public dissent occupies a designated stage (The Straits Times), has a recognizable expression (politely crafted letters), with specific actors (trusted civil servants) who stick to the script (by knowing their boundaries). Like all performances, this public dissent is presented to an audience; both Singaporeans and the international community.  


The performance of public dissent is a display of public debate, the clash of differing views and ideologies without threatening the PAP’s legitimacy and authority. Such performances offer contrary evidence to perceptions that the government is intolerant of critics.


This is not to say that Ngiam, Yeo, Lee, Koh and Desker are all knowing actors in the performance. Very often senior civil servants are able, indeed trained, to read the political climate. It may well be that they observed Ngiam’s early critical remarks of the government, note the government’s response (or lack of), and then tread accordingly. As social agents they operate in part on their own free will and on their personal convictions while simultaneously dissenting within the permissible limits set by the structures around them. Indeed, as performers of public dissent, they are endowed with symbolic capital (prestige and reputation) and feted by the local press with salutary descriptions like “independent minded”, “maverick”, “radical” and so on. Through a complex interplay of personal values, conviction, politics and institutional training, these civil servants are, knowingly or unknowingly, participants in these public performances.


Whether or not such performances are ultimately harmful to the political maturity of society depends on whether or not the PAP will grow enough in confidence to allow for public dissent from other actors from different walks of life and political orientations. If, through a series of such performances, the PAP builds the internal capacity to engage with criticism in a less robust manner, then it may develop a more sophisticated vocabulary to respond to other types of dissent instead of its usual sledge-hammer approach.


However, if such performances are merely for public consumption, and little else, then it’ll only be a matter of time before chronic cynicism sets in.


3 Responses to “The Performance of Public Dissent in Singapore”

  1. AlexM Says:

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. sushibar Says:

    You’ve just answered a question long bothering me, rather convincingly.

  3. Shane Says:

    This analysis is excellent. Answered a lot of questions for me too.

    I wonder though, then what is “true” or “non-performative” dissent? Is it only “people power” as one would call it? How can one tell, if one remains cynical, accept this as “true” and not just “performative” if the actors themselves may or may not be knowing actors? What comes to mind are the performative, political “mass protests” in the Philippines, where crowds are paid or encouraged by mass “effervescence” to turn up.

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