‘People should always tell the truth.’ Do you think there are any situations in which this might not be the best thing to do? Explain your views. (English O-level 2017, Syllabus 1128)

It is safe to say that all of us have lied at some point or other of our lives. Some parents, when asked by young children where babies come from, have sputtered some childish explanation of a stork, or my personal favourite, redirecting the question by saying: “You came from the ‘longkang’ (storm drain)!” It is clear that many of us feel that there are situations where we simply cannot tell the truth because — by any objective standard — it would not be the best thing to do. Individuals may disagree on what particular situations demand falsehoods, but I think it is fairly clear that lies must be told when it contributes to the greater good.

I first have to say that in the vast majority of situations, telling the truth should be the first option, even if it were to cause pain or suffering somewhere down the line. Sometimes families refrain from telling a cancer patient that they have, say, six months to live, in an attempt to get the patient to be more hopeful to maximise whatever chances there are for recovery. However, this ostensibly compassionate action may cause more harm, especially if it prevents the family member with cancer from making peace with people around him and even with the reality of mortality itself. Many of our white lies often end up this way — with us trying to do good, but ending up harming ourselves and others instead. However, I believe that there are situations where the potential harm is so severe and catastrophic that it would warrant almost any action — including withholding the truth — in order to prevent such harm.

Nuclear war would be so severe and catastrophic that any action taken to prevent it would be morally acceptable. Even a limited nuclear war would be devastating to the entire world, and I would never want to be part of the chain of command responsible for such an occurrence. If I were in charge of the military aide carrying President Donald Trump’s “nuclear football” — the bag containing the equipment President Trump would use to launch any nuclear attack — I would probably arrange for a fake bag to be made so that Trump would be slowed down somewhat if he made the decision to launch the attack. There are so many things that could go wrong with this, but I find it difficult to imagine a situation where a nuclear strike would be a good thing in today’s world. Given a President like Barack Obama, it would be less clear that carrying around a fake nuclear football would be the best thing to do, but with President Donald Trump’s alleged mental instability, I find it hard to imagine how that military aide sleeps at night. The lie of the fake nuclear football would, in my mind, be an additional barrier that prevents the world from descending into nuclear apocalypse.

Most of us should disregard these cases on the limits of reality and just stick to telling the truth most of the time. The liberating quality of truth-telling means that even if we suffer temporarily when we stick to honesty, most of us will be better off. We can only wish the best for those stuck in situations where telling the truth is ethically indefensible.

(547 words)

Blogging in a climate of fear: a response to PM Lee’s defamation suit(s)

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!]

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money.

If I were more spiritually generous, I’d fix the education system here. But right now, all I’m doing is exploiting the flaws in it to make money. It is because parents have such intense fears of their children getting low grades that the tuition industry is so massive now.

The problem starts with the fact that social and income inequality is bad in Singapore. No parent wants their child to be so low on the income ladder that they become one of the beachfront homeless here, or to have to be overworked at a dead-end job just to make ends meet. This problem is compounded by the fact that the education system here tends to favour those who are able to spend more money on their children.

I need to think long and hard about setting my soul right by doing something more than what I already am (<singlish> but eh, free essays and tips for everyone already la, rich or poor also can get </singlish>).


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