Saturday, October 29, 2005


Managing civil disobedience

Note: My academic paper on this subject has been published in the Working Paper series of the Asia Research Institute, NUS. You may download the PDF file by clicking here. I've tried to apply these ideas in analysing Chee Soon Juan's strategy of civil disobedience. Below is an op-ed piece published in The Straits Times on this topic, and the ensuing exchange with the government. The op-ed piece first appeared on this site. (See an earlier posting below, which contains more comments from readers.)

The Straits Times, 10 October 2005, Pg 19
By Cherian George

THE 'white elephants' affair has resulted in a 'stern warning' to its unnamed perpetrator. After this case, people will be more careful to check that they do not accidentally flout the law, as the unfortunate Mahout of Buangkok appears to have done.

However, this is unlikely to be the last such case. The stern warning will not deter opposition activists who believe in deliberately breaking the law to make a political point. Their attempt to inject civil disobedience into Singapore's body politic represents an intriguing challenge to the People's Action Party's ideological hold. It calls for deft handling. While thwarting a protest is easy for the authorities, the question is how much political capital they will have to spend in the process.

This is the real power of such campaigns. By deliberately but non-violently flouting laws that they deem unjust, opponents put the authorities in a fix.

The state could choose to close one eye, but this would diminish its authority and probably invite follow-up breaches until these are too large or too flagrant to be ignored. If the state responds with force against a peaceful protest, the activists can still try to claim the moral victory. They may succeed in convincing the wider public that the law in question - and the state's power in general - is neither just nor moral, but instead backed by sheer force.

Thus, campaigns of civil disobedience test a state's moral legitimacy, revealing whether its rule is based mainly on consent or on coercion.

Dr Chee Soon Juan has been dabbling with this strategy for some years, at least since 1998, when he spoke in public without a permit and landed up in prison. His new book, The Power Of Courage, promotes non-violent civil disobedience as an opposition strategy in Singapore.

The Government has responded that the rule of law must be respected. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said that wilful law-breaking 'regardless of whether you think it is a silly law or not ... does violence to the rule of law', even if the actions are peaceful.

While the principle of zero tolerance for law-breaking is straightforward, applying it will be a challenge. Civil disobedience will test a key element of PAP governance: its acumen in calibrating its use of force against political challengers, such that opponents are neutralised with minimum collateral damage.

This is not to deny the other - and much better-understood - sources of the PAP's strength, namely its outstanding record in delivering the goods, its internal discipline and its ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans.

But every state, by definition, also comprises instruments of force. And the intelligent use of force is no less a dimension of good governance than, say, an efficient bureaucracy or long-term urban planning.

Its calibrated approach to coercion may be one of the least appreciated of the PAP's many skills. Indeed, stating it this way will probably provoke some incredulity. After all, even some of the PAP's most ardent supporters think it is guilty of occasional overkill. PAP leaders themselves are not coy about their macho side. Mr Lee Kuan Yew talks of knuckledusters and nation-building with equal aplomb. If the PAP were to develop and market a computer game, it would be a cross between SimCity and Street Fighter.


IMAGE aside, however, the facts show a government increasingly aware of the need to exercise self-restraint in its use of force. Yes, it has an array of repressive tools within easy reach. But, compared with other states that possess similar tools and are controlled by similarly strong-willed leaders, Singapore's Government has been relatively judicious and sophisticated in their use.

The spectrum of coercive tools available to an authoritarian regime today ranges from political murders and disappearances, and torture and imprisonment without trial, to criminal prosecution, civil action, the banning of organisations, sabotaging opponents' means of earning a living and character attacks through state-controlled media.

The most extreme of these tools have never been used in Singapore. And it is noteworthy that detention without trial, under the Internal Security Act, was used frequently in the 1960s and 1970s but has not been applied to non-violent political opponents in almost two decades.

As for criminal prosecutions, most of these have not involved jail terms. Dr Chee went to prison because he would not pay a fine. The state's weapon of choice - defamation civil suits - similarly does not involve incarceration, though it can be devastating financially.

