Cherian George, professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, gave the keynote speech at The Substation’s “Space, Spaces and Spacing 2020” Conference on 21 March 2020. The Substation, an independent arts centre, turns 30 this year. George’s keynote launched his book, Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited, an anthology that marks 30 years of his writing about Singapore. This is the text of his talk.
In keeping with the theme of this conference I’m going to try to answer a seemingly simple question: whether political space has widened or constricted over the past three decades.
Some countries have undergone dramatic transformations in that period. Indonesia post-Suharto and East Germany post-unification come to mind. Political change in Singapore has been more ambiguous, more open to interpretation. Here’s one perspective, which I first saw on TV in Hong Kong a couple of years ago:
I must say I found it quite stirring. Even after discounting for the slick ad-agency treatment, the “Passion Made Possible” brand does reflect a certain truth about a dynamic, culturally vibrant Singapore. I’m sure some of you at the Substation today have personally benefited, or know others who have benefited, from the opportunities Singapore now offers to pursue our passions.
As consumers, too, it’s undeniable that our intellectual, cultural and lifestyle horizons have widened over the past 30 years. In 1990, we didn’t even have cable TV, let alone smartphones to watch Ted Talks or cat tricks. Many of what we now consider icons on our cultural scene weren’t around in 1990: Wild Rice, Singapore Repertory Theatre, Films by Jack Neo or Eric Khoo, Singapore Art Museum, Esplanade, or my publisher Ethos Books.
For many individuals in the creative industries, more than was the case 30 years ago, passion is not just possible, it’s been made profitable – proving wrong the many sceptics who doubted that a society as closed as Singapore could develop into an arts and media hub.
But there are others for whom the slogan rings hollow. For some of us, Singapore is passion made punishable.
So should we feel lucky to live in a period offering unprecedented choice and autonomy? Or bemoan life in a city of fear, of infantilising authoritarian control and rampant self-censorship?
Both feelings are objectively justifiable. And this is a contradiction built into the design of 21st century authoritarianism, not just in Singapore but all around the world.
Influenced by George Orwell’s 1984 and similar depictions of dictatorship, we tend to that assume authoritarian rulers seek total, uncompromising mind control. But we should recall that Orwell was reacting to the horrors of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Not long after, Chairman Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution in China.
So, yes, there was once a time when the great dictators sought absolute control and punished “thoughtcrime”. But even by the 1980s, late socialism in the communist countries of Eastern Europe and China had evolved. And today’s authoritarian leaders, even in China, understand that total ideological control is neither possible nor necessary. Censorship is applied strategically, such that most of the people don’t feel it most of the time. For more than a decade, political scientists and media scholars studying Chinese censorship have been telling us about the Communist Party’s sophisticated use of carrots and sticks, of wide liberalisation coupled with targeted censorship — and how this is a more robust formula than Mao’s all-consuming and ultimately self-destructive vision.
In Singapore, similarly, the PAP employs a differentiated and discriminating approach to managing the space for self-expression and self-actualisation. This helps explain why the system has been pretty resilient. It also accounts for why the creative class – including artists and intellectuals – is internally divided; why it’s difficult to build solidarity around causes like artistic, media and academic freedom. When we understand that many in this class already find passion possible and even profitable, it’s less of a surprise that they feel unmoved by the plight of the minority for whom passion is punishable.
Three types of dialogue
To make sense of this mixed picture, it helps to think in terms of three different kinds of communicative practice — three types of dialogue or exchange, each connecting with democracy in a different way, and therefore regulated differently from the others.
First, there’s what I’d call privatised exchange. I don’t mean private — what goes on in a closed Facebook group, for example. By privatised I mean that participants in this kind of exchange, including big events open to members of the public, are activated as individual consumers in a market. The vast majority of arts events in any country are of this sort. So is most media consumption and, sadly, most of what goes on in higher education.
