Cherian George AMA

Thanks to everyone who contributed questions. It’s been fun.

About me: I am a Singaporean professor of media studies based at a university in Hong Kong. I’ve been writing about politics and media for 30 years, first as a Straits Times journalist and then as an academic I wrote my latest book, ‘Singapore, Incomplete’, because I feel something’s missing in our national development.

We are a middle-aged country with a mature economy – but the political system still treats us like children. As the government prepares to transition to a fourth-generation leadership, my essays look at the unfinished business of political liberalisation and multicultural integration. I cover topics like censorship and fear, race and religion, elections and voting, and prospects for political reform. Whether you’ve already read the book or you’re waiting for the movie, I welcome you to ask me anything.

My Proof

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Get your copy of the book here

Question: 1. What are the differences between working in HK and SG as an academic? I’m Singaporean and I understand that you’ve faced political pressures here. What about in HK where the government is under influence by Beijing?

2. Would you consider coming back to Singapore as an academic if you are given the opportunity?

3. What advice would you give to Singaporeans to make the country better?

Answer: 1. Everyone expects Hong Kong universities to come under increasing pressure from Beijing. There are already some signs. Professors who have had leading roles in the democracy movement have been penalised. However, Hong Kong is still one of the freest academic settings in Asia. That freedom is expected to gradually decline, but even then it will probably remain very free by Asian standards.
2. I’ve really not needed to think about moving from Hong Kong, which has been good to me.
Question: What do you see as the most immediate thing that needs to change?
Answer: The first thing that comes to mind is loosening many of our current free speech laws and regulations. Freedom of expression can be thought of as a foundational right, meaning that many other things depend on it. For example, it’s very difficult to push for more social justice, like more policies to address inequality, if people are not free to debate the issue.
Question: Do the editors at Straits Times not care at all about the quality of their reporting? Or do Singaporeans truly deserve the media we have? I am a paying subscribers to a few online news channels but wouldn’t even bother to read my free quota of ST articles. How can we as consumers play our part to push ST to be more independent and produce good articles (like investigative ones). Or maybe it’s a pipe dream???
Answer: First, we need to press home the point to the political masters that our news media are not at an acceptable standard. To do so effectively, we need to read up all their stock answers to those complaints and have counter-arguments ready. And before that we need to convince ourselves that this actually does matter. Unfortunately, many Singaporeans have decided not to care because they think they can get enough information and ideas elsewhere.
Second, we need to look at the press as part of a wider ecosystem. Quality journalism anywhere doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s supported by a vibrant civil society, an active citizenry, engaged universities and so on. So, yes, it is very difficult. But if you look at where Singapore is in terms of our education levels, our wealth and so on, why should we feel it’s beyond our reach? I don’t think we should give up.
Question: Hi Cherian, you’ve been teaching for many years so…what is the meanest student evaluation you’ve ever gotten? :p
Answer: Ouch! In around 15 years of teaching, there may have been three classes that massacred me in their evaluations. Sometimes, the chemistry is wrong; you say or do something that puts off students, and things decline from there. It’s rough when students don’t tell you on the spot, and instead save their hostility for their written evaluations, when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Question: Do you think the lack of a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore has had any effect on accountability by political office holders?
Answer: Yes, certainly. That’s the main reason why freedom of information acts have been adopted in dozens of countries in recent decades. And not just in the liberal west. More and more societies recognise that if you want to keep government clean and accountable, it’s not enough to have freedom of expression; you need to empower people to prise information from officials’ hands.
Question: Hi Cherian

A wise person once told me that the biggest achievement of LKY was to turn the world’s most risk-taking people (who came in boats all the way from faraway countries) to the world’s most risk-adverse.

As a millennial, I think that that adversity to risk and the sheer momentum of the treadmill designed by the government is now holding us back from adapting to the new world.

I think for Singapore to grow up it needs to get Singaporeans to get off the treadmill and face the new world post-MNC. The government is not designed to, nor is it capable of, seducing people off that treadmill. Shouldn’t the spotlight therefore be on the private sector?

