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.