Friday, July 07, 2006

On The Management of Dissent

It may be useful to examine the case of the suspension of mr brown’s column by Today from the point of view of how the PAP government manages dissent . Such an examination is related to but separate from two other issues. The first is whether one supports the use of the management strategy, that is, whether one believes it is the right thing to do (I don’t, as I oppose censorship in almost all its forms). The other is whether the management strategy (and its implementation in specific cases) is effective in furthering the government’s goals (I think so, but some believe that such as strategy is counterproductive.) I won’t discuss these two issues here, except to point out as an aside that the aim of the management strategy is to ensure the party’s continued grip on power.

Media censorship (as has happened in the mr brown case) is not the only strategy for ensuring longevity. In some places, they jail people who speak their minds. Or they shoot them (the ultimate form of censorship, to poach the phrase from V S Naipaul). In other places, they engage in debate and hope to win the argument, though not always by gentlemanly means. Some places also get round the whole problem by resorting to gerrymandering. The United States, having invented the word, continues to practice this science with particular fervour. (But then, people who live in glass houses…)

To understand the government's strategy in managing dissent to have to take into account the cases of JB Jeyaretnam, Chee Soon Juan, Francis Seow, Zulfikli, Catherine Lim, Cherian George, Koh Buck Song, Martyn See, Low Thia Kiang, Silvia Lim, James Gomez, present-day Ngiam Tong Dong, Mr Miyagi (in relation to the NS photographs), Loh Meng See (with respect to the casino issue), etc. Equally important are the dissenters who have been dealt with but whose cases are not made public (these will shed light on the behind-the-scenes tactics that are part of the management strategy). Also equally important are the cases of dissenters who are not dealt with at all, including the many letter writers to the newspapers and bloggers whose views are even more critical than mr brown. These negatives cases help to mark out the line beyond which dissent is likely to elicit a public reprisal.

So how does this government manage dissent? There are at least three principles which it has consistently used over the last few decades, and which are applicable in the mr brown case:

1) Concentrate the attack on centres of power and influence. While there are plenty of dissenters, a few of them matter more than others. From these few, pick a very small number which can be used as OB markers for the limits of allowed dissent. Note that they don’t target every dissenter, or every person associated with the dissenter. They just pick out the key figure – those around him need not have to face the same fates, though they often suffer collateral damage. mr brown, especially post-Bak Chor Mee election podcast, can be considered a centre of influence measured by his very big fan base. His regular newspaper columns also add to his reach. Note that his podcast collaborator (an ill-advised word under the circumstances, I know) on the mr brown show, Mr Miyagi, is also a centre of influence, but he has been left untouched.

2) Guard the mainstream, but tolerate the fringe. This censorship principle finds application in many areas. In the arts for instance, the government is very jittery about the mainstream forms such as television and cinema. But it shows a high level of tolerance for fringe forms such as theatre or stand-up comedy. In the field of media, television and newspapers are considered mainstream, and the government’s strategy is to keep a tighter leash on them. There is even some differentiation between the newspapers, with articles printed elsewhere that would make some people very unhappy if they read them in The Straits Times. The political Internet in the form of blogs, although very active and often sharply critical, is seen as a fringe and has thus been more tolerated. If the political Internet becomes more mainstream in its reach, expect the government to start applying the vice. Part of the unhappiness at mr brown’s column is that it appeared in the mass media. mr brown is a cross-over artist, a blogger who has broken free of the small world of political cyberspace into the much larger domain of the offline world as a newspaper columnist. If his columns had remained a blog, chances are that he would not have elicited the same response.

3) Politics must be treated seriously, and politicians must be respected like one respects one’s uncle (this was how it has been put before by the government itself). It is useful to remember that Catherine Lim’s most serious misdemeanour in the eyes of the government, was more than anything else, her inappropriate and insufficiently awed tone of voice when talking about the prime minister. mr brown’s form and style of writing – which has ranged from the satire of his famous podcasts to something closer to cynicism in the offending column - is something that goes against the principle of seriousness and respect. Satire uses the tactic of laughter to further its strategy of contempt. Cynicism is the black ice on which all attempts at serious discussion slip and fall. There is really no effective way to counter satire and cynicism. Nevertheless censorship is in some ways the least ineffective. (To counter satire with satire, as one minister was heard mulling, doesn’t work because jokes about the small guy can never be as funny as the ones against the big fellow. Also, the government’s use of satire also legitimizes treating politics in an unserious way, which is against the principle.) Why has Talking Cock continued to be tolerated? Probably because it remains a Web (hence fringe) phenomenon, though its founder Colin Goh writes a regular newspaper column (his approach there is serious rather than satirical). Perhaps also, Talking Cock's satire, though extremely funny, seems to lack the extra sting: the difference between laughing at and laughing with? In any case, Talking Cock doesn’t have quite the reach that mr brown now has.
In summary, in the Government's managment of dissent, there are three things at least which are triggers for reprisal: who, where and how. Who says it, where it is said, and how it is said all matter in deciding whether to crack down.

An interesting question is the management strategy that is used in dealing with the range of possible responses that the dissenter adopts upon being "warned". But that is a subject for another post.