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.
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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.
Why cause humiliation and embarrassment to your parents?
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.
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.
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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.
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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.