This is a space that was totally subjugated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in order to crush its bourgeois, counter-revolutionary tendencies. It’s now allowed and even actively encouraged to blossom in China and other 21st century authoritarian states. In Singapore, privatised exchange has boomed, thanks to rising education levels and a large middle class with discretionary income to spend on culture and entertainment. Singaporean “content creators” who feel self-actualised by serving this growing demand can find their passion profitable.
The second field is what I’d call community conversations. Here, we find the sharing of information and ideas within like-minded groups, defined by their cultural identity or special interests. This would include most civil society groups, religious organisations, professional associations, and various other communities of practice. Political scientists would say these are what put the “plural” in a pluralist democracy; these groups include what public sphere theorists might call counter-publics.
The fate of these in-group conversations in Singapore has been mixed. Overall, we’ve seen an exponential growth in civil society activity over the past 20 years. In many cases, government officials have been happy to engage directly with these communities. These groups have been allowed to do public outreach. But only if they remain apolitical, which in practical terms means they must stay within their narrow sectoral domains, and not contradict the government in their public communication. Overall, Singaporeans who are content to remain play by these rules within this sphere will probably find that passion is possible.
The third type of communication is the one that’s most problematic. This is what democratic theorists call public deliberation. This is the kind of interaction that’s definitive of democratic life. It’s where citizens engage vertically with institutions of power, as well as horizontally with one another. In a diverse society, here is where different communities become a community of communities. It’s where we develop essential democratic skills like negotiation and compromise, and where we form public opinion.
Deliberation applies the lessons of the Scientific Revolution, the Democratic Revolution, and the Human Rights Revolution. These teach us how to deal with contentious issues that are complicated by clashing values and interests: not by referring to tradition or status, and not through violence or money, but through reason and principle, through an open exchange of ideas, referring to the best available evidence, and taking care to draw out the voices of groups that have been silenced by historical or economic disadvantages but whom we need to hear.
Public deliberation is the mode of communication that is most tightly policed in Singapore. The government is more comfortable with separate community conversations, because it can then play the role of referee between communities. It can say, well, there are liberals, conservatives, and a silent majority — so we your leaders will decide where the popular will really stands. A thriving practice of horizontal deliberation, where groups negotiate compromises among themselves, threatens the PAP’s elite-led democracy.
This deliberative space is not to be confused with the political sphere, where decisions are made by those who have the constitutional authority and electoral mandate to do so. The public sphere has influence but doesn’t on its own exercise any legal authority. Nevertheless, it challenges the PAP’s preferred system of executive dominance.
In 1971, Lee Kuan Yew said that press freedom has to be “subordinate to the primacy of purpose of an elected government“. This principle has relevance beyond the media. It is imposed on all the institutions that would ordinarily animate public deliberation through the exercise of public reason: from unions to universities, professional bodies, civic organisations and arts groups.
These groups’ potential to shape the national conversation organically is anathema to a governing elite that fundamentally believes that nobody else should set the agenda. The PAP argues that it needs to interrupt deliberation in the interest of efficient governance, and that it’s improper for unelected groups to pressure an elected government. It thus tries to apply the logic of the political sphere (the realm of power, of formal decision making by elected representatives) to the public sphere (the space for open deliberation and reason). By conflating the public sphere and the political sphere, it has successfully claimed ownership of a space that should be treated as a commons.
The typology I’ve outlined helps us to understand how the arts, media and academia are managed, both at the organisational and individual levels. At the organisational level, we know that there are strong inducements to stay within your functional niche and disincentives for playing a wider role within the sphere of public deliberation.
Thus, nature and heritage conservation groups are fine if they generate lively community conversations, but not so welcome when they encroach into the public deliberation space. In academia, universities receive strong government support for pursuing globally recognised excellence, combined with disincentives for playing leading roles in public deliberation. The boundaries are marked with somewhat arbitrary labels. If it’s kosher, it’s called research impact, if it’s not, it’s called activism, agitation or partisan politics.