Some may argue that these distinctions are academic, as the PAP's calibrated coercion is still coercive enough to neutralise the opposition. On the one hand, that is precisely the point being argued here: The PAP has developed into an art form the ability to suppress challenges with a fraction of the brutality employed by the most ruthless dictatorships, but with an effectiveness that more than matches them.

Still, the difference between physical torture and a lawsuit is hardly insignificant. To claim otherwise - to say that Singapore is like the Soviet Union of the past, or like Zimbabwe today - is to trivialise the suffering of dissidents in some of the most inhumane regimes of the modern era.

Furthermore, different tools have different secondary effects. That is why calibrated coercion is not only more ethical than unbridled repression, but also the smarter option for any regime interested in long-term consolidation rather than short-term plunder.

States that overplay their hand often find the excessive violence backfiring on them. It unleashes a moral outrage that opponents can harness to mobilise a hitherto-inert public behind their cause.

Tipping points

IN THE Philippines, the sight of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr, gunned down in cold blood on the tarmac of Manila International Airport in 1983, was the beginning of the end of the Ferdinand Marcos regime.

Indonesia, May 1998: The shooting of four student protesters was the tipping point that turned the Reformasi campaign against then-president Suharto into a full-blown revolution.

Malaysia's Reformasi got a fillip from sensational images of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim being snatched away under the Internal Security Act and then emerging from custody with a black eye, courtesy of the country's police chief.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew would later comment that the Mahathir government erred tactically in using the ISA instead of a straightforward criminal charge - a rare hint that the calibration of coercion is a conscious policy, even if never enunciated.

One of the few political theorists to have analysed the cost of a state's violence to the state itself was political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

In her pithy treatise On Violence, she rejected Mao Zedong's oft-quoted dictum by arguing that while violence can flow from the barrel of a gun, power cannot.

Power corresponds to the human ability to act in concert; it belongs to a group and exists only as long as the group coheres.

'Single men without others to support them never have enough power to use violence successfully,' she wrote.

'Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis - the secret police and its net of informers ... Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use ... Everything depends on the power behind the violence.'

Power is sustained by legitimacy, and legitimacy is what's lost when violence is misapplied. 'To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power,' she said.

Therefore, even though violence, power and authority often appear together, they are not the same. Indeed, she added: 'Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance.'

Arendt thus zoomed in on the counter-intuitive truth that run-of-the-mill dictators have failed to understand. As in so many other areas, the PAP belongs in a different league. It may have wielded mallets to smash assorted flies in the 1960s and 1970s, but since the mid-1980s it has been relatively self-restrained in the use of force.

This is why the Catherine Lim Affair was able to create such a stir in the mid-1990s, and is still talked about 10 years later, despite the fact that she was not arrested, exiled or 'fixed'. Her books were still published and used as literature texts in government schools, so she was not even punished professionally.

Three decades ago, these less-calibrated means of coercion were more routine. A Singaporean from that period, transported through time to the present day, would be dumbfounded by the notion that the Catherine Lim Affair - which never got nastier than a verbal lashing - could be iconic of PAP intolerance towards dissent. He would have concluded, correctly, that the PAP had changed.

Our time-traveller would be wrong, however, if he assumed that the PAP had undergone a fundamental philosophical conversion towards liberal ideals. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised at his talk at the Foreign Correspondents Association last Thursday, it has not - and will not.

The change is instead at the level of methodology. By systematically shifting political controls behind the scenes - through legislation covering trade unions, universities, the press, religious groups and the legal profession - the PAP has pre-empted ugly confrontations with institutions that could challenge its authority.

Mixed blessing

THE contemporary scene of calibrated coercion is a mixed blessing for Singaporeans who want more freedom. There is certainly less cause for fear today than in the old days when coercion was more blunt. On the other hand, the PAP's self-restraint gives its opponents less moral ammunition.

