Govt doesn’t depend on ‘calibrated coercion’

Oct 12, 2005

IN ‘MANAGING civil disobedience’ (ST, Oct 10), Dr Cherian George regretted that the PAP Government’s ‘calibrated approach to coercion’ and its self-restraint had made it harder for ‘pro-democracy activists – (to) remind Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation’.

He noted that ‘that is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)’s strategy of civil disobedience comes in’, and commended it as a ‘strategy (which) turns the state’s monopoly of force against itself’.

Dr George has mixed up several different issues. First, the Government does not depend on ‘calibrated coercion’, but derives moral authority precisely from what Dr George himself acknowledged – ‘an outstanding record in delivering the goods, internal discipline, ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans’.

Second, this record of good and clean governance depends on rigorously upholding the rule of law in a plural and democratic society.

The Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters, and whether through violent or non-violent means.

If a law is unjust, there are established avenues for reviewing and changing it. Neither Mr Chiam See Tong nor Mr Low Thia Khiang has had to resort to ‘civil disobedience’ or defamation in order to be elected as MPs.

Our defamation laws follow the English model, and keep our public discourse responsible and honest. Dr George described defamation civil suits as ‘the state’s weapon of choice’, but ministers can sue successfully only if they have been defamed, and they do so on a personal basis, not on behalf of the state.

Opposition MPs themselves have sued when they considered themselves defamed.

Third, zero tolerance for law breaking does not equate to zero tolerance for dissenting views. On the contrary, we encourage people to speak up and express their opinions on national policies and community life, so that out of the diversity of views a consensus can be forged, and a better decision made for the good of the nation.

Dr George’s critical article was published in The Straits Times, contradicting his own claims.

Of course, where criticism is directed against the Government, then the Government has to respond to it or rebut it, or else lose the argument and the respect of Singaporeans. This is what it did a decade ago in response to Dr Catherine Lim.

Such exchanges do not represent ‘PAP intolerance towards dissent’. They are part and parcel of public discourse in a democratic society.

Dr George is, however, right that the PAP has not ‘undergone a fundamental philosophical conversion towards liberal ideals’. He offered no supporting arguments or evidence why these are the right ideals for Singapore.

The Prime Minister has explained why he does not believe that liberal democracy as practised in the West will work here.

Singaporeans know that we have thrived on a different approach – the PAP has won every election since 1959 because it enjoys the trust and support of the people, governs in their interests, and involves citizens in the large issues that affect us all.

Chen Hwai Liang
Press Secretary to the Prime Minister

I humbly beg to differ that Dr Cherian George has mixed up several issues. While he acknowledged the fact that the PAP do derive “moral authority” from “an outstanding record in delivering the goods, internal discipline, ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans”, this does not mean the calibrated use of force and coercion does not exist. This utter denial of his arguments simply because she believes it to be so is a weak response to his theory; even “PAP leaders themselves are not coy about their macho side”. She should have explained why Dr Cherian George would have thought this to be so, if the situation was so clear and simple.

Her assumption that we are in a “plural and democratic society” is also debatable and highly contentious – why is it that reknown and intellectual thinkers such as Fareed Zakaria and Dr Cherian George himself continue to label our system as authoritarian single party state? Even Wikipedia says “Western democracies consider the form of government in Singapore to be closer to authoritarianism rather than true democracy”. Again she should reassess her choice of words in describing the true nature of governance in our country.

‘PAP intolerance towards dissent’ is not so much as responding to her Dr Catherine Lim’s higly politicised article, but more towards the treatment of her as a citizen making political opinions about the governance of Singapore. I wonder and pray hope that Dr Cherian George, after publishing his article, would not suffer from any political denouncements by the government or civil suits for that matter.

In the whole letter, what was obviously missing was any clear relation to the notion of “civil disobedience”. She avoids even using the phrase and only refers to it by linking it to the idea of “breaking the law” and that “the Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters, and whether through violent or non-violent means”, meaning that offenders will be dealt with, in any circumstances. If the PAP has the “moral authority” of the people, why is there talk of “civil disobedience”? She does not dealt with this either.

I just realised that Dr Cherian George’s article is in itself a form of “civil disobedience”. It forced the government to respond and it is up to us to decide whether it was a victory for the government or the opposition party and any other dissenting views. Its obvious to me that it was not a victory for the government because she had failed to adequately deal with various issues Dr Cherian George has highlighted in his article.

[Postscript: Please read Singapore classics to get a better understanding (or a lack of understanding) of the letter and the lack of connection of ideas between Ms Chen and Dr Cherian George. Very insightful! And here is Dr Cherian George’s personal response. Here is Ms Chen’s response to his letter. I decided to reproduce both of the responses in my comments since it will otherwise make this entry a mother long one.]


2 Responses to Govt doesn’t depend on ‘calibrated coercion’

  1. ~fatma says:

    hmm maybe sgp is a non-liberal democracy

  2. Libertas says:

    And this is Ms Chen’s response:

    Oct 14, 2005
    Don wasn’t non-partisan in his analysis

    DR CHERIAN George, in his letter ‘Govt shouldn’t equate analysis with advocacy’ (ST, Oct 13), regrets that the Government had ‘cast (his) article (‘Managing civil disobedience’; ST, Oct 10) in partisan terms’.

    His article states that it was ‘based on an academic paper on calibrated coercion’. This paper, titled ‘Calibrated coercion and the maintenance of hegemony in Singapore’, describes Singapore as an instance of ‘authoritarian rule’, declares that ‘the normative thrust of this essay is directed at democratisation’, and claims to offer a ‘sophisticated understanding of what makes certain kinds of authoritarian rule endure – the better to resist and challenge them’.

    These statements, which show Dr George’s true intention, were omitted from his Straits Times article, which was a sanitised version of his original paper. Is this being non-partisan?

    Dr George also denied that he had ‘commended’ the strategy of civil disobedience. He protested that a terrorism expert who explains the motivations of terrorists is pursuing academic research, and not siding with the terrorists.

    But if the expert goes further to suggest that there are good and legitimate reasons why a person has to resort to terrorism, that must be a different matter.

    Indeed, Dr George’s article did not directly commend civil disobedience. However, his attitude can clearly be inferred from its conclusion, which I quote:

    Mixed Blessing

    The contemporary scene of calibrated coercion is a mixed blessing for Singaporeans who want more freedom. This is bad news for pro-democracy activists, who consequently have a tough time reminding Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation. That is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)’s strategy of civil disobedience comes in. It is a predictable response to the PAP’s success at calibrated coercion.’

    I am, however, happy that Dr George has now clarified that, in his view, Singaporeans who want to press for change need to do so within the law.

    It is no surprise that critics of the Government, especially those who are academics, will want to portray themselves as being dispassionate observers who are above the fray.

    However, the Government’s response will depend on the substance of what they say, rather than the pose they strike.

    Chen Hwai Liang
    Press Secretary to Prime Minister

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