Answer: Many private sector industries, especially those that are more globally exposed, are good at pulling Singaporean employees out of their shells and cultivating more enterprising and innovative attitudes in them. This is why I am alarmed at the lack of Singaporeans from a such a background in Cabinet.
Question: 1. Are the media political articles in Singapore vetted by our government before they can be published?
2. Is there anything an individual can do to get fellow Singaporeans to grow up?
Answer: 1. As a rule, no. Having said that, online-first publication may have backfired by giving government officials an earlier sight of articles than they otherwise would have had. Sometimes, officials react to the online version, objecting to the headline or angle, or the inclusion of a controversial quote (including ministers’ own remarks that in hindsight they realise they shouldn’t have said). The updated online version and the print version are edited to pacify the officials. Is that “vetting”? In a sense, yes.
2. The thing that we really have in our control is the power of our own example. Be the change we want to see, and all that.
Question: Cherian George…Thalle! malayali aano?!

(Mods, this is a genuine question)

Answer: Aanu. First generation Singaporean, born of parents who migrated from Kerala.
Question: What was the process like for you writing the essays and putting the book together? What would you like the reader to take away from it?
Answer: I enjoy writing; it’s just what I do. This one was written mainly over the long university vacation in 2017. But although the actual writing took around four months, most of the essays deal with things that I’ve been mulling over for years. And not just in a solitary fashion, but also by talking to people. So I don’t think of the book as the product of my own original thinking. Most of the essays arose out of conversations with other Singaporeans who care about these things. I hope readers will continue the conversation.
Question: Just finished your latest book that I got from a University library (the book was autographed by you haha)

Do you think it’s insecruity of the cabinet and maybe PM Lee that has led to the repression of the media?

Answer: Yes, our leaders’ general distrust of the public is at the core of the problem. They don’t trust people to handle open, vigorous debates in a way that will contribute to progress.

But then most people in power anywhere would secretly or openly prefer not to have the press or anyone else get in their way. When you see countries that have freer media systems, it’s not necessarily because their leaders are less insecure than ours. It’s mainly because their systems are designed not to give a damn about the phobias of the leaders. Constitutions are not meant to pander to leaders; on the contrary, they are supposed to protect people’s rights against leaders’ urges. When these protections are very strong, like in the US, even a maniac like Donald Trump can’t suppress the press as much as he would like to. And most other politicians are forced to adapt; even if they are authoritarians at heart, they learn how to operate in an open system. That’s the way it should be, and that’s what’s lacking in Singapore.

Question: In your interactions with Singaporean students, do you find the youths to be truly politically ignorant and apathetic? If yes, what do you think can be done to ameliorate this situation (if it is even possible)?
Answer: No, I wouldn’t generalise. And I don’t think the profile is all that different from other societies. In most countries, the majority of students (and adults) have no interest in public affairs. It’s a minority that has an interest. What explains who’s interested and who isn’t? I have a friend who’s researching that question in the US, and there’s no simple or obvious answer. Parents have a major role, he tells me.

So I don’t think it’s that abnormal that only some young Singaporeans care about public affairs. What is different about Singapore, compared with other countries, is how those young Singaporeans are conditioned and disciplined to channel their social conscience into projects and causes that are not too political for the government’s liking.

Question: Hi Cherian,

Firstly thanks for doing this AMA, I think your arguments are especially important considering the state Singapore is in.

As a media studies student in Canada myself, I’m highly interested in your opinion regarding our Journalism standards. The quality of journalism in Singapore is heavily impeded by government intervention.

Furthermore you call for the freedom of speech among the public.

My question is:

Should there be a move to a free-er press and freedom of speech, would that not result in an intense polarization and division among the public much like the case we see now in the USA?

Answer: Yes, of course we should be freer. If we are serious about the country, then let’s look at the issue seriously. All of the knee-jerk reactions to this question (on either side) are open to deeper analysis.

For example, is there a relationship between press freedom an poitical polarisation or social discord (or, in the extreme, political/social violence). One example doesn’t add up to an analysis. If you want to examine this more closely, you could consult global press freedom ratings (like Freedom House’s) and see if there is any correlation between press freedom and social discord etc (you’d have to look for suitable global studies on political violence etc). I have not looked at the data myself, so I am not sure what you will find regarding political polarisation. But I am certain that if look at genocides (the most extreme form of social discord), you’ll find that they have only happened in societies without press freedom. Every major genocide (the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, what’s going on now in Myanmar) is preceded by suppression of free media.

