Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An insider's view of academic censorship in Singapore

In recent years, I've had many discussions with Singapore-based academics, both locals and foreigners, on the pervasive climate of self-censorship that surrounds those who would conduct research focused on the city-state.

However, with the vast majority of them employed by the state, very few are willing to speak out publicly for fear of jeopardising their positions.

So I'm grateful to Mark R. Frost, co-author of the fascinating new book Singapore: A Biography (reviewed by me here), for the comments he has left on this blog as part of an ongoing exchange between us.

Mark, who is now assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, talks candidly about the censorship, both self-imposed and external, that guided his research and writing. I have published his latest comment below, while our full exchange is here.

Dear Ben,

To answer your first question, yes. But I am not sure I was fully conscious of it until I left Singapore and became reacquainted with what it's like to write in a freer context again. During my 6 years in the city, I definitely became ever more acutely aware of "political sensitivities". Thus, there were comments that came up in interviews with some of Singapore's former political detainees (interviews which are cited in the book) that were not included because they would have possibly resulted in libel actions. There were other things, such as the deviousness of LKY's political negotiations with the British in the late 50s and early 60s, which we could have gone into further (the details have been published) rather than just pointing to them in the footnotes. Was this the result of a subconscious self-censorship or a desire to move the story on? I'm still thinking about that one. But I do recall that, as a foreign academic working at the National Univ. of Singapore, you inevitably became careful about what sort of public criticism you directed at your paymasters. No doubt, this carefulness ultimately seeps into you (though I think good work can be done in Singapore, nevertheless, and many people in academia there continue to do it).

The decision to halt Singapore: a Biography in 1965, and in that sense narrow the narrative, was a very conscious one. I am still not comfortable tackling Singapore's political history after 1965, given the current political constraints in the Republic, and the official control of the archive. I have told publishers who have enquired about us extending the story or writing a sequel that this would involve a narrative far more critical of the ruling party. Repressive political measures that might have garnered a degree of popular support in the turbulent early-60s became, I believe, for many Singaporeans, less justifiable and more reprehensible in the 70s and 80s (culminating with the disgust that many people felt over the treatment of Catholic agitators involved in the so-called "Marxist conspiracy" of 1987).

As for the rise of the PAP, my personal view is that in the late 1950s the PAP was the only viable alternative to colonial rule, once Marshall had bailed - that is, in terms of getting Singapore out of its postwar social and economic predicament. As much as my heart is with the idealists who founded the Barisan, I'm not sure they would have achieved the same practical results as the PAP did in its first 5 years, had they got into power. There were already rifts in the Barisan prior to Operation Cold Store in 1963, and the more one looks into the party at this time, the more chaotic it appears. (Undoubtedly, this chaos was also a result of the pressures exerted upon it by the PAP.)

However, when the Barisan was systematically destroyed, hopeless though its leaders might have proved as technocrats, Singapore turned a corner. From 1963, economic success and political stability were won at the expense of freedom of expression and 'responsible dissent', generating a conformity, an intellectual sterility and a deep loss of historical identity that I hope the Epilogue to the book conveys. That's basically my take on the rise of the PAP. The party became something very different from 1963.

Another long email, sorry. But to answer your other question: the book was peer reviewed by three reviewers. Two were contacted by the co=publisher HKUP, and one by the National Museum of Singapore. The Museum, quite resonably, asked a prominent academic based in Singapore to review the book and indicate any parts that might raise political difficulties. He found none (a scholar with less integrity might have demanded changes, a ministry official would certainly have). In that sense the book was vetted.

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