Controls are so seamlessly integrated into the system and coercion is so well calibrated that the average Singaporean can go through much of life without bumping into the hard edges of PAP authoritarianism. This is bad news for pro-democracy activists, who consequently have a tough time reminding Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation.

That is where Dr Chee's strategy of civil disobedience comes in. It is a predictable response to the PAP's success at calibrated coercion. It involves seeking out laws that may not enjoy great public support, and deliberately flouting them to provoke a forceful response. The use of force will ensure victory to the PAP, but the price of victory, to borrow Arendt's words, will be 'paid by the victor in terms of his own power'. The strategy turns the state's monopoly of force against itself.

Other states have fallen into the trap when those at the top miscalculate, or when their functionaries - especially the police or army - get trigger-happy when putting down peaceful protests. There is little risk of the latter in Singapore, where uniformed services are highly disciplined and under firm civilian direction. The former scenario - political miscalculation - also seems unlikely.

However, it should be noted that a new and less experienced generation of ministers and permanent secretaries is taking charge. For them, there may be an urge to deal with challengers of any sort in the most expeditious manner, and the temptation to get their way through actual or threatened force may be irresistible. The alternative - the use of reason and debate - may seem too slow, too weak, especially when more decisive tools are at one's fingertips.

The situation, in short, is dynamic. The Government can narrow the opportunities for effective civil disobedience by pro-actively amending regulations that are over-broad and difficult to defend intellectually to the ordinary Singaporean. Until then, the Chees of Singapore will continue to pressure those points in the law. The authorities will not give in; they will say no. But they will have to calibrate carefully how they say no.

The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, where he researches media and politics. This article is based on an academic paper on calibrated coercion, published in the Asia Research Institute's working paper series, at

Govt doesn't depend on 'calibrated coercion'

The Straits Times Forum page, 12 October 2005, Page H7

Chen Hwai Liang
Press Secretary
to the Prime Minister

IN 'MANAGING civil disobedience' (ST, Oct 10), Dr Cherian George regretted that the PAP Government's 'calibrated approach to coercion' and its self-restraint had made it harder for 'pro-democracy activists - (to) remind Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation'.

He noted that 'that is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)'s strategy of civil disobedience comes in', and commended it as a 'strategy (which) turns the state's monopoly of force against itself'.

Dr George has mixed up several different issues. First, the Government does not depend on 'calibrated coercion', but derives moral authority precisely from what Dr George himself acknowledged - 'an outstanding record in delivering the goods, internal discipline, ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans'.

Second, this record of good and clean governance depends on rigorously upholding the rule of law in a plural and democratic society.

The Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters, and whether through violent or non-violent means.

If a law is unjust, there are established avenues for reviewing and changing it. Neither Mr Chiam See Tong nor Mr Low Thia Khiang has had to resort to 'civil disobedience' or defamation in order to be elected as MPs.

Our defamation laws follow the English model, and keep our public discourse responsible and honest. Dr George described defamation civil suits as 'the state's weapon of choice', but ministers can sue successfully only if they have been defamed, and they do so on a personal basis, not on behalf of the state.

Opposition MPs themselves have sued when they considered themselves defamed.

Third, zero tolerance for law breaking does not equate to zero tolerance for dissenting views. On the contrary, we encourage people to speak up and express their opinions on national policies and community life, so that out of the diversity of views a consensus can be forged, and a better decision made for the good of the nation.

Dr George's critical article was published in The Straits Times, contradicting his own claims.

Of course, where criticism is directed against the Government, then the Government has to respond to it or rebut it, or else lose the argument and the respect of Singaporeans. This is what it did a decade ago in response to Dr Catherine Lim.

Such exchanges do not represent 'PAP intolerance towards dissent'. They are part and parcel of public discourse in a democratic society.

Dr George is, however, right that the PAP has not 'undergone a fundamental philosophical conversion towards liberal ideals'. He offered no supporting arguments or evidence why these are the right ideals for Singapore.

