Silence of the lions

Stanislaus Jude Chan
The Irrawaddy

“Chewing gum is banned in Singapore?” a curious friend in Bangkok asked. Encouraged by my nod, she cautiously probes: “What happens when you get caught, death sentence?”

You laugh. Perhaps the question was almost child-like in its naivety. But it highlights the far-reaching reputation of a government that freely dishes out harsh penalties for every imaginable “crime.” The result is no laughing matter: a climate of fear that looms over citizens—and foreigners—like a hangman’s noose.

And it is this fear—of political and social repercussion—that makes the life of a journalist in Singapore, well, challenging. Few Singaporeans are willing to be interviewed for stories on issues such as human rights, politics and civil society.

They call this the Lion City. But the quickest way to shut a Singaporean up and turn his roar into a feeble squeak is to shove a microphone to his face and tell him you are a reporter.

For example, in a story on the social impact of the casinos unveiled this year, the simple task of gathering a couple of voices from visitors took longer than expected. Two hours longer than expected, to be exact. And I understand the sentiments of the 37 people—yes, I keep count—who declined to be interviewed. The casinos, or integrated resorts, are far from being socially acceptable here, and not many people want to be associated as, or mistaken to be, one of the “problem gamblers.”

At the sidelines of a press conference on Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s visit to Burma, I thought I had hit the journalists’ jackpot when a feisty old man went on a juicy 20-minute tirade on Burma’s political and economic situation.

“Quote me, and I’ll sue you,” he added, just as he walked away. It was cruel, having to put on my what-you-are-saying-is-most-interesting face and sit through all that ranting, only to find it rendered completely useless.

In an article on the issues surrounding Singapore’s mandatory death penalty, it was close to impossible to find anyone with an opinion and who was willing to be quoted on it. Indeed, Singaporeans have been silenced, whipped into believing that apathy is the key to our economic well-being, and that we will be punished if we stick our necks out with views contrary to those prescribed by the government. It is more than individuals who face the gallows; it is freedom of expression itself that has been put to death.

While the silence makes a journalist’s job difficult, it lessens the workload of the government in dealing with dissent. And Singapore has been hard at work in reinforcing its no-nonsense image. In July alone, at least four transgressions against freedom of expression have been recorded.

Alan Shadrake, a 75-year-old British journalist, was arrested and charged with alleged criminal defamation after the launch of his book, “Once a Jolly Hangman,” a critical review of Singapore’s capital punishment laws which includes exclusive interviews with the state’s former chief executioner.

“Free speech is an endangered species in Singapore,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s sadly predictable that the government did not hesitate to threaten prosecution, fines, and imprisonment against an author whose views run contrary to its own.”

Shafie Goh, a veteran photojournalist with the Chinese-language daily Lianhe Wanbao, was handcuffed and briefly detained by police, for snapping photographs of partially submerged cars trapped in a flood. In response to media queries, authorities claimed Goh was handcuffed for his “personal safety.”

A video of a speech by former political detainee Dr. Lim Hock Siew, who had been imprisoned for 19 years without trial under the Internal Security Act, was banned and ordered to be removed from Internet websites.

And—perhaps no longer news because of the regularity of government action against him—opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan was slapped with a 5,000  Singapore dollar (US $3,670) fine for speaking publicly without a license during the lead-up to the 2006 elections. Meanwhile, Chee’s Singapore Democratic Party has urged the Ministry for Communication, Information and the Arts to expedite the renewal of the license for the political party’s newspaper, which is more than three months overdue.

The Singapore government treats dissent with the same tactic it does drug trafficking: with an iron fist, to make an example of a few in the hope that it will deter others from even the thought of trying.

On the flip side of the coin, the fact that there are even a few voices that dare speak out provides a beacon of hope to illuminate the darkness.

In writing my news articles, I have found it a daunting task to find even a few sources. But while it is near impossible, it is not yet impossible. It just takes more effort, a lot more time and a whole lot more arm-twisting.

And as long as there are the few who have things to say and are willing to talk, my job as a journalist here is not quite over.

It is a running joke, among my Singaporean friends, that I will eventually end up behind bars for voicing my opinions. Such is the power of an oppressive regime, where reporting the truth could well be one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

While the invitation to write under a pseudonym is tempting, it is one I must humbly decline. I could never face myself in the mirror, if I choose to hide behind a pen name, especially in a commentary on the gagging of Singaporeans.

But, hang on now, while I cast a furtive look over my shoulder, and please, don’t quote me on this.


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