Koh and Goh present important differences for S’pore’s future

Chee Soon Juan

I made my way to the National Press Club in Washington, DC on the morning of 18 May 2004 to attend a talk organised by the Asia Foundation. The subject of discussion was the role of the US in Asia. One of three speakers on the panel was Singapores ambassador-at-large, Professor Tommy Koh.

Mr Koh had spoken on the need for the US to become more engaged in Southeast Asia and for it to be even more supportive now that the fight against terrorism in the region has taken centre stage. Among some of the efforts the US should encourage and support, Mr Koh added, was empowering women, practising the rule of law, ensuring independence of the judiciary, and pushing for free and fair elections.

At the end of the presentations, I asked a question. I directed Mr Kohs attention to the fact that among the list of reforms he cited, which were all necessary ingredients for a democratic society, he had left out another prerequisite: free media. The speaker sitting next to him, the ambassador from India, nodded in agreement.

I highlighted the recent survey conducted by the Freedom House in which only 7 percent of countries in Asia were considered free as far as press freedom was concerned. (As Singapore held itself up as the model for Asia) I wondered what Professor Koh thought of the media control in Singapore.

To back up what I said, I cited the following facts: Singapore was ranked dismally in global surveys of media freedom and our prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, has been named a Predator of Press Freedom by Reporters Without Borders, together with numerous dictators of the world.

Mr Koh responded that he did not disagree with me that a building a free media was an important part of Southeast Asias efforts to bring democracy to the region. He stated that he was not there to defend the Singapore Governments stand on the media but added that, speaking as a representative of Southeast Asia, he agreed that a free media was important to the regions continued development.

He did not answer my question, at least not directly. Nevertheless, it was a diplomatic answer and, given his position, the ambassador had said as much as he could without incurring the wrath of his Singaporean employers.

Now contrast Mr Kohs response to the reaction of PM Goh a couple of weeks ago when the latter was in Washington. Mr Tommy Koh acted with professional aplomb while the prime ministers reaction was adolescent.

It is true that Mr Koh is a diplomat while Mr Goh is a politician and doesnt need to observe ambassadorial niceties. But the PM forgets that when he visits another country he is not only the head of government but also the diplomat-in-chief. He had presented a very dim but accurate picture of the ruling elite in Singapore.

Mr Tommy Koh and I exchanged pleasantries following the session and departed as friends. Although we may not see eye to eye on many issues there was never any doubt that we respected each others points of view.

There is much the PAP can learn about politics in a civilized and democratic world. Debate and dissent occupy an important place in a modern society. Not everyone who disagrees with you is your mortal enemy. This is antiquated Lee Kuan Yew thought that younger generations of PAP leaders, for the good of our nations future, must reject.