The Prime Minister has explained why he does not believe that liberal democracy as practised in the West will work here.

Singaporeans know that we have thrived on a different approach - the PAP has won every election since 1959 because it enjoys the trust and support of the people, governs in their interests, and involves citizens in the large issues that affect us all.

Govt shouldn't equate analysis with advocacy

The Straits Times Forum page, 13 October 2005, Page H7

From: Cherian George

IN MY article, 'Managing civil disobedience' (ST, Oct 10), I analysed 'calibrated coercion' as one under-appreciated governance skill of the People's Action Party, and speculated that the opposition's strategy of civil disobedience presents a new challenge that the PAP would have to manage carefully.

The Prime Minister's press secretary, Mr Chen Hwai Liang, has responded by presenting the Government's position on its own success factors ('Govt doesn't depend on calibrated coercion'').

I will continue to refine my own analysis based on Mr Chen's and other responses. The PAP's record of political stability is unique in the world and deserves nuanced and sustained study, which I, like others in the academic fraternity, are committed to. I therefore welcome the Government's engagement with my ideas.

However, I am saddened that the Government has chosen to cast my article in partisan terms. Worse, it claims that I 'commended' the strategy of civil disobedience. This is not just a misrepresentation of my views. It is also a serious accusation, as it suggests that I was inciting readers to break the law.

I did not. I tried to explain Dr Chee Soon Juan's strategy, not champion it. Unfortunately, Mr Chen has chosen to equate analysis with advocacy. By this token, a historian who studies the rise of communism must be a communist himself. The terrorism expert who explains the motivations of Al-Qaeda operatives must be siding with terrorists. And a sociologist analysing Stefanie Sun's international appeal must be a groupie. Such labelling would make much academic research untenable.

Only time will tell conclusively whether Dr Chee's application of civil disobedience to Singapore is as irrelevant as communism, as dangerous as terrorism, or as benign as a Stephanie Sun song.

However, until experience tells us otherwise, my own hunch is that it is possible to work legally for a better Singapore, and to call for changes in laws without breaking them. Most Singaporeans who are in favour of faster political liberalisation (including opposition leaders other than Dr Chee) appear to share this faith.

I also share the view of PAP MP Charles Chong and his grassroots leaders that Singaporeans who want to press for change need to be 'very creative, but within the law'.

That does not mean alternative approaches, such as Dr Chee's, don't deserve close and dispassionate scrutiny. Sadly, readers may get the impression from parts of the Government's response to my article that it will treat such study as equal to instigating others to break the law, and therefore out of bounds.

As for me, I will choose not to come to this pessimistic conclusion despite the unfair accusation, and accept on faith that there remains room in Singapore for the critical discussion of serious issues.

Don wasn't non-partisan in his analysis

The Straits Times Forum page, 14 October 2005, Page H22

Chen Hwai Liang
Press Secretary
to the Prime Minister

DR CHERIAN George, in his letter 'Govt shouldn't equate analysis with advocacy' (ST, Oct 13), regrets that the Government had 'cast (his) article ('Managing civil disobedience'; ST, Oct 10) in partisan terms'.

His article states that it was 'based on an academic paper on calibrated coercion'. This paper, titled 'Calibrated coercion and the maintenance of hegemony in Singapore', describes Singapore as an instance of 'authoritarian rule', declares that 'the normative thrust of this essay is directed at democratisation', and claims to offer a 'sophisticated understanding of what makes certain kinds of authoritarian rule endure - the better to resist and challenge them'.

These statements, which show Dr George's true intention, were omitted from his Straits Times article, which was a sanitised version of his original paper. Is this being non-partisan?

Dr George also denied that he had 'commended' the strategy of civil disobedience. He protested that a terrorism expert who explains the motivations of terrorists is pursuing academic research, and not siding with the terrorists.

But if the expert goes further to suggest that there are good and legitimate reasons why a person has to resort to terrorism, that must be a different matter.

