Acts of silencing large and small

Let’s start with the small. Readers may have noticed a comment left by someone with the handle Yujuan, saying: “Sorry, Yawning Bread is not my cup of tea – too much obsession with homosexual issues. Would not log onto this website any more, but all the best anyway.” This was placed in the comment thread after Gay Malaysian in Irish civil union raises hackles.

It goes without saying that everybody is free to choose what he wishes to read. Every one of us would have come across sites that do not interest us, and we just go away. Going away is not the issue. Leaving a remark with a big harrumph is what is significant.

What is the subconscious that lies beneath the effort to pen such a comment?

On the face of it, it is an attempt to draw attention to one’s reason for leaving, but that in itself is an inadequate explanation, because every time we choose to leave, we all have a reason, yet we do not leave similar remarks. We have to look further. It would seem to me that the vocalisation of the reason is meant to serve a social purpose: to win sympathy or to encourage others to think likewise, or to apply pressure on Yawning Bread to change its ways. Or some combination of all three. The first two would be attempts to rally support and thence to marginalise (thus tune out) the ‘offensive’ speech. The second would be to silence it at source.

Let me state this clearly in case I am misunderstood — I don’t particularly care that people out there don’t choose to follow Yawning Bread, so I am not doing this analysis as any kind of personal comeback at Yujuan. But it is Yawning Bread’s mission to encourage critical thinking and the self-awareness that is needed to underpin it, and the comment that was left offered a rare opportunity explore the ways in which individuals, not just the state or powerful corporations, can attempt to act as censors and silencers.

* * * * *

Another individual doing something similar, except that he is in Malaysia, is Sajahan Abdul Waheed, the Assistant News Editor of the New Straits Times. In what looks like an opinion piece, he wrote:

Some things should just  remain in the closet. Coming out and parading one’s sexual preference is just not cool. If it is a skeleton, then there is a place where it should be. It ought not to be dragged out openly for public viewing.

— New Straits Times, 25 December 2011, Some things should stay in the closet, by Sajahan Abdul Waheed.

His point is that gay people should invisibilise themselves and shut up. The reasoning he applies is that it is a “skeleton” — something to be ashamed about — but he makes no attempt to analyse why he calls it a skeleton and why, to others, it shouldn’t be.

He then piles on the social pressure by bringing in the argument that one should cut off a limb if that’s what it takes to please one’s parents:

One thing that he has either forgotten or is not bothered with is that whatever he does with his life would have an impact and bearing on others.  He is not alone as he surely has a  family.

[snip]

Why cause humiliation and embarrassment to your parents?

— ibid.

He ends the piece by posing what might seem a rhetorical question but in fact only shows up two things: (1) He doesn’t get that it’s a question of the right to dignity, liberty and equality, as opposed to a question of existing at the forbearance of others; (2) he wants the issue silenced and out of sight.

That brings us to the question —  why jeopardise society’s goodwill?  Certain issues should be left where  they belong — in the closet. Let it  be that way.

— ibid.

And like Yujuan’s comment above, the effort to pen an opinion piece is an attempt to rally public opinion to that end.

Now, I am not trying to say Sajahan shouldn’t do it. He has a right like everyone of us to express his views and influence others.  But by way of a rejoinder, I hope to establish a clearer reading of what those words mean.

Although this particular example is from Malaysia, it is not hard to find plenty of similar examples in Singapore.

* * * * *

Moving on to larger acts of silencing, non-profit organisations in Singapore face such pressure regularly, particularly those whose mission is not just to serve the needy by dispensing direct help, but who also seek to correct the systemic flaws that continue to disadvantage the target group. Correcting systemic flaws requires engagement with the government. But in Singapore, without a tradition of respect for human rights, especially the right to freedom of expression, there is a tendency on the part of the government to tell the non-profits, albeit in roundabout ways, that a condition of engagement is that the organisation must tone down its public criticism of the government and its policies.

This is such a feature of Singapore that we have a well-known word for it: co-option. When an organisation starts to self-censor, even to the point of sounding like the government itself, in the hope of preserving access to officialdom, we said it’s been co-opted.

This is self-defeating for the non-profit organisation, which is perhaps why the government is keen on this condition. Government is armed with huge powers of coercion. Non-profits only have persuasion in its arsenal. Having public support for its cause is essential for a non-profit to be taken seriously; in such a situation, the government ignores the non-profit’s case at its electoral peril. If a non-profit cuts itself off from its public base by toning down its public messaging, it will shrink in relevance. It may well have succeeded in preserving its access to officials, but officials will have less and less reason to pay it heed when it has a smaller and smaller public behind it.

