On truth, reporting and resistance under an authoritarian regime

This was not meant to be an essay or a line of coherent thought with a neat conclusion at the ending. It started off as collection of things that have been circulating in my mind since the inauguration of The Orange One. And then it would up being an essay anyway, and a look back at the years I spent as a journalist. Because that’s life.

This morning, I was struck (as most people were) by Dump’s press secretary Sean Spicer spending his first press conference yelling at the press about the numbers of people who attended the inauguration. Yelling about grass coverings. Yelling about fabrications. Clearly, Walking Cheeto cared very very bigly about whether the numbers made him look bad or not. (They did.)

It reminded me of Singapore’s General Election in 2011, when we weren’t allowed to report estimated number on the massive crowds that attended the rallies of the Worker’s Party, the leading Opposition party. Or run photos that showed the size of the crowd.

I thought: Cheezel would love Singapore. A media establishment that obediently parrots the Government’s lines. A country in which protest is literally illegal, except in one “free speech corner“, a park little more than a wedge of grass half the size of a football field.

I was a journalist at a national paper in Singapore for three and a half years. How I got into journalism is a story in itself, but I walked into that newsroom in April 2011 with zero experience, to sit at the very new online desk that would become the nerve center of breaking news.

On my second day of work, when I was still coming to grips with terms like “slug” and “offstone”, our editor-in-chief strode through the room with the gift of one loud, important sentence: “Parliament’s been dissolved.”

Thus began GE2011. Two weeks straight of sixteen-hour workdays, rallies and video processing, and the beginning of my resentful marriage with the hold music for Comfort’s taxi booking service, because public transportation home stopped before midnight. My immediate boss, my desk editor, turned to me and said: “Congratulations, you’ve joined us at the right time. This is the busiest the newsroom will be for six years.”

That year, 2011, was called a watershed election, the first “Internet election”, and the first time a major constituency fell to the Opposition in Singapore. It was a baptism of fire, and a crash course on where the tripwire bounds of Singapore’s political OB markers lay.

What’s it like being a journalist in a country that’s 154th in the World Press Freedom Index— worse than Russia, which is ranked 150th? Well, it’s a job. There’s a lot of resignation to your fate. There’s a lot of resignation, period, as people burn out like comets meeting atmosphere and gravity and fall into the ocean of Not Being A Journalist Anymore. There are a bunch of horror stories floating around: the famous blogger who used to be one of our columnists until one particular piece struck the wrong toe; the desker and editor who got exiled to the tundras of advertorial copywriting because they ran a fussless, ordinary Reuters story involving members of that particular family that was apparently verboten…

But frankly, it’s really fucking boring most of the time, because it’s like that Radiohead song: No alarms, and no surprises…. When you realise you are literally being paid to shill for the ruling regime, it punches a pretty big bunch of holes into your sails. There’s a lot of “oh well, then”, and getting on with it.

During that first election, my boss pulled me out of the newsroom during a short lull. Outside of the smudgy glass walls, bathed in the roar of air-conditioning exhaust, he told me, “Be very careful what you say aloud when you’re inside. There are plants.” Not the potted kind. Election cycles are so manpower-heavy we had to resort to temps and interns. Some of them reported to other bosses. Everybody at the desk got told this warning, quietly and separately. Stuff had happened during the previous election. Just, be careful.

Oh well, then. There are about a thousand things on your to-do list. No time to wallow or be shocked. Get on with it.

A year on, desking on some anonymous, ordinary day. I got a call from a random civil servant, some peon on the bottom half of the hierarchical order at a ministry. She was calling about an article that ran in the morning’s papers, something banal about new housing policy or something, wonkery for the wonk gods.

These calls always start the same, thank you for the article in the papers, as if we would ever ignore the words that officially fall out of a minister’s mouth. We bloody run articles about the Prime Minister’s social media posts about what he had for lunch, for fucks’ sake. “Thank you for the article, but we noticed you used THIS WORD in the headlines, we think that’s off-message, would you mind changing it to THIS OTHER WORD instead?”

And in my mind surfaced an incredulity, at the absolute anal-retentiveness of being called on the phone by a national ministry because one word was out of place in a story that wasn’t even that important in the grand scheme of things. For fucks’ sake! Was there nothing better to do?

And the short answer: No. Just like me, the peon on the phone was a cog in the machine, one with a very specific job. She was doing hers; I was expected to do mine.

Oh well, then. “Thanks, no problem. I’ll get to it.” Look, I’ve got a dozen different things on my plate at any one time, news breaks on the wire services every other minute, this is above my pay grade, whatever. Just get on it with it.