Indeed, Dr George's article did not directly commend civil disobedience. However, his attitude can clearly be inferred from its conclusion, which I quote:

'Mixed Blessing
The contemporary scene of calibrated coercion is a mixed blessing for Singaporeans who want more freedom. This is bad news for pro-democracy activists, who consequently have a tough time reminding Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation. That is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)'s strategy of civil disobedience comes in. It is a predictable response to the PAP's success at calibrated coercion.' *

I am, however, happy that Dr George has now clarified that, in his view, Singaporeans who want to press for change need to do so within the law.

It is no surprise that critics of the Government, especially those who are academics, will want to portray themselves as being dispassionate observers who are above the fray.

However, the Government's response will depend on the substance of what they say, rather than the pose they strike.

[* NOTE: This letter from the PMO doctored a quote from my academic paper, persuading me that the PMO was not interested in a rational debate, but had a political interest in "winning" this exchange at any cost. The orignal "Mixed Blessing" passage included these sentences: "There is certainly less cause for fear today than in the old days when coercion was more blunt." And: "the average Singaporean can go through much of life without bumping into the hard edges of PAP authoritarianism." These sentences, in the middle of the quoted paragraph, were deleted by the PMO in its reply. This was the only way it could support PMO's claim about my inner motives, that I'm supposedly in favour of more brutal coercion so that pro-democracy activists would gain political mileage.]

Govt should distinguish between substance, form

The Straits Times Forum page, 20 October 2005, Page H7

Kelvin Chia Kwok Wai

I REFER to the letter, 'Don wasn't non-partisan in his analysis' (ST, Oct 14), by Mr Chen Hwai Liang, the Press Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Mr Chen seems adamant about imposing the partisan tag on Dr Cherian George by virtue of the fact that his analysis was based on an earlier academic paper which Mr Chen sees as partisan.

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, the presumption of partisanship is justified by quotes that were taken out of context from the academic paper. Dr George clearly states that there exist 'gaps in our understanding of authoritarian rule' because of normative and conceptual reasons, and the paper was an attempt to bridge such gaps by 'focusing on the
state' and 'taking seriously authoritarian rule'.

Secondly, to judge Dr George's intention in writing the article ('Managing civil disobedience'; ST, Oct 10) using a perceptual judgment (that I have attempted to refute) of an earlier paper by Dr George is faulty logic at best; it assumes the objective truism of such a judgment that is necessarily normative in nature.

Later in his letter, Mr Chen argues against all remonstrations that Dr George had commended the strategy of civil disobedience, when the latter merely suggested that the strategy is a mere 'predictable response'.

Certainly, one would not think that a doctor is commending the impending death of his incurable patient by stating reasons as to why such an outcome is medically predictable. Yet, such is the logic that is applied here.

I am pleased to be assured that the Government's response will depend on substance rather than form, but I urge the Government to make a clear and accurate distinction between the two.


Jon Symons said...


I've just read the academic paper that provoked this correspondence. First thing to say is that I think it's a really interesting and valuable paper.

I'd like to pose some questions though regarding your approach to the concept of legitimacy and its relationship with compliance. This springs from your use of Held's scale of motivations for compliance. This list strkes me as deeply asocial and overly wedded to a rational actor model of human behaviour. (Incidentally I find Oran Young's discussion in Compliance and Public Authority offers a more nuanced understanding of rational bases for compliance). I'm wondering if the Weberian concept of legitimacy might be more fully developed as a tool for thinking about compliance in the Singaporean context.

In defining a sociological meaning of legitimacy, Weber writes that "social action which involves social relationships, may be oriented by the actors to a belief in the existence of a ‘legitimate order’". This understanding of legitimacy explicitly includes the situation where individuals comply because they (potentially falsely) believe that others accept the legitimacy of a political order, even though they do not do so themselves. Theorists like David Beetham who try to inject a normative element into legitimacy are thus missing the essence of the Weberian concept. By contrast, in the discipline of social psychology, Weberian legitimacy is divided between concepts of validity (describing a situation where norm-compliance results from an expectation that others accept a norm) and propriety (where action is oriented by one’s own belief in and internalization of a norm).

