When you are the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, there must be a compelling urge to defend the integrity of Singapore’s public institutions. Indeed, it appears to be exactly that task to which former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani dedicated many column inches in Saturday’s Straits Times, through a rambling piece that ranged from the escape of Mas Selamat to the death of Shane Todd via the spectre of rioting inspired by MRT breakdowns. It is hard to find a central theme that could turn this disjointed flotilla of an article into a meaningful intellectual force, but many words were dedicated to a cynicism detected in the blogosphere regarding Singapore’s public institutions.
Interestingly the former diplomat reserves his greatest (and least diplomatic) vitriol for the actions of certain US politicians in pushing for FBI oversight in the Shane Todd case – asserting without any evidence, and in spite of the apparent errors committed by the SPF – that our local police are at least, if not more competent than the FBI. In supporting the SPF, Mr Mahbubani cleverly chose the Shane Todd case – one where the reliable bogey man of foreign interference in local affairs could be deployed in a bid to divert attention from the failings of local institutions. On a more local basis however there are many cases, both recent and older, where Singaporeans have been let down by institutions that took or failed to take actions in a manner that appears to defy rational explanation.
Considering the SPF, just in the last few months we have had the case of alleged soccer match fixer Dan Tan, a man for whom an arrest warrant has been served on Singapore by Interpol, but yet a man who remains free to walk our streets. We have also had the case of local documentary maker Lynn Lee whom the SPF saw fit to question for eight hours – dissecting her mobile phone and laptop in the process, not because she had been accused of or witnessed any crime, but apparently because she reported that suspects in the recent SMRT strike had been mistreated in police custody. Going back in time we have the well documented “Denise He” incident on cooling off day in the last general election wherein PAP candidate Tin Pei Ling escaped punishment not only for apparently campaigning on the day before polling, but more seriously for not declaring the elusive Ms He as an online administrator – both of which are clear violations of election regulations. On the theme of elections we also have the Straits Times poll conducted in the run up to the Punggol East by-election – another act in violation of election laws.
On the topic of election legislation, we also had the case in 1997 where Goh Chok Tong (now Senior Minister Emeritus), Dr Tony Tan (now President) and Lee Hsien Loong (now Prime Minister) were found within a polling station at Cheng San, apparently in violation of a rule preventing non-candidates from being within 200m of a polling station, but wherein it was ruled by the Attorney General that no offence had been committed since being in a place is not the same as being within 200m of that place.
Mr Mahbubani has clearly neglected to consider the obvious hypothesis that cynicism is a natural and understandable response of Singaporeans to institutional failures over the course of many years. Indeed – Singaporeans who seek out sources of information more reliable than our mainstream media can surely cite plenty of cases beyond those mentioned above. In light of this, where is the middle ground we are urged to seek between online media and mainstream media? Considering Singapore’s mainstream media is ranked less free than that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia by Reporters Without Borders, it seems clear that the middle ground does not involve taking the output of Singapore Press Holdings or Mediacorp without industrial quantities of salt per paragraph. Rather, alternative media is an essential source of information for open-minded citizens to inform themselves of the reality of life in Singapore – a source of information for the most part free of government interference with respect to what can and cannot be published.
Unfortunately the power of online media is also its curse. The infinitesimal barrier to entry it presents to any aspiring commentator means it is certainly possible for all sorts of rubbish to be published online, and on occasions rubbish it certainly is. The question is whether Singaporeans at large are wise and thoughtful enough to accept and reject not just media sources, but competing thoughts and ideas by analysing them on their merits. If Mr Mahbubani has any faith in his fellow citizens – the ones he spent over thirty years representing overseas in his career with the Foreign Ministry and at the United Nations – then he knows the answer to this. That Singaporeans reject the mainstream media in favour of online sources in ever-increasing numbers is proof positive of their discerning attitude.
If Mr Mahbubani would like to protect and strengthen the local institutions he clearly cares so much about, it would be wise for him to engage in a more frank assessment of their successes and failures, their strengths and weaknesses. It is clear to me that reforms are needed. Greater accountability for failure – for example in the Mas Selamat case – would help to restore trust. Greater transparency with respect to various cases that have dragged on without resolution until they are quietly forgotten would also represent progress. We also need to look for greater independence in certain organisations from political oversight – even if that oversight is only nominal. That CPIB and the Elections Department come under the PM’s Office is not appropriate and the dean of a “School of Public Policy” should recognise this better than anyone. Greater independence would surely improve trust.