The PAP’s Arbitrary Line between ‘Critic’ and ‘Friend’

August 13, 2008


If ever a student of Singapore politics needed examples of the PAP government’s inconsistency in dealing with the “West” or “critics” the contrasting cases of John Kampfner and Fareed Zakaria is a prime one.


On 1 July 2008, Kampfner, a British writer wrote a piece in The Guardian entitled “The New Authoritarianism”. In it he lamented that highly educated and well traveled people were increasingly happy to trade their personal freedoms for security and prosperity. According to Kampfner:

The model for this is Singapore, where repression is highly selective. It is confined to those who take a conscious decision openly to challenge the authorities. If you do not, you enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as you wish, and – perhaps most important – to make money. Under Lee Kuan Yew, this city-state built on a swamp has flourished economically.


This article was reproduced in the local newspaper TODAY. The response from the PAP government was predictable. Singapore’s High Commissioner in London, Michael Teo, wrote a rebuttal letter to the British broadsheet. In his letter Teo observed:

 Had our system not consistently benefited the vast majority of citizens…the ruling party would have been voted out of office long ago […] Some in the West like John Kampfner feel a calling to go forth and convert the heathen to Western liberal democracy. But the true test is what works in the real world, with real societies. […] To worship a Western model as the only way, and dismiss all other solutions as authoritarian or undemocratic, is surely the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.

 (The Straits Times, “Spore ticks of British writer over article”, 17 July 2008 )


Teo’s ‘anaesthetic’ reference was a shot at Kampfner’s own conclusion: “A modern form of authoritarianism, quite distinct from Soviet Communism, Maoism or Fascism, is being born. It is providing a modicum of a good life, and a quiet life, the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.”



Contrast this with the case of Fareed Zakaria who gave an exclusive interview to The Straits Times (5 July 2008). The article noted that:

He [Zakaria] applauds the Republic’s ‘very clever’ forays into such areas as tourism, film-making and software design. And all this, on top of managing good relations with both the United States and China, he notes admiringly.

But he adds that Singapore is the only rich country in the world without a fully functioning multi-party democracy. That will hobble its advance in the long run, he believes, because people ‘want not only economic rights, but also freedom of association, freedom of speech and freedom of thought’.

Is this not a clear championing of “Western liberal democracy”? Had Zakaria not, by implication, in Teo’s words “dismiss[ed] all other solutions as authoritarian or undemocratic”? Worse still, Zakaria went further to suggest that PAP leaders were out of touch with young Singaporeans. The article goes on to say:

[Zakaira] adds: ‘That, in some ways, is the genius of democracy. It turns the relationship between governed and governors into a two-way street, and that will make for a much greater degree of sense of loyalty and pride in Singapore for the next generation.’He muses: ‘It’s funny: Whenever I meet senior Singapore government officials, I will sometimes mention this. And they’ll go: ‘Oh, no, no, it’s not a real problem, don’t worry.’ And I’ll say: ‘You know, younger Singaporeans do feel frustrated.’ And they’ll say: ‘Oh, I don’t know if you are right about that.’      

‘And then, as I’m escorted out by one of the young aides to the senior government officials, they will tell me: ‘By the way, Dr Zakaria, you are 100 per cent right. We are very frustrated’.’

‘And these,’ he notes, ‘are people in the heart of the political structure.’

If this is not a clear interference in local politics, I don’t know what is. But the amazing thing is that there was not a single squeak from the PAP government over the Zakaria piece. No angry rebuttal letter, no demand for apology, no self-righteous hubris. (We can only guess if the editors at ST were privately chastised by the powers that be for not exercising some judicious self-censorship.)




One possible reason is Zakaria’s status. He is the editor of Newsweek International and is included in Foreign Policy‘s Top 100 Public Intellectuals list . Zakaria’s op-eds are deeply influential within the sphere of American geopolitics. The PAP government simply cannot afford to piss him off.


Another could be that Zakaria has, in his book From Wealth to Power, expressed (albeit qualified) admiration for the “Singapore model”. Could his admiration have saved him from an angry government response? If so, do critics have to kiss the arse first before kicking it?


Such double standards from the PAP government are not uncommon.


In January 2008, the Singapore Police banned the Singapore Complaints Choir’s foreign members from singing complaints alongside Singaporeans. The official reason was that local issues and problems should be the sole preserve of Singaporeans and not foreigners. This tawdry piece of reasoning is further sunk when one reads Neil Humphrey’s (a British humourist) columns on everyday Singapore life carried by both TODAY and The Straits Times.


The PAP government decides for itself who has crossed the line in criticizing Singapore. There is no fixed or transparent criteria in the decision-making process. It is all very likely that the only criterion used is the raw sensitivity of conservative civil servants and ministers. And as long as the subjective thresh-hold of high ranking individuals to barbs and critique continues to be sole criterion, we are going to see a lot more of such double standards. 


One Response to “The PAP’s Arbitrary Line between ‘Critic’ and ‘Friend’”

  1. sushibar Says:

    spot on.

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