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Dense Cities: An interview with Cherian George

Dense Cities
An Interview With Cherian George

16 October 2016, Hong Kong


Cherian George has long been a fixture in Singapore’s academic scene, frequently crossing into the realm of civil society with his incisive articles on media and freedom of speech. Previously an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, George relocated to Hong Kong in 2014 where he has been since. He took up an associate professorship at Hong Kong Baptist University in August 2014.

In a city-state that is known for its lack of press freedom, George is the author of several important books including Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation and Freedom From The Press: Journalism And State Power In Singapore.

Mackerel had the privilege of catching up with George in the busy depths of Tsim Sha Tsui and found, much to our delight, that in spite of his exit from the country, he most certainly has not left the discourse behind.

Do you feel less restricted in terms of producing social commentary now that you’re living and teaching in Hong Kong? Does distance bring a different perspective? 

The physical distance makes it harder to keep touch with what’s going on in Singapore. It might be different if I had moved to a less stimulating city, but Hong Kong hooks you very quickly. So I stopped following Singapore news on a regular basis the very week I moved here. It’s hard to make time, even for larger issues.

I find out about news through what friends share on FaceBook. There are some professional areas of interest that I keep up with and these are issues related to the media and freedom of expression. But even then, I find that I need to make a conscious effort. In Singapore, you’re surrounded and you want to be involved, but it's different here.

Also, when I finished Freedom from the Press in 2012, I saw it very much as wrapping up my research on Singapore and politics. And since then, I’ve been less curious about Singapore. I will revisit Singapore intellectually in the coming years, but for now, I’m curious about many other things that have nothing to do with Singapore. 

Photo credit: Thomas Tan, Occupy Central, Admiralty, 2014. CC2.0

You’ve had a close-up view of the Umbrella Revolution and its aftermath, up to the recent elections where six young people gained seats for the pro-democracy camp. How do you compare this to Singapore’s political landscape, specifically in relation to young people getting involved in politics?

I arrived when Occupy was starting two years ago, so from Hongkongers who have been here a lot longer, I gathered that Hong Kong youth in the past were not too different from Singapore’s youth, content to pursue a living. But that has changed for this generation, largely for economic reasons. This generation has had to confront the reality that it's much harder to make their way in the world because of competition from China and other forces out of their control, and also because the Hong Kong government has been very poor in providing them with affordable basics, especially housing.

The life prospects for a young Hong Kong graduate are quite dismal unless they are lucky enough to inherit a home from their parents. So this economic discomfort is at the root of the political awakening of Hong Kongers, where they realise that things are not going their way and that the system is not working for them. This forced them to ask tough questions, like how they can make their government accountable. 

Photo credit: Bernard Spragg, Occupy Central, 2014, CC2.0

And then they quickly realised the truth: that the Hong Kong government does not answer to Hong Kong people; that ultimately, it answers to Beijing and to powerful vested interests in Hong Kong. When they confront that reality, quite rationally they realised that that is a system they had to change. In Hong Kong, you can’t change your government through a vote, so the only way is to force the government to become more accountable.

In comparison, young Singaporeans have not had to struggle in the same way to achieve a comfortable life. Amongst my former students, most of them are thinking of or have gotten married and are able to apply for their HDB* flat, and are already setup for family life in their 20s. They can pay off their home loan in a reasonable time. So even if they don’t find the system perfect, there really is no reason why they should take to the streets. They can push for the changes they want to see within existing political frameworks. If their MP is not working for them, they can kick out the MP. Even though Singapore’s political system is loaded and not evenly competitive, the bottom-line is that Singaporeans can get rid of non-performing political leaders in a way that you can’t in Hong Kong.

*HDB or Housing Development Board flats are public housing developments that about 80% of the Singapore population live in. There are two ways of owning such a flat: one either marries and applies for a new flat or buys one on the resale market, or one waits until one hits 35 to get one, marriage not compulsory.

What is mainstream media? How would you define ‘mainstream’?

In every society from the beginning of time, power is not distributed equally. There are concentrations of political, economic, social and cultural power. Associated with that centralised core of power, you will find media and cultural vehicles that align in some way to that core. And that is what I would call mainstream media; media ideologically tied to the centre of power, media that reflects the values of that centralised power, that is a vehicle for that power.

What do you think are the implications of people consciously avoiding mainstream media outlets? 

The mainstream shrinks in any country with a vibrant Internet culture. But, mainstream media and the alternative media distinction continues to apply because your mainstream newspapers and broadcasters still have the means to conduct journalism on a large-scale organised way. Traditional media institutions have large teams of reporters who are able to cover, for example, legislative council discussions or parliament debates or a complex court case. The alternative media, while they can generate a large amount of commentary, discussion and comments, tends to be limited in its ability to report the daily news. But, alternative media is broader because you have a much wider range of voices and it also defines the news in a much broader way.  

Photo Credit: Gordon Wrigley. Construction of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. 2008. CC2.0

Do you think Singapore’s present government, post-Lee Kuan Yew, is up to the task of carrying on in his stead?

Lee Kuan Yew was exceptional in his single-minded dedication to the cause of Singapore. At that individual level, will future leaders have that same dedication? It’s possible, but the chances are rare because Lee Kuan Yew was the product of a confluence of factors. Both historical forces as well as biographical factors.

For him the national was personal. The political was personal, because he had something to prove, and it really was a passion for him. He needed to prove to all his opponents that on a personal level, he was better than any of them, and he wanted them to know what Singapore could achieve in the face of their disbelief.  

