It is widely believed that the surveillance state has tentacles reaching everywhere, but only now do we have a hint of it by someone recruited by the system. A short essay in the Australian magazine The Monthly (August 2013 edition) opens with Tey Tsun Hang’s experience.
Almost three years ago, Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) approached Tey Tsun Hang, a Malaysian-born law associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), about becoming a “listening post” – meaning that he would provide information about goings-on in the law faculty, including his own work. . . . “It’s a necessary evil and compromise for me,” Tey wrote to a colleague in September 2010.
The weak point that the ISD exploited was the fact that Tey was a Malaysian citizen, yet with his career invested in Singapore since 1997. He was well aware that the ISD could revoke his permanent residency anytime.
However, there is a hint that the ISD wanted more from him than just spying on others. Tey seems to have felt that in contacting him, the ISD was just as much warning him to behave:
Tey sent copies of all of his academic work to his ISD contact, asking the officer “to let me know which parts/pages/paragraphs/lines are not allowed and must be taken out”.
Andre Dao’s article will disappoint those looking for more salacious details. No examples are given of what Tey told the ISD of his colleagues’ works and thoughts. In fact, it quickly shifts the focus to Tey’s own unease about the arrangement.
The reader may be forgiven in wondering how much of the article was driven by Tey’s attempt to paint himself as victim of official displeasure. Although no date of the interview was provided, it probably took place as he was facing trial for corruptly obtaining gifts and sex from former student. Yet, the record does show that soon after being approached by the ISD, he published a book (2011) Legal Consensus: Supreme executive, Supine jurisprudence, Suppliant profession of Singapore that was highly critical of the Singapore system (link to my review of it). He must have known that he was burning his bridges.
Dao quotes what Tey wrote to a colleague: “I am no longer willing to self-censor . . . I certainly do not want any longer to compromise my intellectual honesty.” He was also beginning to prepare himself for the consequences. “I make my bed,” he wrote, “and I hope I shall have the courage to lie in it.”
In early June 2013, the corruption trial was concluded and Tey was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment, a sentence more severe than what the prosecution had asked for.
The article then goes on to discuss the issue of academic freedom in Singapore. The author has some quotes from Simon Chesterman, Dean of NUS’ law school. Chesterman is also the son-in-law of Singapore’s president, Tony Tan. “No one’s ever had to run anything by me prior to publication,” he is quoted as saying — which is probably true, because that’s not how the system works. The system here goes to great lengths to create the kind of climate that maximises self-censorship so that higher authorities can maintain deniability when asked about overt censorship.
(Note to foreign journalists: Learn to ask the right questions, about the instruments creating a climate of fear and internalised censorship, not easily-deflected questions about external censorship.)
Chesterman also tells Andre Dao that gentle suggestions for improvement, all the while giving face to the political masters, is the way to go. ”We’re not issuing shout-from-the-rooftops criticisms of the government,” he explains. “I’m not certain that would be the most effective way of bringing about change in Singapore anyway.”
(Another note to journalists: Ask why shout-from-the-rooftops is not effective; what is it about the Singapore government that closes off this avenue?)
More interestingly, no other quotes from Tey’s colleagues in the law faculty are found in the article. The author writes:
His Singaporean colleagues have only been supportive in private. Few made it to his trial, and none spoke to me apart from Chesterman.
This 1,096-word article only manages to peek into the gory insides of Singapore through a tiny crack. We can’t make out much by way of detail but already the odour of putrefaction bursts through, repulsive as always.
Martyn See has put the entire article on Facebook. It is here.