* * * * *

Such attempts by the government to constrain public criticism from non-profits pale in comparison to other acts of silencing by the government. I refer specifically to that of detention without trial.

Take the example of Teo Soh Lung and others who, after their first release from detention in 1987, issued a press statement in April 1988 hoping to clear their names. They had been accused, repeatedly though the media, of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Their statement said, inter alia,

We categorically deny the government’s accusation against us. We have never been Marxist conspirators involved in any conspiracy. We were never a clandestine communist or marxist network and many of us did not even know or know of one another before the arrests.

— Teo Soh Lung, Beyond the Blue Gate, page 104. Publisher: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2010.

Further in their statement, they tried to set the record straight regarding their treatment while in detention:

Following our sudden arrests, we were subjected to harsh and intensive interrogation, deprived of sleep and rest, some of us for as long as 70 hours inside freezing cold rooms. All of us were stripped of our personal clothing, including spectacles, foorwear and underwear and made to change into prisoners’ uniforms.

Most of us were made to stand continually during interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of airconditioning turned to a very low temperature.

Under these conditions., one of us was repeatedly doused with cold water during interrogation.

Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body, during the first three days of interrogation.

Following the issuance of the statement, Teo and others were re-detained.

The act of re-arresting people exercising their right of free speech to clear their names and to inform the public of the facts pertaining to their treatment is a sweeping act of silencing. It sends a signal to everybody else that certain things cannot be said, certain accusations by the government cannot be rebutted, except at great personal risk. And thus an omerta is enforced.

This pattern of our own government so readily resorting to silencing makes doing the same by individuals and smaller private groups seem more acceptable, normative even. I think it is a danger we should more clearly recognise.

33 Responses to “Acts of silencing large and small”


  1. 1 hkjones 28 December 2011 at 17:08

    I began following your writing so long ago, I’ve forgotten even how I stumbled across it. I continue to read every post with interest.

    I wanted to say that I agree with your statements in this particular post, enthusiastically.

    I enjoy going to our gay pride parades. Every year, some insecure soul opines that we should tone it down, not have so much near-nudity, not so much grinding pelvises on the floats, not shove our lifestyle in the straight world’s face. I say, Nonsense!

    I’m almost 67, a USA citizen, gay male, and *well* past the age when I, personally, would (or should) engage in such behavior, but I feel it’s important to encourage it because it forces people, even gay people, to confront their fears and inhibitions.

    Further, those who object to hearing about gay issues too often, or seeing gay characters in entertainment, or gay couples expressing their affection publicly, should realize how tired we are of always only seeing straight characters in entertainment, hearing only straight viewpoints expressed, and seeing pictures of people’s straight spouses! Surely they could learn to tolerate someone being different from themselves? (I guess not.)

    Please keep up your excellent writing!

  2. 2 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 19:31

    “This pattern of our own government so readily resorting to silencing makes doing the same by individuals and smaller private groups seem more acceptable, normative even. I think it is a danger we should more clearly recognise.”

    Thought experiment.

    Suppose we do a one for one exchange of Singapore citizens with Americans. Matched according to age/gender/vocation. We do this for all except for the entire PAP membership and the civil service.

    How long do you think the existing system will last? Even a simple thing like requiring people to pay library fines through cashless means will provoke lawsuits and the setting up of “our own” version of the ACLU.

    The problem is not the government.

    The problem is us.

    • 3 Poker Player 28 December 2011 at 19:42

      In short, every nation has the government it deserves.

      • 4 asus 30 December 2011 at 23:37

        But I didnt vote for this government – and neither did 40% of the population. It is through unfair electoral boundaries – among other unfair electoral practise – that this government has come to be.

      • 5 Alfred Bartom 31 December 2011 at 17:50

        Re: Poker Player – every nation has the government it deserves.

        Well, I disagree with this sentiment entirely. It strikes me as a kind of cliche-helper, imaging stamping phraseology. To make the counterpoint, I wouldn’t support Obama for president yet I would deserve whatever trampling of constitutional rights that has happened under his administration? The same reasoning could apply to just about any country, wouldn’t it?

        Btw, I am an American by birth and have been living here since ’97. IMHO people here usually have no realistic understanding of how the US system works – or rather, how it fails to uphold all the principles that are freely attributed to it by citizens of other countries. It’s definitely not what most people think it is, nor are it’s people.

      • 6 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 13:34

        “To make the counterpoint, I wouldn’t support Obama for president yet I would deserve whatever trampling of constitutional rights that has happened under his administration?”

        Which constitutional right was trampled that was also condoned by the judiciary?