As against Held's rational actor model, Weberian legtimacy understands humans as social actors who are predisposed to conform with perceived social norms out of a desire for belonging. A coercive state aiming to minimise dissent may thus seek to generate false consensus and misperception of collective behavioural norms by increasing the signalling and collective action costs for those whose private views are oppositional. Regulating media in such a way as to create an illusion of free discussion and occasional real criticism would seem to be a perfect technique for enhancing the 'validity'-based component social order.

I think your discussion of elections as generative of legitimacy reflects this Weberian understanding of legitimacy perfectly. Social psychological work on the human tendency to rationalize situations that we feel we have had responsibility for chosing in order to eleminate of cognitive dissonance is particularly instructive in this context. I also really enjoyed your discussion of Arendt - but it made me wonder whether the same dynamic might be discussed in terms of the relationships between coercion, validity and propreity in the manufacture of compliance.

Thanks for the fascinating article

Jon Symons

Sleepless in NYC said...

I'm joining this discussion late, but I thought your paper was spot-on in describing the PAP's approach to dissent as one of "calibrated coercion". I also felt that there were interesting parallels between the PAP's coercive responses to dissent and the way it seeks to maintain its ideological hegemony.

Unlike more harshly authoritarin regimes - such as the KMT in Taiwan in the 1960s-1980s and the South Korean government in the 1970s-1080s - the PAP has avoided the more brutal forms of repression and has constantly tempered its responses to opposition based on its assessments of what the Singaporean public can accept. It has also allowed just enough political space for disenchantment to be expressed and to dissipate harmlessly, rather than to suppress it and cause mounting resentment that might eventually be expressed in rising support for the opposition.

I broadly share your view that PAP's approach of calibrating its coercive responses to opposition will continue to serve it well, and give those agitating for greater political liberalization little space for manoeuvre. This strategy of the PAP's is very much a part of its capture and dominance of the idelogical middle ground, which forces the opposition into taking radical or flank positions, which by definition have little appeal to Singaporeans.

For the same reason that Opposition politicians find it hard to articulate coherent ideological alternatives to the PAP's ideologies of economic pragmatism, elitism and market-based conservatism, the PAP's approach in dealing with dissent also makes it hard for them to express their concerns on civil liberties in a way that finds resonance with Singaporeans. Dr Chee's strategy of civil disobedience may be targeted at those aspects of the law which he perceives has little public support, but I suspect that the Singaporean public isn't too bothered as to how the Public Entertainment Act limits their rights of expression and free assembly.

You argue that an over-reaction by the government may cause a ground-swell of public disaffection. I seriously doubt it. The Singapore public has been so de-politicized that I don't think an over-zealous interpretation of existing laws limiting civil liberties would rouse them into any kind of political action, or even raise their annoyance with the government.

In short, my view is that a strategy of civil disobedience - as pursued by Dr Chee - is essentially doomed to failure in Singapore, simply because there isn't a reservoir of discontent and disaffection that Dr Chee and those like him can tap into.

Instead, I believe that what creates opportunities for opposition will be more bread-and-butter, socioeconomic issues such as rising income inequalities, increasing long-term unemployment, lower levels of social mobility, and widespread disaffection with liberal foreign worker policies. I think the PAP's responses to these challenges have been uncharacteristically incoherent. On certain ocassions, it has appealed to the dangers of the welfare state; on others, it has made certain token gestures (such as handouts and limited welfare schemes). My sense is that the PAP is so ideologically wedded to its brand of neoconservative anti-welfarism and its desire to maintain a paternalistic relationship with voters that it cannot conceive of an institutional way of giving assistance to lower-income citizens. It is this ideological aversion to welfarism that I believe will create the space of a vibrant political opposition.