Of Opportunists and Sycophants in Academia

by singaporearmchaircritic

“What’s the use of democracy? Look at Singapore: it is not a democracy but is working very well!”

I cringed each time I heard this rather common refrain from a particular group of foreign scholars I came across in my line – not because I believe Singapore is a democracy (my views here), but because I disagree that all’s well in Singapore. Sometimes I pointed out why they were wrong, sometimes I simply could not be bothered to, and sometimes, frustratingly, the situation did not allow me to.

Lots of us have already aired our views on the negative outcome of our open door policy and the huge influx of foreigners – the strain on our infrastructure, the inflated property prices, the competition for jobs and other resources, and the clash in values and norms etc. But there’s another, more insidious aspect that has so far gone unnoticed. And that is the bandwagoning of anti-democracy or illiberal foreign academics with our authoritarian regime.

I’ve come across many such people because of my area of study. Most of these foreign scholars originate from countries and societies which are politically more authoritarian, economically and socially less developed than Singapore. Some of them still maintain their nationality and reside in their country of origin, but many, being educated in the U.S. and the U.K., have been residing and working in the west. You would think the latter group of foreign imports, many who are already professors in western universities, is more liberal, open-minded and embraces the universal values of freedom of speech, human rights, democracy etc. But surprise, surprise, you are wrong.

I give the benefit of the doubt to those who truly think our government is the greatest on earth, or better than others (yes, PAP fares better than the governments of China, Myanmar, North Korea etc.). I can understand if you are intimidated by our government’s iron-fisted approach toward its critics. I can’t blame you if you unwittingly take the words of our beloved national daily The Straits Times as gospel, or that you never read The Online Citizen and other local blogs to get a feel of the sentiments on the ground, and that your circle of friends does not include Singaporeans. The people with whom I have a bone to pick are the double-dealing weathercocks, who openly praise Singapore, privately deride it (a tiny red dot the mere size of a China county!) and yet drool at what our government offers in terms of monetary and other benefits.

These people irk me to no end because they are opportunists and have their own self-serving agenda. They have no principles and no scruples, and have taken the side of the powerful for expediency. They are quick to recognize the kind of discourse favored by the ruling party, and in no time start to sing the same tune of the government to get into its good books – “Singapore is governed so well it doesn’t need democracy”; “the government must be highly paid to deter corruption”; “Singapore needs more migrants for its economy to grow”; “Singaporeans are ungrateful and complain too much” et cetera, et cetera.

By so doing, they hope to get a ticket to a prestigious, high-paying job or permanent residency in Singapore – not that they love Singapore and want to make here their home – but because of our pro-foreigner policy and the perks that come with it, the ease of living in Singapore and the conveniences it provides as a launching pad for their next career. You can be sure if one day they have a better offer, they will scoot with alacrity. And there, in another land, these servile flatterers will unabashedly sing a different tune pleasing to the ears of the regime in power.

Granted, many of our own Singaporeans also have to toe the line in our jobs in order to survive. Freedom House observes that here in Singapore, “All public universities and political research institutions have direct government links that bear at least some influence. Academics engage in political debate, but their publications rarely deviate from the government line on matters related to Singapore.” But I think most of us would agree that the room for debate is gradually opening up, thanks to the Internet and a better-educated populace.

It has already been observed that as a society modernizes, more and more people will embrace democratic and emancipative values. Close to five decades since our Independence, Singapore has come to a point at which its citizens are agitating for more freedom and a greater say in policies that affect their lives. More citizens have also mustered the courage to speak their minds even if it means challenging the government’s official stance. This is no mean feat – we all know and have witnessed the plight of dissidents. But we have a stake in our country, and we make sacrifices as citizens of this country.

Not these opportunists and sycophants. They hold another passport and have no stake in our country. Having them dominate our discourse is perilous because they put a dent in our modernization process, effacing the progress we have painstakingly made through generational change. They throw their weight behind the ruling regime, tirelessly parroting its doctrines that are fast losing credibility or have lost currency among the new generation of enlightened and critical Singaporeans. Their role here, in other words, is to “balance” or drown out Singaporeans’ increasingly vocal demands for political liberalization.

While they are at it, they also engage in the bashing of the “western” values of democracy, human rights, press freedom and their proponents with so much vehemence and hate that I wonder what’s stopping them from relocating back to their country of origin where they can bask in the repressive climate. Predictably, these hypocrites align themselves with other authoritarian regimes as well, rising superpower China in particular. And thus, the 400,000 Hong Kong protestors who thronged the streets on the 15th anniversary of the city’s handover are “ingrates” “disloyal” to the “motherland”; human rights activists in China are “inconsequential” “western lackeys”; the Dalai Lama is an “evil separatist”; and yes, of course Taiwan is a part of China.

Quick to seek out their kind, these Janus-faced bootlickers find strength in numbers and hit hard at fellow academics who dare voice their objection, killing what little we have of academic freedom here. Arguing with them is not an intellectual exercise – they do not have to talk reason and logic; they win simply by being on the right side, the side of power.

Such deplorable behavior is no doubt encouraged by our entrenched culture of not speaking truth to power, and the propensity of those in power to reward the fawning toady. As a Chinese saying goes, “heartfelt advice is jarring to the ears.” But when our society is obviously in a state of flux and our people yearning for change, what is the point of clinging on to what might have worked in the past but have lost relevance in today’s context? What is the point of importing obsequious sweet-talkers from societies that are morally bankrupt and less well-governed than ours? To exchange tips on how to hold on to power for perpetuity? To learn some tricks of “social management” for a “harmonious society”?

Give me a break, for goodness sake. Reinvent yourself. Start thinking out of the box. And listen to your own people. You will learn more from ordinary Singaporeans than these cowards who call themselves intellectuals and yet have neither the intellect nor the courage to speak truth to power in their own country of origin.