        You also have a naive understanding of what the maxim means. A citizen’s duty doesn’t end the moment he votes. The government is limited in its actions by the organized (failing that, near universal) outrage of it people.

        Obama does what he wants … yeah right…

      • 7 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 13:36

        “Btw, I am an American by birth and have been living here since ’97. IMHO people here usually have no realistic understanding of how the US system works – or rather, how it fails to uphold all the principles that are freely attributed to it by citizens of other countries.”

        My point does not depend on how the US system works.

        Your point seems to depend on you being a US citizen residing in SIngapore.

      • 8 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 13:53

        “But I didnt vote for this government – and neither did 40% of the population. It is through unfair electoral boundaries – among other unfair electoral practise – that this government has come to be.”

        Let me get this straight – and also provide a historical perspective.

        So, since independence, more than 60% of the population, chose the government that drew the election boundaries and came up with the election rules. They saw the redrawn boundaries and the new rules and the more than 60% kept voting for them election after election.

        Did I misunderstand you?

    • 9 Desmond Lim 29 December 2011 at 10:16

      This is so true. But on the other side, we have been breed to be sheep like. So in the end, it is a vicious cycle.

    • 10 lawr873 6 January 2012 at 01:24

      If I could vote, I would. Please note the constant gerrymeandering, the grabs for power in office, the almost cartel-esque behaviour where industry and government mix as well as barriers to power (the downpayment cost of putting in a deposit to run for elections, the insane criteria used to determine presidency, the detention without trial for the more outspoken citizens and bankruptcy)

      I think Singaporeans need to be less apathetic, but blaming us for the government is absolutely silly.

      • 11 Poker Player 21 January 2012 at 23:13

        “I think Singaporeans need to be less apathetic, but blaming us for the government is absolutely silly.”

        But far less silly than blaming WKS for the Mas Selamat escape.

      • 12 Poker Player 21 January 2012 at 23:15

        “Please note the constant gerrymeandering, the grabs for power in office, the almost cartel-esque behaviour where industry and government mix as well as barriers to power (the downpayment cost of putting in a deposit to run for elections, the insane criteria used to determine presidency, the detention without trial for the more outspoken citizens and bankruptcy)”

        Aren’t these the acts of ELECTED officials or those answerable to them?

  3. 13 Eric 28 December 2011 at 19:34

    Alex,

    Agree 200%! Keep up your excellent analysis and writing.

    Eric

  4. 14 Anonymous 29 December 2011 at 10:37

    Yes, you are right to promote what you believe in, including homosexuality. I will opt to skip reading those parts. We all have the freedom to make a choice. After all, your articles are clearly tagged into different categories and it isn’t too difficult to make a choice.

    Yujuan, if you are reading this, I hope you can learn to grow up. The choice is yours to choose.

    • 15 Poker Player 29 December 2011 at 21:04

      “I will opt to skip reading those parts.”

      How is this different from “harrumph”?

      You and Yujuan differ in whether to continue visiting YB. The “harrumph” is the same.

      • 16 Poker Player 29 December 2011 at 21:40

        To be clear, no one cares about you skipping the gay issues parts. The point is in the article –

        quote: “What is the subconscious that lies beneath the effort to pen such a comment?”

        Personally, I think the “harrumph” is a cheap shot. You want to leave negative impression on gay parts of the blog, but lack the initiative or arguments.

      • 17 Anonymous 30 December 2011 at 13:41

        @Poker Player

        It is different because my comment is directed to Yujuan and like-minded readers on Yawning Bread who may think of leaving this wonderful site due to some homosexual articles and highlighting to them that there is always this choice of applying self-censorship if they feel uncomfortable.

        To insist that this is the same as “harrumph” is like dictating your views onto others. Is it compulsory for everyone to like every piece of article Alex wrote? The intent of my comment is clearly not to tell Alex to stop writing homosexual articles. In fact, having a diversity of views is good as it encourages debate and critical thinking.

        Didn’t you find my comment on this article despite it having a homosexuality tag?

        @Promote inappropriate word

        Read and understand the context of my comment instead of tying yourself up with such an innocuous word.

      • 18 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 14:04

        “To insist that this is the same as “harrumph” is like dictating your views onto others. Is it compulsory for everyone to like every piece of article Alex wrote? The intent of my comment is clearly not to tell Alex to stop writing homosexual articles.”

        This is a bit off topic, but I want to bring this up because I see this quite a bit in this blog.

        I see “dictating” and “compulsory”. How does a counter-argument do that?

        Then when you counter my counter-argument, why is this “dictating” not seen to apply?

