Power, politics and fear: when sorry is not the hardest word

Donald Low’s apology to Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam is another setback for freedom of expression and will reinforce self-censorship. In a facebook post last month, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public policy academic criticized the Minister’s remarks, reported in Today, that penalties for crime need to reflect public opinion. The Minister had said that if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable. In his post, Donald Low wrote that public opinion can be “ignorant”, “ill informed” and “excessively emotional” and the Minister was wrong in his view.

This provoked a rebuttal from the Law Minister and he chastised Donald Low for “seriously misconstruing” what he said. He clarified that while public opinion was important in deciding criminal penalties, it was not the only determinant. He ended his admonishment by implying that Donald Low had damaged his own credibility and brought ill repute to “an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name.”

The following day, Donald Low wrote a facebook apology to the Minister for having caused “any trouble or offence.” But it seems as if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the Minister because a few days later, another more ingratiating one was posted.

I realize my first apology was insincere. I am therefore writing now to apologize unreservedly…I have let the LKY School down…Many do not know this, but when I was out of a job in 2012, it was Minister Shanmugam who spoke with me and offered his help. He then put in a good word for me with LKYSPP, and gave me a recommendation. I decided that I should come clean about someone who had in fact helped me, and I should set out the facts in public”

This is not the first time that someone has had to apologise to the Law Minister. In 2015, activist Sangeetha Thanapal wrote a similar one after she accused him of being an “Islamaphobic bigot who thinks Malay-Muslims are a threat.” Mr Shanmugam denounced this characterisation of him and threatened to report her to the police. Faced with such pressure most people would have little choice but to acquiesce.

In Donald Low’s case, Shanmugam mentioned that he welcomes criticism and that academics have a right to comment on issues of public importance. One would expect the matter to end with a simple rebuttal. However, the apologies which followed show that it was no longer just a public exchange of views. Donald Low probably thought twice about where he stood in relation to the all-powerful Minister and it had to be written in as humiliating a way as possible.

Networks of power are so far reaching and deeply entrenched in Singapore it is easy for any politician of the PAP, especially a senior one to wield his influence. As Donald Low himself admitted, Shanmugam put in a good word to the LKY School of Public Policy. The backing of a minister can be beneficial but things can also sour pretty quickly.

Spaces for civil society resistance have either been obliterated or co-opted. There hasn’t been any public support or solidarity from fellow academics for Donald Low.  A chicken has been slaughtered and the monkeys are scared.

Crippling defamation suits which have destroyed the livelihoods of those who are critical of the regime are a hallmark of PAP politics and one of the most shameful characteristics of the regime. Petty threats of reports to the police by a powerful political figure, and remarks which result in a critic having to capitulate not once but twice in apology should not happen in a free, open and democratic society.

Public and academic discourse in Singapore already suffers from a high degree of self censorship and there are many who fear that being too critical will cost them a promotion or even their jobs. But boundaries cannot be pushed and ideas cannot flourish when there is no tolerance for transgressions. When a public exchange of views results in an obsequious apology, academics, activists and journalists can only view this latest saga as yet another cautionary tale in the politics of fear.

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