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.

27 Comments:

Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...

Hello, Tarn How. Just discovered your blog. Sending some readers your way shortly.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Ho said...

hi, looking forward to some good stuff from you.

3:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone also wrote about how the government wanting respect and not getting it. Ouch, that hurts!

Can read at http://www.waterchild.blogdrive.com(author unknown though)

3:47 AM  
Blogger BL said...

Tarn How,

Good to see you starting as a practioner as well as studying the blogosphere.

Looking forward to reading more interesting stuff from you.

Best regards,
BL

5:43 AM  
Blogger Yan Chengyi said...

i like your article. well done. :)

6:29 AM  
Blogger nofearSingapore said...

Hi,
Welcome to the real world.
Where the truth is unfettered.
Look forward to good reads from your blog.
Congratulations!

Dr. Huang

8:47 AM  
Blogger HaveAHacks said...

The assumption is that it was in fact the Today column that triggered the govt's reaction. Was it ? Or was it the Mr Brown show ? His piece on GRCs was the one that perhaps cut a bit too close to the bone, or to the liver, if one always insists on selling bak chor mee with liver.

They could also have required Mr Brown to register as a political website, but that would have meant that they would have to take responsibility for "censoring" the website themselves. By going this route, they make Today throw the hatchet for them.

"What ? Us ask a newspaper to sack a columnist ? Of course not, do you have any proof ? Any letters or emails to back up your accusation ? That's a libelious accusation"

8:50 AM  
Blogger Cliff said...

Hello Tarn How,
I have been sent here by Mr Wang. It's a very well-written piece, but more importantly, one that brings light to what I can only describe as very effective shenanigans of the powers that be.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Elia Diodati said...

Arguably one can include Acidflask in the same vein. Or even the seditious bloggers. Good points though, even if thinking about the contributions of non-public dissenters is somewhat mind-bending disturbing.

12:26 PM  
Blogger JoE said...

Yes, it will be interesting to read about how the dissenter responses upon being warned, and how the government is going to deal with it.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous atbxn said...

"Satire uses the tactic of laughter to further its strategy of contempt" sounds like another volley from the Press Secretary's machine gun.

Satire need not have a moral lesson or didactic purpose. The essence of satire is criticism, and criticism has always implied a systematic attempt to measure good and bad. An object is criticized because it falls short of some standard which the critic desires that it should reach. Inseparable from any definition of satire is its corrective purpose, expressed through a critical mode which ridicules or otherwise attacks those conditions needing reformation in the opinion of the satirist. There is no satire without this corrective purpose.

The best definitions of satire is formulated from a combination of its corrective intent and its literary method of execution. A reasonable definition of satire is: "a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling" (Thrall, William, Addison Hibbard, and C. Hugh Holman, eds., A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey Press, 1960.).

The best satire does not seek to do harm or damage by its ridicule. Far from being simply destructive, satire is implicitly constructive, and the satirists themselves often depict themselves as such constructive critics.

6:47 PM  
Blogger sei-ji rakugaki said...

what your opinions on political cartoons then? DO you think the government will tolerate it, because it is at the fringe too..and caricatures of them ,if not in the mainstream will be fine? I am curious and would like to know yor take on it, as we had a world class politcal cartoonist , Heng and he stayed very clear out, of doing any political cartoons on Singapore politics.., but he is very sharp , when it comes to regional politics.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Brayden said...

Is this how you read it? "Catherine Lim’s most serious misdemeanour in the eyes of the government is, more than anything else, her inappropriate and insufficiently awed tone of voice when talking about the prime minister".
Would the message be any dissimilar if she had said:" Your Honourable Excellency and Esteemed Protector of our Land, Sir, your policy sucks"? How would you comment with an appropriate "awed tone of voice" when you hear your Prime Minister confess that he plans to "fix the opposition" and "buy supporters votes"?
Teo Soh Lung got into serious trouble when she cross examined Lee Kuan Yew in the Law Society affair, probably because she did not use your recommended "awed tone of voice". So would anyone having an audience with Adolf Hilter, Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin. But a "democratically elected" government official? Do we Singaporeans have a country at all, or are we all dispensable peasant slaves to a dictator?

7:10 PM  
Anonymous lovebell said...

What I am curious about is why you have decided to write this article on your blog instead of publishing it in the newspaper? Are you also perhaps leveraging on the blogosphere as being deemed as a 'tolerable fringe / alternative' media and thereby reaffirming your own analysis?

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This excellent piece of work will never get pass the MSM editors lah.

Mr Tan, you have another regular reader here.

I am quite fed up with the MSM's poor quality lately. Frail analysis, parochial perpectives and lately, very poor English as well.

The blogosphere provides a much better reading pleasure.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous DKSG said...

Substance over form ...

Criticism itself is just a sympton ...

The poor hates to be poor and then poorer ...
The rich hates to have their freedom clipped ...

How long can the paper cover the fire leh ?

Think our country got quite thick paper ...

12:15 AM  
Anonymous zHuAz said...

Well researched and well said. This will become my daily read.
At least, "this got substanace".

3:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today when I read BT, I held back a large snicker. Some Minister actually said "Singapore Inc." The article is about the RENU - fungal infection link.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous claire said...

HI TARN HOW!!!
Sorry for the caps but I'm so excited to see you online!
(It's Claire... )
How're you? Why the blog?
I guess I'll email you... aaahhh!! :)

9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tarn How,

You appear at the right time.

Minister Lee B Y has given the positive,absolute OK to bloggers,so long as they remain within the chatroom,he declared.

WRITE(RIGHT) ON!

5:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tarn How,

Minister Lee B.Y.'s press secretary has also declared seriousluy and sincerely that henceforth,all pro-and anti PAP articles would be banned from the main stream newspapers.

I would like to suggest to you seriouly that you should ensure that some pro-PAP articles would appear here,as we all know,it is almost impossible to find Pro-PAP articles within the internet chatroom as so defined by Minister Lee B.Y.

Fairness is to be fair!

5:40 AM  
Anonymous SJ said...

Hello Tarn Howe, this is really encouraging. Truly.

SJ

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tarn how, how might blogs respond to the implications of your analysis? do you suggest that blogs remain 1) decentralised, 2) on the fringe and 3) non-satirical?

what are some of the consequences of this line of logic? does it mean, for instance, that compilations like singapore angle, the intelligent singaporean and tomorrow.sg are a bad idea because they concentrate rather than dissipate online centres of influence?

1:25 AM  
Anonymous KK said...

Hi PT

Looks like you've got quite a following now. It's the new PT fan club. So you better put up more posts!!
;)

8:41 AM  
Anonymous citizenX said...

What is your responsibility as a 'commentator'?

"Nation building"?

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Jiesheng said...

Hi there Mr tan,
Heard of you from a friend and just chance upon this site.While I'm not that focused of Spore politics all the time, it's great to gain insights from your articles.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

4:43 AM  

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