TODAY: Fear factor – is it just an excuse?

by Teo Hwee Nak and Ng Shing Yi

IN A twist that was both sad and ironic, the fear quotient crept up and usurped a forum on politics on Saturday.

More than 200 academics, activists and undergraduates had gathered to discuss “new politics” for the renaissance city that Singapore aims to be. Instead, they ended up talking about the crippling fear that binds them from contributing to the change that is needed.

The discussion prompted sociologist Dr Kwok Kian Woon, one of the speakers, to ask: “How have we arrived at such a miserable, pathetic situation? What will our leaders think if they know that our best and brightest have become like this?”

Even some of the speakers – including Dr Kwok and former journalist, Dr Cherian George – said that this fear that Singaporeans cited was irrational. And Ms Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party said it was more a matter of perception.

Two members of Parliament told TODAY that the very fact that the fear factor was discussed so openly at a forum showed that things had changed. “Have more such forums, and talk about it more,” said Dr Amy Khor. “The more we talk about it, the better it will be.”

The issue had cropped up unexpectedly at the forum at National University of Singapore when a young woman said she had dropped the idea of starting a socio-political discussion site and settled for a personal web-log instead, as she was afraid “something would happen”.

What was she afraid of, asked Dr Kwok.

“I don’t know … Getting knocks at 2am?” she blurted out.

Dr Cherian George, a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, did not buy this excuse. But other prominent figures jumped in to support the young woman.

Veteran civil society activist Constance Singham said she had felt this fear of reprisal herself. “My friends told me to be careful, that the Prime Minister’s Office is watching you,” she said.

The recent history of defamation suits contributed to the fear, she told TODAY.

Dr Tan Chong Kee, founder of political website Sintercom, said the fear prevented Singaporeans from participating in politics and civil society action.

Dr George did not sympathise with this. But he said: “The genius of the PAP is that it has calibrated its control so well.

It exercises its control without resorting to the sort of brutality that produces the moral outrage that will make people take to the streets.

So although we’re controlled, it’s in a relatively civilised way and we end up as a nation of grumblers rather than real serious protestors,” he said at the forum.

The last time the Internal Security Act was used against political opponents was in the mid-80s, he said.

Even opposition politician Sylvia Lim said the fear of political reprisal here is “largely perceptual”.

“It is up to the citizen to claim our rights,” she said. “We can’t always wait for the Government to define them for us.”

When asked about the fear factor later, MP Tan Cheng Bock attributed it to the strong-handed way the leadership in the past imposed views and policies.

“It produced results and in those days, we needed quick results. But people should not need to be afraid anymore. Things have changed. But I’m worried that the fear is now quite ingrained in our society,” he said.

As long as opinions expressed are sincere and factual, and do not attack the integrity of the leaders or the party, there should not be any fear of legal action, he said.

Dr Amy Khor, who was herself taken to task by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for using the word “betrayal” in Parliament, said Singaporeans feared rebuttal more than any serious action.

She felt the pain of being ticked off.

“It’s embarrassing, it’s painful. I was afraid I would not be able to do what I preached. So I told myself that I must speak up at the next Parliament seating. I made it a point to table my questions as usual and made sure I spoke about the Bills that were passed. It was the only way to get rid of my inhibitions,” she said.