25 July 2004

The War on Intellectual Honesty

A special "Remaking English" edition

"A Defining Moment - How Singapore Beat Sars" is destined to hit the local bestsellers list for fiction. Droves of Singaporeans are snapping up the 204-page coffeetable book and depleting stocks at major bookshops.

I say to them: save your money.

Let's backtrack.
A year ago, after the first SARS epidemic died down in Singapore, the Minister of Information, Communication and the Arts (read: Minister for Propaganda) approached Prof Tommy Koh to publish a book to document the story of SARS, under his Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) think-tank. The Prof is a rare PAP man who is accepted as 'neutral' and independent - something that the credibility of his think-tank relies on.

Prof Koh agreed, on the one condition that "the author should have access to all relevant people and information, and the book should be intellectually honest".

From today's papers, it appears that the judicious use of that phrase has played an important role in the buying decision of the crowds. They see it as "objective and worth a read". After all, Tommy Koh is seen as an objective and fair person who is allowed to disagree with the PAP.

There are several problems.

1. The Author

So, after the Minister for Propaganda commissions Prof Koh's think-tank to publish a book, the IPS hires Chua Mui Hoong to do the research and write it.

Even though Ms Chua is a 'journalist', people SHOULD know that she is a "senior correspondent" who writes political analyses and social commentary on the op/ed pages. Most of the time, she defends the authoritarian system and the ruling party.

She also happens to be an ex-employee of the Internal Security Department. An ex-spook. In case you don't get the point, the ISD spies on Singaporeans, opposition parties and politicians, and recommends who should get detained without trial.

How would hiring Ms Chua ensure Prof Koh's clause of intellectual honesty?

2. The Context

So you have written a record on SARS in Singapore. The best way to keep it intellectually honest is to embed the book in the national-building discourse.

It is no surprise then, that the book is launched 2 weeks before Singapore's National Day. Or that the PM and all his cabinet ministers come out during the launch to say how important the book is.

Several forewords are written by PM and gang in the book itself, proclaiming that SARS is "a defining moment for Singapore", that "many (national) heroes emerged in the (national) crisis". During the launch, Prof Koh remarked that the book was also a "tribute to a leader who remade Singapore".

The point is, there is NO NEED to enmesh the record of SARS with a nationalist message. But they choose to politicize SARS, to escalate it into a National Event, a Moral Event, a Singapore Epic.

It's almost like how Bush II cynically uses 9/11 commemoration events for his re-election.


So one needs to ask... Was Prof Koh blindsided and coerced into making concessions on the appointment of the author, and did not have any control over the reception and his ruling party's publicity for the book?

Or was he complicit from the start?

Remaking English

The utility of the questions really depend on what we understand when Prof Koh said he wanted an "intellectually honest" book.

Suppose none of us are walking dictionaries and encyclopedias. If asked to consider the meaning of the phrase in its context, we might guess it means "unbiased", "truthful", or perhaps "ethical". And looking at the entire story thus far, we might further guess that being "intellectually honest" might not necessarily mean "emotionally honest".

This is how our leaders Remake English. Key phrases signifying important technical, philosophical, or academic concepts are regularly given the PAP treatment (read "bastardisation") and either mis-interpreted or completely refashioned to mean what our leaders want them to mean.

What does the rest of the world really think about "intellectual honesty"?

The phrase originates within the academy (examples here and here). It really has to do with avoiding plagiarism, using original work, proper citations...

It doesn't have anything to do with being objective or unbiased.

Let's look at Prof Koh's words again: ...the author should have access to all relevant people and information, and the book should be intellectually honest.

Did he use the phrase, knowing that it would be passed on from the Minister for Propaganda to the papers? that it would be misconstrued as meaning "unbiased and honest"? Because if he really meant what he said and nothing more... his sentence just means "the author should do proper research". Nothing more. And nothing profound. And nothing that boosts the credibility and unbiasedness that his think-tank needs, to be taken seriously.

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