Confession: I have defended the government, on many occasions. I have defended policies that seem backward and regressive to others (and even to myself); I have defended actions that come across as conservative and reactionary.
In this day and age, defending the government – which is often erroneously conflated with (1) the PAP and (2) the entire country – is looked upon as a desperately uncool act. Throughout the last election, when anti-government/PAP sentiment was at a fever pitch, I was often dismissed or attacked for saying anything in defense of the government. I was called an apologist for the government/PAP, even though I maintained that neither institution was perfect. (Nor was the Opposition, for that matter.) A friend of mine, who was voting in Aljunied GRC, the greatest electoral hotbed of them all, was actually accused of hating her country for voting PAP.
Regardless, I soldiered on in my desperately uncool way. Because I had and still have many reasons – some emotional, some intellectual – for defending the government.
Emotionally, I owe this government a lot. I hadn’t thought about it in this way before, until I sat down to write this piece. But I could go so far as to say I owe it a great deal of who I am. I owe it my relatively comfortable childhood and upbringing, because my parents were civil servants. We were not rich, but we were comparatively well-off. It meant, instead of worrying about paying for basic necessities, I was given access to books – to travel – to new, big, different ideas.
I owe this government my education, and thus my outlook on life. I made it through our often punishing education system (mostly) intact. I took an overseas government scholarship exactly fifteen years ago now. I went to Oxford University, and studied the work of ancient philosophers and modern political theorists. There, I learnt to cherish my right to read and think independently. I learnt that there is value to dissent. I learnt the importance of the written word, and the power of literacy.
As a former civil servant, this is what I know: mistakes have been made and policies have been misguided, but there are good people in our government and our civil service, and they do good work. They are working for their country, their people and their home; they aren’t just trying to pull a fast one on unwitting citizens, or cheat them out of their hard-earned money.
I’ve had first-hand encounters with ministers – including PM Lee himself – and they proved themselves to be gracious, thoughtful and intelligent. I made most of my best friends in the civil service, many of whom still work there. I know, for a fact, that we were all working towards a mission: we were all contributing towards this complicated, confusing and confounding country of ours.
Here’s another insight I took away from my eight-and-a-half years as a civil servant. Politics, so they say, is easy – governing is hard. It’s true. Promising radical change while on the campaign trail is easy. Effecting even the most minute change when faced with conflicting interests and bureaucracy is hard. Coming down hard on one side of a debate (particularly a populist debate) is easy. Trying to balance between competing points of view, catering to as many sides as possible, is hard.
And so, intellectually, I had many reasons to defend the government, even when it wasn’t changing fast enough for some (and for me), or changing too quickly for others.
Add it all up, and it has proved easy for me to say – even when specific policies, such as the increasingly insidious censorship of the arts, offend my own sensibilities – that the government is doing what it can in an increasingly difficult political environment. That it is, ultimately, still working for the good of all Singaporeans, even if it must do so with tiny steps rather than large strides forward. I have, effectively, been trained to accept and appreciate compromise as a solution.
The tragic upshot of that, I know now, is that I would have accepted a compromise when it came to resolving the recent controversy over the NLB’s withdrawal and subsequent pulping of three children’s books from its archives. Even though I firmly believe that access to books, information and ideas should be free and unfettered (for humanity has fought too long and too hard for these rights), the good civil servant that still resides in me would have grumbled but made do with solutions like placing an advisory on the books, or re-shelving them in a restricted section of the library. I would have found my way, I suspect, towards defending the government again.
But what has actually transpired is, in every way, indefensible.
It is indefensible that we now live in a country where books can be destroyed. I cannot stress this enough. I am utterly appalled that this regressive decision is the final outcome. I firmly believe that books open the mind and feed the soul, that it’s just as important for them to chronicle outdated and frankly wrong ways of thinking as it is for them to point the way towards enlightenment and the future.
It is indefensible that we now live in a country where a public institution – one with no grounds to act as a moral authority – can decide what constitutes “community norms”, and what books we and our children should have access to read. A library should serve as a neutral repository of knowledge; adults can decide for themselves, and parents should determine for their children, what is suitable reading material.
It is indefensible that we now live in a country where a public institution can and has been hijacked by one particular segment of our community. In my mind, this particular segment of the community is pushing its narrow and bigoted views upon a larger, more moderate and unfortunately silent majority. But this is not purely an LGBT issue; I would be just as upset if the NLB had agreed to withdraw a religious text because someone complained that it offended their irreligious sensibilities.
Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, in defending the actions of the NLB, has claimed that the decision was taken according to due process, and that it was “guided by community norms”. I have seen no evidence supporting either of these claims. How did the NLB’s “due process” allow the books to get on the shelves in the first place? Why and how was it decided that they should be pulled from circulation, within two days no less? (Any civil servant will tell you that the wheels of bureaucracy do not turn that quickly.) How were these “norms” decided upon? What consultation process resulted in these standards of which I am unaware? I am a part of this community, too, and these “norms” are not mine – and certainly not the norms of many people I love very much.
For most of my life and career, I have defended the government and the civil service. Even today, I will defend some of my friends within the NLB, whom I know did not agree with the final decision, but had no choice but to comply with the line taken by senior management.
But this, I have found, is truly indefensible. This government I have defended, even when I did not agree with its policies and actions, has crossed a red line. It has lost my vote today, but worst of all, I think it has lost my faith.