Lim: Don’t judge my country

As a graduate student originally from Singapore, I found Friday’s factually inaccurate front-page headline “Singapore jails dissident” (Nov. 5) distressing. While the error has been corrected (Shadrake has not yet been jailed), the headline’s distorted insinuations about my country remain.

To recap the facts of the case, contempt-of-court charges were filed against British author Alan Shadrake for suggesting that the judiciary was inconsistent in his book on the death penalty in Singapore. The court found him guilty of the above charges and will sentence him on Wednesday, supposedly to let him make any statement that may mitigate his sentence. Shadrake, a British — not Singaporean — author, may be considered a dissident in the sense of “one who disagrees,” but he is definitely not a political dissident the way we understand Nelson Mandela to be.

Many Singaporeans, myself included, are disappointed with the fact that charges were pressed against Shadrake. We also disagree with many political, social and journalistic restrictions that obstruct our maturing into a fully open society. Yes, the death penalty still exists in Singapore and so do Victorian-era laws against homosexual intercourse, much to our embarrassment. But as a democratic republic modeled on the British parliamentary system, we take pride in the integrity of our institutions. Singapore’s government is elected every four years, and its independent judiciary upholds due process. Shadrake’s verdict, however regrettable, was the outcome of such due process. The News’ provocative and sensational reporting insinuates otherwise.

The tendency for Western critics to paint Singapore’s ruling administration with the brushstroke of “an oppressive regime” is not new. It lets the holier-than-thou critic view the “other” with distaste and contempt from his moral cocoon sans engagement. Such broad brushstrokes are neither productive nor meaningful.

Those unfamiliar with Singapore’s history may be unaware of interracial and inter-religious riots that occurred, often stoked by culturally chauvinistic journalism in local ethnic presses. Nor would they know that certain draconian laws that today offend our liberal proclivities were then crucial to our political stability in face of communist subversives. These restrictive laws ironically safeguarded the multi-culturalism that we today take for granted. For example, many Singaporeans take pride in the fact that no Christian pastor in Singapore has the First Amendment right to burn the Quran.

Evolving into a mature society that guarantees all the rights we have here is a complex endeavor that takes time, work and patience. Every socio-political context is different: even the U.S. only achieved true universal franchise in the 1960s. With Singaporeans becomingly increasingly educated, Singapore will undoubtedly take strides forward in its liberalization. This is why an institution committed to rigorous open inquiry like the proposed Yale-NUS College is crucial in the engagement process, advancing the cause of openness by first liberating the mind.

I do not purport to defend my country’s record on certain aspects of political and press freedom, but I love my country and the values for which it stands. My taking offense is not unlike how Americans feel if they see their country misrepresented as an evil hegemon in the Islamic press, never mind the denial of habeas corpus to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Passing moral judgment on a nation through the narrow prism of one society’s values is not only unfair, but also hinders this University’s mission of international cooperation.

Ronald Lim is a student at the School of Architecture.


  • dissolutionkhan

    How did the report constitute “[p]assing moral judgment on a nation”? A judgment on my government (which is your government) is not a judgment on me; the party is not the people. “Oppressive regime” seems about right to me. I would be offended, in fact, if a North American did *not* take this view, for it would suggest that they think it’s fine for us to live under restrictions which they would find morally unjustifiable.

  • rr22

    Well-said, Mr. Lim.

  • River Tam

    Singapore doesn’t even have trial by jury. Author William Gibson once called it “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in a famous article in Wired magazine. Singapore responded by banning Wired from the country.

  • SY10

    Mr. Lim,

    I don’t oppose Yale creating a liberal arts college with the Yale name in Singapore because you have the death penalty for non-violent crimes, or because you have laws against homosexual intercourse, or because (in spite of the elections you tout) you essentially have single party rule and are considered by the Economist to have a hybrid regime (the third most democratic category out of four), though I very much wish your country would change its laws on all of those counts. What those of us criticizing Yale’s decision are upset about is that your country does not grant the academic freedom and freedom of speech necessary for an institution to live up to Yale’s mission. Yale prides itself on very expansive free speech protections for its faculty and students and considers those absolutely essential to its purpose. How then could we replicate Yale in a country where the university would be forced to tell its faculty and students to avoid criticism of the political and judicial system under which they lived in order to avoid prosecution? You tell us that we are misrepresenting what has happened to Mr. Shadrake because his trial properly followed due process. But due process is little comfort when it is used to enforce laws fundamentally incompatible with a free academic environment. I don’t doubt that he violated the laws he was convicted of violating, the problem is that those laws should not be on the books.

