the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.

  • “…cut lines out of scripts…”
    Made me laugh a bit.
    I definitely see validity in the self-censorship argument. I wonder if, to a certain extent, people know how frustrating it can be to do things against the grain in Singapore. Not in the sense of worrying about legal reactions, but rather just not wanting to create more work for themselves. I hesitate to call it laziness, because it’s not really that… but I’m having trouble thinking of a better word.