I believe that leaders set the tone for the organizations they lead. In any school, if the leadership sets a domineering and controlling tone, its students are more likely to attempt to be domineering and controlling in their interactions with one another (see Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy for a moving and incisive analysis of the subject). Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in continuing his father’s habit of using defamation suits, continues to maintain a climate of fear.
Mr Steven Ooi has noted that “a civilised society needs not only liberty and rights, but also rules, boundaries and guidelines”, and bemoans the state of American political discourse in the mass media. He says it better than I do: “I look at the kind of political mud-slinging that takes place in the West, where one can say practically anything one likes about one’s opponent and get away with it, and wonder whether that is the tone of politics that we would like to have in Singapore. President Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists” by his rival John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin in 2008. She got away with it. Do we want such baseless allegations to be flying around in Singapore politics?” (read his article here)
While I agree with Mr Ooi that baseless allegations should never be the currency of political discourse here, I am opposed to the use of defamation suits, particularly in the manner that Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong have used them. The problem, as I see it, is that these suits create a climate of fear, and years of psychological experiments have shown that people do not make the best decisions when acting out of fear. When a nation acts out of fear, we have a serious problem.
If anyone makes a libellous statement, I believe that the person should be punished. But I also expect that the leaders of my country feel strong and confident enough about their standing in the public eye by demanding apologies from a position of strength. As it stands, it seems that PM Lee is acting from a position of weakness, with his reliance on the legal system to maintain his reputation. It would be so much more impressive if PM Lee demands an apology without the force of law behind him, and invites bloggers like Roy Ngerng to have a public dialogue in order to clear any misconceptions and concerns that Ngerng has.
Instead of a climate of fear, I hope PM Lee encourages a climate of informed discussion. Yes, I would like PM Lee to put his years of education and experience forward, and be the expert that he really is. Destroy Roy Ngerng if you will, PM Lee — but only in the realm of academic discussion. Prove him wrong, and you will win the hearts and minds of the people.
PM Lee, I truly believe you can do better than this. You can even hire me as a writer if you want 😉
[I understand some PAP positions, like the concern with GDP growth — I’ve read Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats! You all need better PR la!]