I argue in my book that government tolerance for public deliberation has actually declined since the 1990s. The public sphere is now guarded more jealously, especially since the 2011 general election gave the PAP a scare. As Singaporeans become more politicised, and more economically and technologically empowered, and knowing that most online discussion slips through regulators’ fingers, the government has tightened its grip on the public sphere.
So it’s after 2011 that you see the first defamation suits against individual bloggers. Also unprecedented is the use of criminal defamation to punish bloggers – the editor and a writer for the The Online Citizen are currently on trial.
Also since 2011, we’ve seen The Straits Times more micromanaged. Some Singaporean scholars say this is no big deal, because we now have online blogs and social media, but such comments betray an ignorance of the media’s different roles. As sites for self-expression and for privatised exchange, yes, unregulated speech on the internet makes The Straits Times redundant, but the mainstream media still play a disproportionate, indeed unique, role as spaces for public deliberation. That’s what’s threatened by increasing self-censorship and government intervention.
As part of this same trend, you now see the heads of academic departments advising faculty to get the head’s approval before inviting controversial speakers to their classes. This is new. In my 10 years at NTU, I never heard such a request. In fact, the last time I met J.B. Jeyaretnam, it was when a colleague of mine who taught media law invited the opposition figure to come to his class and talk about his experiences with defamation.
One example from the arts is actually related to my book launch. My publisher was originally thinking of launching the book two weeks ago at the BuySingLit festival, but discovered that the organisers were not allowing any non-fiction launches on the programme. BuySingLit is funded by the National Arts Council, and given the NAC’s publicly stated disapproval of works that they consider to be undermining the authority of government , I’m not surprised that BuySingLit decided to limit book launches to fiction titles.
But the most eloquent statement of government sensitivities may be the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s Arts Entertainment Classification system. Noting that classification allows people to make informed viewing choices, IMDA provides consumer advice to parents and teachers so that they can protect the young from content that may be harmful to or unsuitable for them.
Predictably, the “Mature Content” classification covers plays with “sexual verbal references”, “racially/religiously charged language”, “use of expletives”, and of course “depictions of issues or lifestyles which are contrary to prevailing social norms” — we know what that means.
But what is more surprising is that — although not mentioned in the general principles outlined in its classification policy — IMDA also slaps the Mature Content label on plays that are simply political. For example:
- GRC (Teater Ekamatra, 2015) — “Some mature content: exploration of socio-political issues”.
- Dim Sum Dollies 2 (Dream Academy, 2014) — “Some mature content: satirical socio-political references”
- Manifesto (The Necessary Stage, 2016) — “Some mature content: exploration of socio-political issues”
- Fear of Writing (Theatreworks, 2011) — “Some mature content: presents the characters’ perspectives on the issue of freedom of expression, with references to the situation of political apathy and self-censorship in Singapore”
The final example is especially interesting. Tan Tarn How writes a play about our inability to talk about politics, and the government responds that we shouldn’t be talking about our inability to talk about politics. This is a case of reality outpacing satire.
Singapore must be the only non-communist country in the world where public bodies regulating and funding the arts treat exposure to politics as if it were sex or profanity.
What we’re witnessing are creeping, stealthy shifts in the rules of engagement, adding up to a transformation of our political culture: an allergy to political controversy, to “speaking out of turn“, institutionalised within the bureaucracies running the arts, media and academia.
I would go so far as to say that if the Substation did not already exist, and if a Kuo Pao Kun tried to propose one today, the current government would reject the idea. The Substation came to being during a small window of opportunity from the late 80s to the mid-90s, which has since closed.
Controlling public deliberation isn’t only about shepherding organisations like arts groups and universities. The government also has a plan for individuals — especially relevant in the arts and civil society, which tend to be organised around influential individuals more than corporate entities. Here again, we’d be missing something important if we imagined that the government operates with a crude binary: you’re either with us or against us. The political management of Singapore’s creative and intellectual talent is more sophisticated than that.
There’s no requirement that everyone join the PAP choir. You can sing from your own songbook, as long as your voice doesn’t compete with the government’s. Although the authorities can rely on various repressive laws to keep individuals in check, the vast majority in creative and intellectual endeavours are not really at risk of imprisonment or detention.
