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The Minister Mentor has done it again. His victim this time? A cub reporter from Reuters by the name of Melanie Lee.
Ms Lee had asked the Minister how he expected the society to become cultivated given the restriction on civil liberties in Singapore.
Earlier at a conference at the Suntec Convention Centre, Mr Lee told the audience that Singapore could reach a level of cultural development comparable to Italy and Austria in 10 to 15 years. (An interesting choice of countries given that one was home to a fascist named Mussolini and the other the birthplace of Adolf Hitler).
Instead of getting a straightforward answer, however, the 23-year-old journalist was given an earful by the Mentor on how Singapore had made it without a free press.
This prompted Ms Lee to ask how it could be done when there is limited freedom of expression in Singapore, unlike the two European countries he had mentioned.
How dare she talk back to our Leader? According to one of the mentored ministers, Mr George Yeo, this was boh-tua-bo-suay which, according to my Chinese colleagues, was a reprimand that parents used on their children when they were disrespectful. Ms Lee didn’t seem to know her place in society.
Appropriately goaded, the bull charged. “What school did you go to?”
“Why does that matter?” the Reuters reporter countered.
She did it again! The cheek! The audacity! The courage.
This was vintage Lee who, when faced with a gutsy youth refusing to just nod her head in cowardly agreement whenever the Leader launches into hyperbolic nonsense, gets personal and outright insulting.
This is not first time Mr Lee Kuan Yew has bullied local reporters who show some semblance of independent thinking. A few weeks before the general elections in 2006, another enthusiastic reporter, Mr Ken Kwek, was harangued by the Minister for saying that there is widespread fear among Singaporeans towards the authoritarian rule of the PAP.
Mr Kwek was one of a handful of carefully screened participants in a so-called televised discussion with Mr Lee as the guest on the forthcoming 2006 elections.
Refusing to answer the question, Mr Lee repeatedly asked the young Straits Times reporter to disclose the names of those in the newspaper survey who had said that “fear” was a major factor when it came to politics in Singapore.
Mr Kwek is, perhaps not surprisingly, no longer with the newspaper.
Mr Lee may revel in the fact that he has just beaten up another young reporter and put him in his place. Good for him.
But what may be a thrill for the MM, is a loss for Singapore. There are countless others who, like Mr Kwek, have found the local media culture so distasteful that they have decided its just not worth it and packed up.
I am certain that in the future there will be many more young Singaporeans who want to experience firsthand the excitement of journalism but only to realize the hard reality that there is no such thing in PAP land.
I have been told that “self-loathing” is not a scarce emotion running through the rooms and hallways of a spanking building in Toa Payoh they call the News Centre. Given the kind of stuff that goes on in there, I know because I was one of them once upon a time, one shouldn’t be surprised.
How do you stand tall when the newspaper you write for is constantly questioned for its integrity? The ranking it gets from the World Press Freedom Index of 140-something must hang like a dead albatross around its neck.
Ironically, it is young people like Melanie Lee and Ken Kwek who understand why Singapore is stuck in such political and cultural backwardness. They may not say it, but the one thing that is holding back the country is the very octogenarian seated in front of them.
The truth of the matter is that a free media throws up ideas and brings into sharp focus contrary views needed to propel Singapore into a level of cultural development equal to that of Italy and Austria.
Does Mr Lee Kuan Yew know that what he’s doing is hurting the country? Maybe, maybe not. Does he care? Not one iota.
Mr Ambalam is Chairman of the Singapore Democrats. He is a former journalist.