    • 19 Promote inappropriate word 29 December 2011 at 22:20

      I have to object to the use of the word “promote” here. I would rather use the term “defend what you believe in” or “speak out for what you believe in”. promote, especially given its frequent use with negative connotations by the government, has conditioned many people to interpret it in a negative light. Even without this, promote means fore most people as to “sell” something, such as an idea, for the purpose of persuading others to subscribe to one’s own viewpoint.

      From dictionary.com:

      pro·mote   /prəˈmoʊt/ Show Spelled[pruh-moht] Show IPA
      verb (used with object), -mot·ed, -mot·ing.
      1. to help or encourage to exist or flourish; further: to promote world peace.
      2. to advance in rank, dignity, position, etc. ( opposed to demote).
      3. Education . to put ahead to the next higher stage or grade of a course or series of classes.
      4. to aid in organizing (business undertakings).
      5. to encourage the sales, acceptance, etc., of (a product), especially through advertising or other publicity.

      I don’t think any of the above categories are appropriate in explaining how the word “promote” adequately decribes how this site addresses gay issues.

      1. Gay people already exist, one can’t help more exist, although to help flourish comes closest but it still feels an inappropriate word.

      2. This context is more used in terms of promotion at work, in rank, etc.

      3. This pertains to education, eg he was promoted directly to primary 3 from primary 1.

      4. This pertains mainly to business.

      5. This applies to product promotion. Although gay lifestyle promotion may also indirectly apply I think it is a crude comparison – gays are not in the habit of “converting” others to their chosen sexual preference like some Christian groups try to convert “non believers”. There is no one set lifestyle that gays follow, each is an individual set apart except for their chosen sexual preference which is a commonality. I don’t think attending a Mardi Gras once a year is enough to categorise a “lifestyle”.

      Personally, if I were gay and were considering to write a blog addressing gay issues, I would wonder whether the effort to address all the bias and illogical thinking would be worth it. Those whose mind has been “poisoned” to believe gays are somehow subhuman and need to be “corrected in their wayward ways” would not even listen anyway. For the rest of us, it should be obvious when gays are unfairly targeted, including when the government accuses films, etc of “promoting” a “gay lifestyle” or “gay agenda”. I don’t think gays are interested in promoting a gay “agenda” – all they ask is to be treated as fellow human beings, without regard to their sexual preferences.

      • 20 Poker Player 30 December 2011 at 05:57

        “Those whose mind has been “poisoned” to believe gays are somehow subhuman and need to be “corrected in their wayward ways” would not even listen anyway. For the rest of us, it should be obvious when gays are unfairly targeted, including when the government accuses films, etc of “promoting” a “gay lifestyle” or “gay agenda”.

        The poisoning takes time. Blogs like this, Lady Gaga, Modern Family, Glee, and the civilized parts of the outside world, neutralises some of that effort.

      • 21 Ian 30 December 2011 at 15:44

        We DO promote, just that its not promoting the gay ‘lifestyle'(to turn someone gay). We promote acceptance/tolerance towards the LGBT community, we promote ideas that gays are the same as straight people etc…

        The MDA just bind all those together and reject it. Hence the projecting gays as normal human beings is a big NO for them.

  5. 22 missbossy (@missbossy) 29 December 2011 at 12:42

    Hugo Schwyzer recently wrote about a similar “Tone it down” tactic that he has seen directed at feminists but differs little from the “Too much gay stuff – I’m outta here” line:


    [some people say]: “Tone it down. Take care of the men and their feelings. Don’t scare them off, because too much impassioned feminism is scary for guys.” And you know, as exasperating as it is, this kind of silencing language almost always works. Time and again, I’ve seen it work to silence women in the classroom, or at least cause them to worry about how to phrase things “just right” so as to protect the guys and their feelings. It’s a key anti-feminist strategy, even if that isn’t the actual intent of the men doing it — it forces women to become conscious caretakers of their male peers by subduing their own frustration and anger. It reminds young women that they should strive to avoid being one of those “angry feminists” who (literally) scares men off and drives them away

    This observation is relevant beyond feminism. It applies whenever the dominant group says, “Stop being so annoying. Tone it down. Can’t you just blend in? You are upsetting me.”

  6. 23 Poker Player 29 December 2011 at 20:51

    This request for “invisibilization” manifests itself in different ways. Some of the people who comment here ask why can’t gays just leave 377A alone since the govt has assured everyone it would not be enforced.