What most of us actually fear is exclusion. Losing the state’s approval can have material costs in terms of contracts, commissions, and employment. The power of patronage has been a reality in every society, throughout history. But it is truer of Singapore because we are so small and centralised, with limited alternative sources of support.
Instead of a praise-or-punish binary, the government places us on a spectrum. I started thinking about this when an American journalist contacted me about a story she was doing on comic book artist Sonny Liew. She knew he’d made the government unhappy, and that they’d withdrawn his grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; but he’s still allowed to work in Singapore, was celebrated in mainstream media, and didn’t go to jail. She was trying to make sense of these mixed signals.
Clearly, the government doesn’t only have a black list and a white list. It seems there’s also a grey list….
But let’s deal with the black and white first. If you’re blacklisted, it means you don’t qualify for any public sector employment, grants or commissions. In the worst case scenario, the authorities will go out of their way to trip you up legally. Mainstream media will be marshalled to demonise you. You’ll be branded as persona non grata, and any organisation that dares to express support for you will lose political capital. So this becomes a powerful form of shunning – a means to isolate you, even from your own community of practice.
An example of this dynamic is when the government refused to accept a single one of the 22 names that Arts Engage proposed to sit on the Censorship Review Committee. This was an extraordinary rebuff for what was then the arts sector’s most representative network. Insiders tell me that the reason why Arts Engage was given the cold shoulder was that they’d had the temerity to include among the 22 names, Martyn See and Seelan Palay, two individuals who were clearly on the government’s blacklist.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find individuals on the white list, or what the Soviets would have called the nomenklatura. They do not have to be card-carrying members of the PAP. They just have to be reliably apolitical, accepting without question the government’s authority to set the agenda in the political realm. If you are on the white list, you can be safely appointed to various oversight bodies, such as the National Arts Council or Mediacorp boards. In academia and the media, only those on the white list will be given leadership positions.
It’s the grey list that I find most interesting, because this is where many people I know and respect reside. As a grey list member, you may be invited to give your views on certain matters, but you’ll always be kept at an arm’s length. Unlike those on the white list, you won’t get a permanent seat at the table. You may be put on ad-hoc committees at the most, or receive invitations to closed-door dialogues at the Institute of Policy Studies or other establishment forums.
Those on the grey list can benefit from government largesse, through employment, grants, public sector commissions, and subsidised art space – and perhaps this is what puzzles observers who expect more totalitarian behaviour on the part of the state. But a place on the grey list is not as comfortable as it may look, because grey-listers can never take their benefits for granted. It’s always conditional on continued good behaviour.
There are many shades of grey, and individuals are constantly moving between swatches. Even if you are neither radical enough to be black-listed nor conservative enough to turn white, your precise position on the grey list is always fluid. If you become too political, you will receive a polite reminder of your dependent status. If you persist, you could get turned down the next time you need something from the state.
The benefits you seek needn’t be financial and needn’t be for yourself. Social entrepreneurs often require access to officials and cooperation from government departments in order to roll out projects that serve their community and the wider public. This is why many friends on the grey list – whether artists, journalists, academics or civil society activists – need to be sensitive to where they stand on the spectrum. They have to pay attention to signals from the establishment, such as whether they are consulted on some government policy, whether The Straits Times is willing to publish their letter or op-ed, and whether they get invited to a community event. It’s not about vanity, or because they crave the government’s approval. How they are perceived will determine if their passion is indeed possible.
This perpetual sense of precarity is a powerful disciplining force. It explains why grey-listers are forced to think twice before of expressing solidarity with anyone to the left of them. (It’s also why white-listers like Tommy Koh, who are prepared to defy the shunning mechanism by speaking up for individuals on the margins, are worth their weight in gold.)