Hope you use the opportunity as a media studies student to explore such interests in greater depth, and not just rely on forums like these!

Question: I am a student from the UK who studied at NTU for 1 semester. My initial thoughts of Singaporean students were pampered, non political and entirely pliant to political authority. However, as my time within certain circles of Singaporean youth expanded – I learnt that there was indeed hope for Singapore to perhaps realise how caged the citizens are. I did indeed learn about you in one of my lectures and its humbling speak to you here.

I guess my question would be, do you see Singaporean society shifting in 20-30 years, freeing their citizens from the so called bureaucratic cage? Or is this problem also a cultural one which one needs to dissect traditional Chinese values?

Answer: I really can’t say what Singapore will be like in five years, let alone 20-30. But I agree we shouldn’t assume Singaporeans are a homogeneous bunch. As you’ve discovered, they are not. While I’m fully aware that my book doesn’t reflect a majority view, I certainly don’t think it’s idiosyncratic. On the contrary, there are Singaporeans across generations who believe that the country should be more open; and there are many I know personally who do a lot more for that cause than I do. In writing this book, I was very conscious of the need to explain to more conservative Singaporeans that the political and social entrepreneurs around them – activists, artists, bloggers, etc – are not troublemakers who should be suppressed; our country needs to give them more space.

As for traditional Chinese values suppressing the appetite for free speech and accountable government – it’s very difficult for me to entertain that theory with a straight face when I think of my students in Hong Kong, including mainland Chinese students. Many of them are perfectly comfortable being Chinese and pro-democratic at the same time.

Question: My friends and I get into debates on whether Singapore counts as a democracy or not. One thing we wondered about is how free and fair the elections are.

From your perspective, if an opposition party were to win in an upcoming election in Singapore, would the transfer of power be peaceful? Or would there be artificial barriers preventing this from occurring?

Answer: My guess is that it would be peaceful, but traumatic. There will be many civil servants who – despite the public sector ethos of working professionally for political masters chosen by the people – will find it humanly impossible to switch bosses. Which also means that these civil servants will probably try to prevent this from happening. That’s wrong, but it’s understandable when the entire public sector has only known one ruling party.
Question: Are you…Malayalee?
Answer: Absolutely.
Question: Are there any prospects at all for Singapore developing along anti-capitalist or at the very least 3rd-way social democratic lines, or have those hopes been extinguished?
Answer: Dimmer now, after the sidelining of Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
Question: Cherian — at your HK book launch attendees tried but failed to pin you down on who you would prefer as Singapore’s 4th PM. I am going to be cheeky and try again here. Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung…or Tharman? 😉
Answer: You’re right, I’ve been evasive. Not because I don’t have a favourite among the 4G ministers, but because I do (a tentative one, at least, since I don’t know enough about them). I don’t think popularity among liberals like me is going to be an asset for any contender. Quite the contrary. So the smart thing to do is to shut up about it. Sorry!

This whole process has been interesting. We’re in an unprecedented situation. The first time Singapore changed prime ministers, most of us were in disbelief (Lee Kuan Yew stepping down? Real or not?) so we really didn’t know what to make of it.

The second time we did it, the question of who would take over from Goh Chok Tong was settled even before Goh became prime minister. So there was nothing to talk about. This is the first time that there’s a choice to be made and that citizens are engaged in the question.

But we do need to get real. The fact is, in our system, citizens technically do not select the head of government. We have a Westminster-style parliamentary system, like Britain, India and Australia. We vote for our MPs, and the winning party decides who from among their MPs will lead. It’s not at all uncommon for a ruling party, in midterm, after internal wrangling, to suddenly tell the country, here’s your new prime minister. Three of the last four Australian PMs came to power this way. So banish the thought that our next PM is up to us, the people.

On the other hand, it is not good for the PAP or for Singapore if the government isn’t open about the current process. By “open” I don’t mean telling us the time table or who the frontrunners are. I don’t mean publishing opinion polls or even asking the candidates publicly whether they’d like to be PM. All this is harmless, but isn’t what’s actually required.