    • 24 yuen 30 December 2011 at 09:07

      these people are entitled to express their opinions, and gays are free to decide whether to agree; in terms of getting results, pushing this issue is probably for now not the most productive use of gay activist energy: the majority of local gays are at the moment not inclined to rock the boat, and foreign journalists seem to have moved to other reportable topics; again, you are free to disagree with my reading

      • 25 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 13:17

        The part that stands out:

        “pushing this issue is probably for now not the most productive use of gay activist energy”

        Is there anything “substantive” in this? This is more signal than sentence.

      • 26 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 15:00

        377A does not affect the legal status of what Evangelicals do. It does affect the legal status of what gays do.

        But you say

        “pushing this issue is probably for now not the most productive use of gay activist energy”

        Why not

        “pushing this issue (opposing the repeal of 377A) is probably for now not the most productive use of Evangelical energy”

        I leave the conclusion to others.

      • 27 yuen 2 January 2012 at 11:41

        evangelicals are unlikely to be readers of this blog (perhaps you are an exception?)

      • 28 Poker Player 2 January 2012 at 16:24

        Disingenuous reply.

        My point is made if people like you suggest one thing to gay activists but say nothing to evangelicals.

  7. 29 hahaha 29 December 2011 at 23:44

    You are a clever guy. We need to beware of clever guys. Gay or not.

    I do think, however, maybe you also dug too much into one commentor. I did follow you from your humble beginnings, and it is also a fact that you base many stories and arguments around the gay subject, maybe even a tad too often. Not all followers are gay, or are you saying they should be sympathetic and then they are welcome here?

    However it is YOUR blog and you have the liberty to write it how you want, others can log off. Even after receiving such a “hurtful” or “insightful” comment, is enough to spark your creative writing.
    Go on, continue your wonderful writings here. I am a fan of your mental literature deluge, gay or not.

    • 30 Poker Player 1 January 2012 at 18:08

      “Not all followers are gay, or are you saying they should be sympathetic and then they are welcome here?”

      Which part of the article is this in response to?

  8. 31 Slychiu 30 December 2011 at 13:36

    Keep it up, yawning bread.

  9. 32 George 30 December 2011 at 16:55

    Alex,
    I posted the following in the ST forum today on a letter written by Dr Wan regarding regulating the Internet.

    My posting was allowed through and appeared online for a while, but after a couple of hours (my guess) it was completely removed. When discovered this I tried to re-post, I got the message that I am not allowed to post on the site!

    So control by govt extends all the way to/through the SPH media which is of course controlled by ex-ministers – Lee Boon Yang, who has just taken over from Tony Tan. I suspect, MediaCorp too has to dance to the same tune. So, we can all see that LBY represents a tightening of the screws on people speaking their minds. Perhaps, this is fresh input/insight vis a vis the reason for departure of Han Fook Kwang for the ST?

    There are others too who are experiencing the same thing or variation of it. Some have complained about their postings/comments ‘mysteriously’ popping in and out of circulation.

    For those who are curious, the blocked post is reproduced here:

    I am not sure if Dr Wan is addressing the issue in the same perspective as the govt which is quiet plainly interested in the main for a purely political reason and purpose.

    The govt has virtually all but safely locked down the local MSM, muffling and subjugating them to its political purposes. Therefore, one can imagine its frustration of after having hog-tied the MSM, it recently had the rather unpleasant experience of having to ‘endure’ during the GE and the EP campaigns, a mostly defiant, straight talking and often oppositional and unflattering ‘fifth estate’ in the form of Internet/Cyberspace free speech and commentaries.

    In this respect the Internet activities is like the fly in the local govt controlled mass media ointment. In fact, more accurately, the Internet activities are akin to a moth buzzing in the night beyond the reach of the flailing arms of the govt’s political and regulatory machinery.

    Therefore, quite predictably, thus motivated, the govt is now gradually building up, if need be even fabricating, a case against this new found cyberspace freedom of the common citizenry, in order to justify its to be expected continued clamp down on Singaporeans’ freedom of speech and communication.

    The govt has its experience with Sintercom ( correct spelling?) to fall back on, but this time round it would have to be prepared to deal with a multitude of ‘sintercoms’. Would it succeed again leading a silenced lamb to slaughter?

    PS: Hope you would give me the opportunity to air a dark side of the way the MSM is being manipulated by the govt.

  10. 33 woceht 12 May 2012 at 03:21

    At the risk of digging up a long buried post…

    I’ve been living in the US for the last 5 years and have been sporadically keeping in touch with events in Singapore via your blog, amongst others. Thanks for the great coverage.

    Lately I’ve been getting quite frustrated with the willful ignorance of my peers (late 20s, from top schools). Talk to them about something vaguely liberal and most of them would sooner run away and hide/spout the same familiar nonsense of the establishment. So yeah I think the problem goes deeper than the leadership.


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