The World Today: Singapore's Self-censorship Syndrome

Posted by under Breaking News on 24 March 2000

James Gomez gives an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Well, earlier in the week we heard how the Government of Singapore is to allow a little more freedom through a speakers corner, but people who want to speak there will have to get a permit, not like the London model. But now Singaporean academic and activist, James Gomez has taken a rare and brave step, writing and publishing a book which is highly critical of the island's political system.

So far defamation, the usual cause, has not been used to silence him, but James Gomez says it can only be a matter of time. He's been speaking to Lisa McGregor about his book which looks at the Singaporean syndrome of self-censorship.

JAMES GOMEZ: The book was actually a product of my own attempt to explore political space in Singapore. I found that I couldn't get individuals to come together to organise for politics, less to organise a seminar. I found that the biggest problem sometimes was not the State but the people around me, and that, I thought, needs to be accounted for and explained.

LISA McGREGOR: What do you mean by the people around you?

JAMES GOMEZ: Well, it could be friends, families, editors of publications, people who issue you permits for talks and so on. They decide at their level that something is political and is not condoned, and then they decide to censor you, so that is the challenge. In fact, if one speaks about human rights abuse in Singapore, there is rights abuse, the rights abuse is the abuse of civil and political rights at the hands of your fellow countrymen rather than the State directly.

LISA McGREGOR: What happens when you raise subjects which are controversial with friends and family and acquaintances?

JAMES GOMEZ: Well, on a private level, let's say if it's over a cup of tea or among friends and family, you will always get advice. You'll be warned that, "No, you'd better not do this and you'd better not say this in public." You know, that's at the first level. Now, if you decide you want to go public, when you try to organise a seminar, or something public, it needs many hands.

That's where it becomes difficult, because people may share some of the issues that you want to raise, but they will not come together with you to do the actual organising. Therefore, an attempt to express yourself in a public way falls flat. They censor you by not, you know, allowing you to expand above your individual self. There's no ability for you to manifest, you know, political expression in sort of an organised group way.

LISA McGREGOR: Is that form of censorship more powerful, in fact, than censorship from the State?

JAMES GOMEZ: I think it is one of the informal ways the State has relied on for many years to maintain the status quo in its advantage, because if you can understand the psyche of the people, well all I have to do is occasionally scare them and I'll keep that kind of political culture in place, and that in itself will prevent alternative ideas and individuals from coming up.

LISA McGREGOR: Your book is very critical about the political system. How far do you think you can push the debate without getting into trouble yourself?

JAMES GOMEZ: I think I'm already in trouble. They don't know what to do with me, but they will do something, it's coming soon. You know, watch out, you know, you've done so much so far. I would say given the way I've operated, the most likely way is to cast some kind aspersion, you know, on your moral standing, your character or your motivation.

LISA McGREGOR: Knowing that there's going to be some sort of personal attack made on you, does that make you very wary about how you live your life?

JAMES GOMEZ: You know, a life that is not lived on the wild side is not worth living, and even though I come from a system that tries to place limits and rationalises the limits, I think no one has the right to place limits on a human spirit, you know. Shame on him who does that.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Singaporean writer and political scientist, James Gomez, with Lisa McGregor.

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