    I don’t oppose engagement with Singapore, nor am I painting with “broad brushstrokes” from my “moral cocoon” and you misrepresent critics of Yale’s plans when you accuse us of that. My criticism of Singapore is specific and limited to laws I think are incompatible with a liberal arts university’s mission. You cite concerns about preserving religious tolerance, but that is intentionally ignoring the full scope of Singapore’s laws suppressing freedom of speech. Many European countries place certain limits on the freedom of speech that don’t exist in the US (and that I generally oppose) but these are in fact limited to protecting minority rights from real threats. Germany, for instance, has laws banning Holocaust denial, but it certainly does not have laws banning criticism of its political or judicial system, as Singapore does. To show the effect of these laws in their totality, its worth noting that the Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore 136th out of 178 in freedom of the press, tied with Venezuela (noted for Hugo Chavez’s attempts to shut down all opposition news sources). None of this is to say I oppose any engagement with Singapore by Yale, but most of the goals of academic exchange and cooperation can be achieved without opening a campus in a foreign country.

  • robert99

    Don’t chew gum or spit on the sidewalk there!

  • martynsee

    My name is Martyn See, a Singaporean filmmaker. In 2005, I made a documentary about Dr Chee Soon Juan, the leader of a small opposition party. For that, I was investigated by the police, had my tapes confiscated, my mobile phone record probed whereby random friends and associates were rang up by the my investigating officer. Til today, some of them are afraid to call me. The charges were eventually dropped but had I been convicted, I would have to face a prison term of no more than two years or a fine of no more than S$100,000. All that for making a political film.

    I am not here to argue for or against Yale’s decision top set up a liberal arts college in my country. Frankly, it makes no difference to me, or to some of my activists friends (no more than a dozen), who are still facing charges brought upon by the State, ranging from assembly without permit or a screening a political film without a licence. Needless to say, there is a climate of fear and self-censorship in Singapore. And how does that square with Ronald Lim’s faith in the integrity of the judicial process is beyond me.

    I was born, educated and have lived all my life in Singapore. I love my country too, but I make a distinction between my country and the State. Unlike the State, I have absolute faith that the people of Singapore are discerning enough to watch political films, to conduct peaceful protests, to read anti-government literature, to vote sensibly in elections that are truly free and fair, and to put down any form of religious and racial extremism without intervention by the State.

    Indeed, Artcle 14 of our Constitution guarantees us freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, and the National Pledge that students in Singapore recite everyday says “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality.”

    In reality, however, the State practises little of it. Yes, we have elections every five years or six years, but I reckon half of the country has never casted a single vote in their lives because there has never been enough opposition candidates to contest all the seats. The ruling party has a rich history of suing opposition politicians during the elections.

    It is really not my intention here to go on ad infinitum about the hypocrisies of the Singapore political system. I’m just dropping in to present a view of someone who lives and breathes Singapore all my life.

    Martyn See

    Read also :
    The 3 tiers of censorship in Singapore

    A Chronology of Authoritarian Rule in Singapore

  • mike_tan

    It’s no longer an insinuation that “Singapore jails dissident”.

    Alan Shadrake has been sentenced to six weeks imprisonment, fined S$20,000 (US$15,400), and ordered to pay costs of S$55,000.


  • ageofprophet

    Hi Martyn,

    As a Singaporean, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The State has little regard for democracy and human rights. Surprised that Yale has signed an agreement with Singapore Government. It’s sad that a prestigious institution like Yale has decided to collaborate with a Government that gives scant regard to some of the values it holds dear.