This system also explains why many individuals don’t want to go on the record to reveal what they know about the way political controls operate in Singapore, which is of course frustrating for someone like me who studies censorship. If you circulate among artists, journalists and academics, you regularly hear alarming anecdotes about how the government suppresses critical views. But if you ask these victims of censorship, why don’t you write about it (or let me write about it) they will invariably tell you that they have more to lose than to gain by sharing their story. They may lose trust, access, and income if they are seen as troublemakers.
Who’s at fault?
Those of us who aspire to a more socially engaged practice within our respective fields are prone to slip into a sense of moral superiority over peers, for whatever reason, make more conservative calculations than ourselves. I, for example, get frustrated by those who I feel could afford to take a stronger stand for academic freedom or press freedom. But I, in turn, am despised by those feel they are more courageous about speaking truth to power:
There’s also ample criticism in the opposite direction. It’s common to hear those on the white and light-grey lists speak scornfully of individuals to the left of them, especially after they have been publicly reprimanded or punished. The victims are blamed for not minding their own business, or for not make their criticisms bullet-proof (as if such people in the establishment don’t regularly say silly things with impunity).
The net effect is a system of divide and rule. Within our artistic, journalistic and academic circles, there’s mutual recrimination for the moral and political choices we make in response to a system where participation in robust public deliberation comes with a price.
I’d like to end with two observations about these internal divides within our fields. First, they weren’t invented by the PAP. They are contradictions inherent in modernity: the tension between market value and public good is global — and since the neoliberal revolution post-1970s, the market has been winning. The PAP has been very skillful at harnessing these trends and turning them into a disciplining force, like the ways it has turned meandering rivers into efficient canals with reinforced sides.
Second, therefore, we should be pointing fingers at the system, more than at one another. When we see peers making compromises we disagree with, maybe we should be asking why Singaporeans are forced to make such trade-offs in the first place. Why shouldn’t we have our cake and eat it too? A country that wants to make passion possible should allow us to follow our individual conscience and our professional norms without having to look over our shoulders or second guess about whether this will upset people in power – upset them, not because it threatens racial or religious harmony or the national interest, but only because it makes them work harder at leading public opinion.
The cost of the current system isn’t borne only by those who are punished for their passion. If it was, I’d be prepared to say, well, that’s just a price that individuals have to pay for living in a society. No, the cost is also collective. It stunts and emaciates democratic deliberation. It directs our artistic and intellectual activity towards self-centred goals and narrow special interests, towards the market as a driver instead of the market as a vehicle, and away from the public good and our common interests.
 See, for example, Haraszti, Miklós. The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism. Tauris, 1988.
 See, for example, Roberts, Margaret E. Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton University Press, 2018; Zhao, Yuezhi. Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
 George, Cherian, and Gayathry Venkiteswaran. Media and Power in Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2019; George, Cherian. “Calibrated coercion“, pp. 115-122 in Singapore Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. Woodsville News, 2017.
 On deliberative democracy, see, for example, Fishkin, James S. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford University Press, 2011.
 Although deliberative democracy sounds unrealistic, there are many societies that have experimented with insitutionalising such practices in recent decades. See, for example: Chwalisz, Claudia. “A New Wave of Deliberative Democracy.” Carnegie Europe (blog), November 26, 2019; Naran, Amarzaya, and Mark Koenig. “Deliberative Polling and the Future of Mongolia’s Constitution.” The Asia Foundation (blog), May 3, 2017.
 For a collection of activists’ experiences, see Singam, Constance, and Margaret Thomas, eds. The Art of Advocacy In Singapore. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017.
 For a collection of articles about academic freedom in Singapore, visit Academia.SG’s Academic Freedom section.
 Freedom on the Net 2014. Washington, D.C: Freedom House, 2014.
 See George, Cherian. “Holding the Press“, pp. 137-144 in Singapore Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. Woodsville News, 2017.
 See, for example, NAC’s funding Guidelines for Market and Audience Development; for a wider discussion of NAC funding, see Chong, Terence. The Theatre and the State in Singapore: Orthodoxy and Resistance. Routledge, 2012.