Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Letters to Press & Climate of Fear


What motivates your letter writing/public dialogue exploits?

I started writing letters to the press (and everyone else) in 1999.

At the end of my national service, I realised that my command of English had taken a beating. My grammar was twisted and my vocabulary was constipated.

It was thus, in the first instance, a bold (arguably, foolish) attempt to improve the language.

In the second instance, there was this fire in the belly, which my friends will tell you has grown over the years and one that I have been wanting to put out.

And finally, my Singaporean teachers used to tell me that I talk too much. I guess this was one way of taking the talk for a walk.

What does it take to be one - someone so involved in public dialogue - in Singapore?

Nothing. But, as you go down this less travelled road, the experience of those few that journey this far will show you why this is such a road less travelled.

Don't ever expect anything in return. Sometimes, it can cost you, not just your career but your future in Singapore too.

While such an unfortunate consequence, fortunately, is limited to a minority, it is enough to keep a majority of Singaporeans entranced in a climate of fear, to self-censor and sit on the fence.

And so dead are the famous E W Barkers, who in being pro-Singapore offered a contrarian perspective - no offence intended to this late founding father, of course.

How real is the fear "myth" in Singapore that prevents Singaporeans from speaking up, taking part?

The fear is real and near. Questions like "does he have a political agenda", "who is funding her work", "does he intend to join the opposition" or "is she with the Think Centre" are common parlance. Such veiled language is piercing enough to prevent Singaporeans from even thinking about constructive debate and participation.

However, once in a while, we can go far. For example, there is a conspiracy theory making its rounds right now.

The story goes like this: "All this talk about our new Prime Minister opening up Singapore is really a national attempt to identify those critical of present practices. Plus, former trusted civil servants are being encouraged to openly criticise policies so as to speed up the process of identification well before the General Elections are called. This information gathered will then be used to decide how best to re-draw the electoral boundaries to ensure a postive mandate for the ruling party."

Wow, what a theory indeed! I give credit to the creativity of the person that crafted this theory because some people are actually buying it.

Sigh... if only we could transplant some of this imagination into our economy, we'd be a crucible of innovation!

What are some of your pet peeve or points of pride about Singapore?

My areas of interest revolve around three themes - law, which is my first love; the media, which is my "in case the law dumps me"; and youth, which is the source of my energy!

Points of pride about Singapore:
1) After returning from London, the journey from Changi Airport to home in Jurong - very scenic;
2) Singlish;
3) Little India - "the land of darkness", as one MP infamously labelled; and
4) the Durian or Esplanade!

Give me a bit of your background - how long have you been writing letters, then why did you move on to writing commentaries and organising forums.

I moved on to writing commentaries, when I felt there was a dire need in Singapore to offer a Singaporean perspective that one doesn't normally read in the established national broadsheet. (Otherwise, the foreigners will keep throwing stones at your country, saying that there is no space to express a different perspective in Singapore!)

These were concerns that the then Sintercom editors shared, and these empowering revolutionaries paved the way by showing me that such space does exist.

I first started contributing to SG_Daily, a section of the old Sintercom that still survives.

Some of the commentaries that I posted here went on to be mirrored on other websites like Singapore Window and Littlespeck.Com. Then, I started writing for Today.

I still regularly contribute some articles to two alternative spaces: New Sintercom (Provided kindly by the anonymous New Sintercom Editor)and Big Trumpet Magazine (Provided kindly by NTUC Income).

As for organising forums, it is something that has come out naturally from my involvement in voluntary bodies like the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association and Insurance Law Assocation (Singapore). These forums have a professional bias.

With the relaxation of the public entertainment licensing legislation, I am now tinkering with the idea of organising a forum by youths for youths like me.

One of my friends even suggested that we organise a "talk-cock-sing-song" festival in Speakers' Corner!

Let's see where this tinkering takes me; it's in procrastination mode for now.

How would you describe the way critical feedback, especially, is taken by the civil service or government - warmly welcomed? barely tolerated? reluctantly considered? ignored? Or does it run the gamut, depending on the area of feedback?

When you speak to a fool, you are likely to come out thinking you were the greater fool. It is better, in such cases, to forget the fool. With some practice, as is true with any other skill, you will know who the fools are.

A person who is serious about hearing from you will listen to what you say. He will not ask about your background, unless you share that with him. He will respect you as a fellow human being. He will make detailed notes, rather than depend on another person to do it for him. He will engage or even challenge you. You will learn something from him and he will learn something from you. Soon after, you will know he paid attention to what you said because what you provided [to] him will become measurable outcomes.

That is the high standard my Member of Parliament, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has achieved. All Singaporeans - and not only those in the civil service or government - should aim to achieve this standard.

What - if anything - has been the most promising development in recent times, in terms of opening up the public space or citizen-official relationship? eg new PM, TODAY's presence, efforts to revamp civil service mindsets?

Without any doubt, the most promising development occurred when the founding father of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, stood before the political party that he has held together for 50 years and recognised the need for some chaos within the dominant party to enable it to stay relevant to Singapore.

I am positive that this one view will soon permeate the arteries of our nestling nation and fundamentally change the way this country operates. This may well be the mindset leap that takes us from "good to great".

Dharmendra Yadav