That’s it. That’s how it goes. The face of media suppression isn’t always jackbooted and truncheon-wielding. Sometimes it puts on office attire and suffocates with rulebooks and bureaucracy. Sometimes it’s committees of civil servants deciding that political blogs run by private citizens need to be licensed under the same rules as news organisations. A lot of the times it’s just someone dialing it in despite their internal convictions, because in an unwinnable battle sometimes the choice you make is to stick with the job because you need to eat. There’s no welfare system in this country. Gotta earn a living somehow.

So what’s to be done? Well, there’s always wiggle room. During the 2011 general election, my desk had a policy. We’re going to be fair and balanced, my boss said. We’re going to be straight down the middle. For every news story or tweet or Facebook post about the ruling party, we could run a corresponding story or tweet or post about an Opposition party. Relying on numbers would be the fastest way to justify our impartiality to the bean counters. My notebook from that time is still scarred with chicken-scratch columns of post counts: one half for the establishment, one half for the challengers.

And we figured something out. There were a handful of political rallies every night; we got the live feeds, recorded them, and put them up on YouTube. We realised that, if we split the longwinded speeches by the ruling party candidates into three, and uploaded them separately, then we could upload three different speeches from Opposition parties! Three for the price of one! We thought we were particularly clever given that there was one ruling party and half a dozen Opposition ones.

(Note that this wasn’t particularly altruistic. The ruling party speeches were boring as fuck, tin cans of repetitive pablum. Whereas the Opposition speeches were full of fire and righteous! indignation! and occasionally full of wtf-ery from the fringier candidates of the fringier parties. People loved them! People watched them! Our YouTube channel, set up that month, rocketed to the secondmost popular political channel in the world, right behind the one about British royals. This, I think, is rather instructive of the way Drumpf’s entire campaign played out in the media.)

Even so, there’s only so much you can do. Yet it doesn’t end there. Just because the media is compliant, doesn’t mean the citizenry has to be. I am privileged to be friends with many wonderful, courageous people in Singapore’s civil society who, despite all the obstacles being thrown our way, continue to fight for social justice in Singapore.

And let me tell you, the options open to us are desperately few. Political protests are essentially illegal. Gerrymandering is so entrenched the ruling party can win 60% of the popular vote but walk away with over 90% of the parliamentary seats. Unless you live in a Opposition-held ward, your representative isn’t going to challenge the establishment. They don’t get called authoritarian for nothing!

But people still try. They run awareness campaigns. They write letters to the press. They mount legal challenges to challenge the constitution. There’s that Speaker’s Corner. Every year since 2009 there’s been a big LGBT event called Pink Dot, our version of Pride. Since we can’t march, we pull out the pinkest things we can find in our wardrobes, get dressed and stand on that tiny patch of grass to make a dot. Every year the dot has grown bigger in size. Last year it was so big it spilled out of the 2-acre confines of the park.

(Of course, that was when the Government decided to put in new laws banning foreign multinationals contributing to events at the Speaker’s Corner, because big names like Google and Apple and Facebook were getting involved, and this is Singapore, and you can have some things, but not too much of a good thing. This is the reality of our lives. And still, we go on.)

I mean, we’re skeptical about the good PinkDot can do, but you gotta take what you get sometimes.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make, if there was ever one, is that there are always ways to resist. Even if the situation looks bleak, even if every avenue looks cut off from you. If you’re American, and if you’re dismayed by the lies and manipulation and attempts to suppress political expression that now spill from the steps of your seats of power, just know it’s not the end of the world. (Yet.**) Authoritarian regimes are a fact of life for lots of people everywhere! And you have many tools at your disposal to resist Citrus Wanker. I tweeted this morning, and I still stand by it:

Y’all too loud to be silenced by an orange turd in a toupee. Seriously.

While I’m here, I also want to give a shoutout to my friend Kirsten Han, freelance journalist, anti-death penalty activist, and general all-around awesome human. Check out her really smart essay on Lessons From Singapore On Trump’s Authoritarian America and also follow her on Twitter for more insight. I’m a frivolous shit who writes fantasy and edits fiction for a living, but she knows what she’s talking about!


** PS please impeach Fruity Turd before he starts a nuclear war. I’m not kidding. Don’t let him push that big red button.

7 thoughts on “On truth, reporting and resistance under an authoritarian regime

  1. Great post! A friend of ours who lives in Singapore shared this with me as support for a distraught American. It definitely helped. And yes, I suspect there are too many of us who are way too loud to be silenced. Also, I love your nicknames for him! Great stuff! Keep up the good fight!

  2. Came from io9 because I was intrigued about your upcoming novellas.

    Left in high spirits, ready to join an anti-Trump rally.

    Thanks, I needed this.

  3. Love the essay. And your Trump euphemisms. My favorite being Citrus Wanker. I’m looking forward to your novellas being published in September. Keep up the good work.

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