The smart thing for Singapore to do is to assume that, yes, Lee Kuan Yew was a one-off, and therefore our current and future success has to be based on something other than the greatness of individual men. And we have to move towards a formula where we assume that leaders will not be great, and leaders will not be infallible. Even Lee Kuan Yew wasn’t infallible by any means, so if we take seriously the PAP’s own rhetoric that this pioneering generation was exceptional and Lee Kuan Yew was the most exceptional, then we better get used to the fact that the future basis of our success has to be based on something else.

If we cannot count on individual greatness we have to count on institutional resilience. We have to start designing Singapore’s system around the assumption that individuals will fail, and fortunately this isn’t something we have to do in the dark. This is basically the democratic project, and it boils down to a system of checks and balances that assumes that no matter how gifted and talented individuals are, even if they have persuaded voters they are the right person for the job and that they have been democratically elected, the smart, safe and prudent thing to do is to assume that they will fail. They will fail because they might be corrupt. They will fail because they might end up being the wrong person for the job. This has to be taken as likely scenarios if you want to be prudent. So we have to design systems that won’t fail even if the individual fails. It’s the idea of limited government; you do not give your leaders unlimited power.  

You want to make sure your system survives inferior leaders. That even if by some crazy chance Donald Trump becomes your leader, that doesn’t take your country back to the Dark Ages. There are checks in terms of institutions such as an independent press to make sure your country still survives. And I think that is something Singapore hasn’t given enough thought to.

What do you make of the proposed changes to Singapore’s elected presidency?

The impression I get is that it has been framed as a debate between the need for minority representation and an open system that would allow Tan Cheng Bock to possibly become President. And people are lined up on either side. But I do want to see a minority President. I think it is a very important symbol. But, precisely because I understand the importance of having a minority president, I’m disappointed in the way the government has gone about it.

The assumption seems to be that we don’t now have a minority candidate on the radar capable of winning the presidency in open competition. I think that is wrong. Halimah Yacob can win with no help or handicap. If they picked Halimah Yacob as a candidate, I don’t think they need to block Chinese candidates against her. She is enormously respected, she has extremely strong trade union labour credentials. She is respected by Malays as well as Chinese. This is one of those cases where the PAP as well as some other Singaporeans have a very dim view of Singaporeans, and that view is unrealistically dim. Yes, there might be some prejudice against Halimah on account of her gender, religion and race. But this prejudice probably does not amount to some kind of total trump card that will ensure her defeat. Those backing her might have to fight a little harder. But whatever kind of handicap she carries would just quantitatively amount to a tiny disadvantage. And I don’t see how that can compromise her track record. And I also cannot believe that the PAP with all its machinery and the union movement as well as many Singaporeans wouldn’t go all out to bat for her. After all, how wonderful would it be for Singapore to have a female, Malay, Muslim president?

I have total faith that there are enough male, Chinese, non-Muslim Singaporeans who will campaign for her. Unfortunately, many others do not have such faith. And I see it as a huge moment of opportunity for Singapore’s multiracialism. This is an opportunity to signal to the world, and ourselves, that after fifty years of nation building, we are ready to embrace a President who is not from the conventional mainstream.

Instead, what are we heading for? We’re heading for a situation where the PAP has decided to give a Malay candidate a walkover, which will taint the presidency forever. Whoever becomes the president next year will be a token president. Why taint it with the label of tokenism? It’s so unnecessary. I believe that if it were a straight fight between Halimah Yacob and Tan Cheng Bock, Halimah would win hands down. 

What do you like living in Hong Kong? Why? 

I like the density. I spent the past two years living in Causeway Bay and now I’m in Tsim Sha Tsui. Compared with what Hong Kongers live with, Singaporeans are wimps to think their city is crowded! But I think the key thing is that Hong Kong organises its crowds better. Here, there are automatic queues for lifts, either self-organised or by stewards. In Singapore, you wonder which lift door is going to open first, can I get in, will someone beat me to it, and that creates stress! I’ve grown convinced that the problem of crowdedness is not about physical space but the stress of competing with fellow human beings.

The density in Hong Kong liberates me from private transport. I don’t have a car and don’t miss it. So many things are within walking distance; it’s a very different lifestyle.

By developing the urban areas intensely but also leaving hilly portions, a balance is kept and this ensures that nature is very accessible. I’m constantly discovering new things literally a two-minute walk from where I live. Singapore is more of a suburban experience, which is good for families. For now, I’m enjoying the intensity of this way of life. It seems chaotic at first sight, but after a while, it doesn’t feel like chaos, but it is organically organised. You find the rhythm of the city and the fact that so much is so close by, compensates for its crowdedness. 

What are you working on now? 

Hate Spin, the book that I’ve just finished writing and have been completely immersed in for the past four to five years. It is a book on freedom of expression and religious tolerance that looks mainly at the US, India and Indonesia. It’s about the issue of hate propaganda and intolerance on a global level.

It’s my attempt to address what is one of the most pressing issues of our time: how to deal with religious intolerance. It is often assumed that freedom of expression is at odds with respect for religion. But what I’ve found in my research and what I argue in my book is that the best way to show respect for religion is not by suppressing speech but by upholding equality.

Many of the deepest problems of religious intolerance around the world can be addressed by protecting religious equality and by combating discrimination, rather than worrying about who’s saying what to whom. 

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Hate Spin is available online from The MIT Press. It will be in bookstores in Singapore from November. Freedom From The Press is available here. More on Cherian George here.