OB markers: We still need them?

June 16, 2003

Ng Boon Yian

IF there is one phrase that ought to lie outside Singapore’s OB (out-of-bound) markers, it has to be the “OB marker” phrase itself.

I was dismayed when the phrase was brought up again during a recent Remaking Singapore sub-committee press conference, chaired by the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, Mr Raymond Lim.

The intention was good.

Mr Lim said that the panel had wanted to pin down the OB markers so as to encourage more Singaporeans to speak up without fear of crossing into some unknown political danger zone.

But will the demarcation of the markers make things better? I suspect not. In fact, the move may backfire.

What do these markers render out of bounds? According to the committee: “Action and speech that engage directly in electioneering and party politics; that is, within the arena of the contest for political power”.

But what does this legal-sounding definition mean exactly? What is it that I can or cannot say within these markers?

If I say that the Workers’ Party seems to be improving a fair bit these days and the PAP website is looking a bit dowdy, am I stepping beyond the markers? And what about TV talk shows on politics during election season?

With no clear answers to these questions and others of similar strain that will pop up in time, the OB markers fall short of the specificity test. They are - good intentions notwithstanding - just as frustratingly ambiguous.

If the vagueness of such criteria reinforces the culture of second-guessing - as demonstrated above - the real dampener will be the resulting inhibition on speaking freely, the very objective that the Remaking Singapore committee is trying to foster.

For that matter, should electioneering and party politics be declared out of bounds?

I sifted through media reports and found no justification given by the panel. Ultimately, the issue boiled down to: “If you are not a politician, don’t get involved in politics.”

Really, if the aim is to expand the political space for more Singaporeans to speak their minds, I don’t understand why the term “OB marker” has to be brought up at all.

The timing is especially unfortunate when you observe that there has been a slow but sure opening up of the political scene over the past few years.

Alternative opinions have flowered in the press, letter writers are more forthright and radio talk shows are airing more candid views.

This refreshing change is occurring quietly without rabid sensationalism and social or political earthquakes.

It is a development that should be carefully nurtured, given how thin-skinned Singaporeans can be.

Mr Sin Boon Ann, co-chair of the sub-committee, said: “The fear amongst many Singaporeans is: I want to speak up but I don’t want to be rebutted so strongly or robustly in case I get shown up for not having done my basic homework, or I get my facts and arguments wrong and end up looking silly.”

With this gradual opening-up, I had hoped that the phrase “OB marker” would die a quiet death in Singapore’s political vocabulary.

Of course, dropping the phrase does not mean promoting a free-for-all, with hate speech and defamatory sliming the order of the day. No decent society would endorse that and there are ways of dealing with such infringements, either through robust debate or laws.

But saying that people can’t speak openly about political issues unless they enter the electoral fray themselves?

The cynics will say that the Government is interested only in opening up “safe” areas but not the more contentious “party politics and electioneering” because that would affect its own interests.

For the average Singaporean whose encounter with the Government is remote, it is an understandable perception.

I do think that the Government is interested in opening up more avenues for expression to make the people feel more involved in the shaping of policy and the kind of society we want for our country.

But I also feel that the Government has to come up with bold and creative changes to capture the imagination of the people.

For example, could it not have been an ordinary citizen (not one of those high-profile usual suspects, please) taking on a bigger role in unveiling the Remaking of Singapore recommendations? That might have been refreshing.

For me, it was disheartening that the talk of OB markers was made by a minister whose induction into the People’s Action Party was expected to add a dash of new thinking.

While it is true that the people’s mindset must change, the Government must also recognise that it too has to send the right political signals to foster the culture and popular idealism that it hopes for.

The blunt fact is that for so long, the dominant voice has been that of the PAP Government.

With people wondering just how far the Government is prepared to open up the political space, the phrase “OB marker” should have been discarded altogether in the process of remaking Singapore.