Jun 11 Give respect where it is due

Former Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) chief, Ng Boon Gay, with his wife after he was acquitted of corruption for obtaining sexual favours from a woman in exchange for furthering her company's business dealings with CNB. When citizens criticise the country’s institutions or the Government’s failings, we must do so without eroding the collective values that bind us as a nation. Our irritation with specific individuals or organisations should not blind us to the importance of maintaining civility. In essence, we can be hard-hitting by all means, yet remain perfectly civil to the organisation we are criticising.

SINGAPORE - Some of Singapore's key institutions are facing, if not a crisis of confidence, certainly a challenging period.

The police force came under fire from some in America over the investigation into the death of American scientist Shane Todd here last year. Police say all signs were that it was suicide; his family insists he was murdered. The coroner will deliver his findings on July 8.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) also had its investigation practices questioned in court in two high-profile cases.

The first was that of Mr Ng Boon Gay, the former top drug buster acquitted in February of corruption charges. The CPIB faced a double whammy in that case: Its case against Mr Ng didn't stick and Mr Ng accused the CPIB of trying to coerce him to plead guilty. The Attorney-General's Chambers said Mr Ng's complaint was unfounded.

In the other case, law professor Tey Tsun Hang accused the CPIB of using "brutalising tactics" and forcing a confession out of him that he had corruptly obtained sex with a student in exchange for giving her good grades.

Tey was convicted and the judge found him an unreliable witness.

The CPIB came away clean but will have to manage the impact of these sworn statements - even if unfounded - on its reputation.

The strike last year by SMRT bus drivers from China put the spotlight on the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC): or rather, put the spotlight on its absence.

The drivers went on strike over pay and work conditions. The NTUC and its affiliate union were bypassed by the aggrieved bus drivers. Not surprising, since fewer than 5 per cent of the 400 drivers from China were union members. After the strike, the union worked doubly hard to enrol over 75 per cent.

Singapore's reputation as a reliable city to do business in rests on its peaceful industrial relations climate, its tough anti-corruption stance, the rule of law and a sound and fair criminal justice system.

Singaporeans who have followed the news, and who have read many of the criticisms circulating in mainstream and online media, will wonder: What is happening to Singapore? Is it going downhill?

There are two ways to respond to such questions.

The first is to deny that the institutions have taken a hit to their reputations, since no overt wrongdoing attaches to any. The police/ labour movement/anti-corruption agency remain as above board and relevant and critical for Singapore as ever before.

I understand the instinct to protect and uphold public institutions. I also agree with diplomat Kishore Mahbubani who argued in an article for The Straits Times recently that Singaporeans should support the nation's public institutions.

However, I also believe that Singapore's institutions, which brought the country from Third World to First, need to win public trust and confidence all over again. Each generation that comes of age has to be wooed anew.

Institutions also need to adapt to changing expectations. Take the model of industrial relations NTUC-style, where the labour chief has a seat in Cabinet. This arises from the NTUC's institutional relationship with the ruling party. Is this a good model to preserve industrial peace in an increasingly politicised population? Do Singaporeans accept the consensual model of industrial relations where disputes are handled behind closed doors? Or will more people start to point to the widening income gap and wage stagnation for less-skilled workers to ask the obvious question: How effective, really, has this consensual model been for the vulnerable worker?

If the NTUC believes its model makes for a better Singapore, it has to persuade Singaporeans so. It can no longer take for granted that Singaporeans accept its role as an article of faith.

Public institutions also need to be more responsive to criticism when questions crop up over the conduct of specific cases. Admittedly, it may not always be in the public interest to reveal too much for fear of people gaming the system.

This point was made by chief prosecutor Aedit Abdullah in an article on prosecutorial discretion in The Straits Times last month. We may not agree with specific arguments, but as citizens we can all appreciate the effort by public institution leaders to engage seriously with serious criticisms made in good faith, rather than dismiss them or try to ignore them out of existence. More leaders should be as proactive as Mr Aedit and the Attorney-General's Chambers chose to be, in responding to criticisms and articulating their stand.

The other, more extreme way to respond to the question of what is happening in Singapore is to say gleefully that things are falling apart because the People's Action Party-led regime has failed, and then heap all blame - and all manner of abuse - on the PAP.

This is not constructive. Singapore and its institutions are more than the PAP. If institutions are failing, a serious discussion is in order, not a retreat to the popular game of PAP-bashing.

When citizens criticise the country's institutions or the Government's failings, we must do so without eroding the collective values that bind us as a nation. Our irritation with specific individuals or organisations should not blind us to the importance of maintaining civility. Here, I mean civility not in the sense of being polite, but in the sense of upholding collective values, and giving respect to the views of other individuals. You can be hard-hitting in your criticism, yet perfectly civil in respecting the office you are criticising.

One helpful distinction between impolite behaviour and uncivil ones comes from Professor Zizi Papacharissi, head of the communication department at the University of Illinois in Chicago: "If someone cuts us off on the highway, that is rude and inconsiderate but not necessarily uncivil, nor does it have lasting repercussions on the common good. Specifically, an exchange that involves poor manners is not necessarily uncivil and does not set democratic society back, unless it involves an attack upon a social group of which one of the discussants is a member."

She defines civility as "collective politeness": "To borrow a term from the politeness literature, civility is positive collective face; that is, deference to the social and democratic identity of an individual.

"Incivility can be defined as negative collective face; that is, disrespect for the collective traditions of democracy." The article added: "While online political discussion must be uninhibited and diverse, in order to adhere to democratic ideals it must also be respectful of collective values."

To say the police failed in their duty to do X, Y, Z is civil criticism; to say one should give up on the police and take the law into one's own hands is uncivil because it contravenes democratic norms.

To criticise an MP who, say, was rude to a constituent, is legitimate; to go on to rubbish all MPs as arrogant without due justification is uncivil because it undermines the respect due to the elected office.

There is a fine line between defending the right of citizens to criticise public institutions, and defending the institutions' right to be respected. But unless we are prepared to draw that line online and off, we run the risk of allowing a vocal minority online to rubbish and erode the collective values we hold dear. Singapore's institutions are not perfect. They should certainly work harder to gain confidence. But they also deserve the respect due to their constitutional positions.