No, Tommy Koh, I won’t be a loving critic, especially not on National Day

By Gopal

Last October, in an op-ed in the Straits Times, Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tommy Koh declared that “what Singapore needs is not sycophants but loving critics and critical lovers.” According to him, “Singapore will languish if its lovers are uncritical and its critics are unloving.” He claims that criticism should be welcome “as long as the critic loves Singapore and is not out to destroy Singapore.”

The People’s Action Party contingent marching at the National Day Parade in 1966 at the Padang. Source: Yusof Ishak Collection, National Archives of Singapore

Mr Koh is right that we have far too many sycophants in this country and, by the way, most of them are concentrated within the People’s Action Party (PAP). But he is entirely wrong that what we need are “loving critics and critical lovers.” One problem in Singaporean public discourse is that criticism of the PAP is already pre-emptively positioned as unpatriotic. The PAP government has consistently blurred the lines between political party, government, and nation. In doing so, they have long created a climate where dissent is framed as anti-Singaporean and potentially subversive. Thus, critics have to perform patriotism to the PAP-nation before they can even emit their criticisms.

How many times have you heard someone couch their critique of Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP, or any particular governmental policy within an envelop of praise?

“Lee Kuan Yew did so much for the country, we have to be grateful to him, but perhaps some of his views on race are outdated…” or “the PAP took us from a fishing village to metropolis and we are grateful, but perhaps this one particular policy should be discussed in more detail…” or “I love Singapore and this is my home, truly, where I know I must be, but we do treat migrant workers badly, don’t we…?”

Even someone as courageous as PJ Thum has had to defend himself by stating that he “love[s] [his] country and [his] people.”

The imperative to sugarcoat valid criticism and embody the persona of a “loving critic” (or, even worse, god forgive us, a “critical lover”) is merely another way that the politico-economic establishment in this country seeks to defang dissenters and dull the power of our collective voices. Tommy Koh might fashion himself as a loving critic, but he is simply yet another ideological tool in the establishment’s arsenal.

Besides, Tommy Koh isn’t articulating anything new. In 2014, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called on Singaporeans to “love” the government, “warts and all.” More fundamentally, the PAP has always sought to co-opt acceptable critics in order to heavily repress unacceptable critics. A glaring omission in Tommy Koh’s op-ed reveals this general truth. In order to make his point about the need for loving critics, Mr Koh brings up the case of David Marshall being appointed ambassador to France:

Mr Lee Kuan Yew once recalled that when Mr S. Rajaratnam went to see him and to propose the appointment of Mr David Marshall as Singapore’s Ambassador to France, Mr Lee said, he almost fell off his chair. He told Mr Raja that David Marshall was their political enemy. He was eventually persuaded and David Marshall served as Singapore’s Ambassador to France, with great distinction, for 10 years. On the occasion of Mr Raja’s 80th birthday dinner, Mr Lee Kuan Yew praised Mr Raja for his virtue of magnanimity in victory.

Where was this “magnanimity” for Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, James Puthucheary, Said Zahari and the many other political prisoners? Where was this magnanimity when Lee Kuan Yew called the PAP left-wing a “lunatic fringe” and dubbed them “bits of scum”?

Tommy Koh’s anecdote implicitly reveals the real reason behind the “need” for loving critics. It is not for the benefit of Singaporeans or the nation. Rather, the PAP needs loving critics in order to castigate the so-called un-loving critics. If we have David Marshall, we can prop him up as a loving critic, while demonizing the so-called communists. Has this dynamic changed in twenty-first century Singapore?

More importantly, it’s worth considering why Tommy Koh devotes so much attention to individuals rather than systems and structures. Elsewhere, he has criticized Singaporeans for being a “Third World people.” Singapore, he writes, is a “First World country,” but we, its citizens, lack “civic-mindedness” and remain “unkind and selfish.”

Focusing on individual behaviour (in this case, inaccurately) is a way to deny the role of government policy and action to constrain civil society and, thus, “civic-mindedness.” In other words, Tommy Koh loves talking about how Singaporeans should be more like this and less like that because it shifts blame from power structures to individual behaviour: the PAP made us a First World country, but we Singaporeans are to blame for supposedly being Third World people.

Tommy Koh’s loving critics and critical lovers will never be able to articulate, let alone effectuate, the radical changes that this nation requires precisely because they have to constantly adopt an acceptable, “loving” stance in order to not risk being seen as unpatriotic or anti-Singaporean.

So today, on National Day, the day that commemorates the culmination of Lee Kuan Yew’s insidious plan to rush in and out of Malaysia within two years in order to fully eradicate, with the help of the British and the Federation government, his political opponents and critics in Singapore, I would like to state loudly and clearly that what we need are unrelenting critics who refuse to sugarcoat their criticisms with jingoistic, patriotic truisms.

It is a small miracle that, despite how everything is stacked against them, such critics do exist. We know who they are and we must all do our part to support them, join them. More importantly, we should all strive to become unloving critics.

There is too much at stake: the ongoing climate crisis that is only going to get worse, the increasing wealth gap, institutional racism, gender inequality, anti-LGBT discrimination, the treatment of migrant and domestic workers, heavy-handed governmental repression of free speech… and the list goes on and on.

We will not solve any of these issues by keeping our heads down and fitting into the establishment’s mould of the loving critic. For the sake of the people around us, regardless of the colour of their skin, the colour of their passports, regardless of their gender expression or sexual orientation, regardless of all the divisions produced by global and and local capitalism, we must resolve to be unrelenting critics whose discourse is not predicated on love for Singapore, but on solidarity with the human beings around us.

I have no love for Singapore. I have no love for the Singaporean people. I have a radical love for people and a radical respect for human life and dignity beyond borders. If we are Singaporeans today and not Malayans or Malaysians or anything else, it is because of a set of specific historical circumstances. In a parallel unfolding of history, our red passports might never have existed.

So, no, I couldn’t care less about being a loving critic or a Singaporean patriot. What I care about and what I hope you care about, above everything else, is improving the material conditions of the lives of the many. If this necessitate destroying PAP-Singapore, then so be it, Tommy Koh.

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