What’s really needed is on-going and public stress-testing of the contenders. Surely we all want a PM who will inspire confidence at home and abroad – the kind of confidence that comes from having witnessed the person handle being put on the spot. That’s what is lacking now because of the government’s belief in protecting ministers from thorough scrutiny and criticism.

Even in ordinary times, our ministers are shielded, by a system that punishes criticism and foster self-censorship. I fear this tendency has increased and will further increase in the run-up to the handover. Maybe the hardliners in government think they are doing the 4G ministers and Singapore a favour, by clearing the path and smoothening the ride for the incoming leaders. They are wrong. If our future leaders need protecting from journalists, bloggers and other assorted critics, how in the world are they going to handle genuine crises when they are in charge? Surely they need all the practice they can get now.

A 4G leadership I can believe in would comprise ministers who can throw out the old PAP armour and knuckledusters and say, we don’t need this; we are man (and woman) enough to fight our battles without the state using dirty tricks or unfair methods to tilt debates. I’m waiting for 4G16, the next generation leaders, to write this sort of open letter. I fear I will wait in vain.

Question: Do you believe in free speech?
Answer: Short answer: yes. Longer answer: free speech is an important right but it shouldn’t be regarded as absolute or without limits. There is a balance to be struck, and unfortunately Singapore is nowhere near a healthy balance.
Question: I’ve heard that the Malay minority is behind other groups in terms of income, education, and other markers of success. If true, what needs to be done in order for this situation to be addressed?
Answer: This isn’t something my book (or any of my research or writing) has looked at. It’s outside my specialisation. But from my general reading I think there are two broad responses that Singaporeans need to consider. The first is to address class inequality more seriously. Most of the “Malay” problems can be ameliorated without focusing on race, but just class. Read Teo You Yenn’s new book, “This is what Inequality looks like”. Second, we do need to address racial prejudice and discrimination. Our minorities don’t complain much about it, because most just accept that that’s how things go in a majority Chinese country. Just because people accept it doesn’t make it right.
Question: How do you think that we can eliminate racism at the governmental level?

Such as Muslims and Indians not being able to hold high ranks in the military or them not being first choices in government sector jobs due to their race.

Answer: I say in my book that we are still waiting for a prime minister who will squarely confront and reject this ugly feature of the Lee Kuan Yew legacy. His past statements using racial stereotypes have, I think, legitimised various forms of discrimination that still exist today. I hope our next generation of leaders have the moral courage to review the current state of affairs and ensure that we treat equality more seriously as a national value.
Question: Is there a message you have for us non-Singaporeans?
Answer: Peace.
Question: I’ll start by saying I’m an American who loves Singapore, it is my favorite city/country in the world. I don’t see the nitty gritty of Singaporean politics, but I do see what it produces: a stable, beautiful, “liberal,” society. That being said, I’m generally a fan of more democracy, but when I see what American democracy has produced, I have to wonder about Singapore.

Now to my question, I haven’t read your book, but I’ve now put it on my reading list, so maybe it addresses this.
How should Singapore adjust to a democracy while still being to maintain a balanced and stable society that has thrived on the semi-authoritarianism that has made Singapore the way it is?

Answer: Assessments of Singapore are often framed in comparative terms, as you have. It’s something we all do: we ask how Singapore compares with other countries in various respects and we take it from there. When the question is framed in that way, there’s a tendency to conclude, we ain’t that bad. And we’re not.

As a Singaporean, though, I start from a different question. Can Singapore be better than it is? I think it can, and I hope we’ll work to make it better. I don’t get Singaporeans who reply, but the US (or some other country) is worse. Why is that relevant? Are you choosing between the US and Singapore? I’m not. I intend to remain a Singapore citizen, and this is my country. If Singapore can be better than it is, that’s what we should shoot for.

Can we be more democratic without compromising stability and so on. Of course it can. We’re not talking about replacing our authoritarian system with anarchy. We’re talking about very specific changes that will make the government more accountable and protect citizens.

Question: I’ve been discussing this issue for a long time with other people, and learnt many insights to how local Singaporean males react to discussions such as these. I have experienced polar cultures first hand as a citizen of Australia and an enlistee in the Singaporean army.

One thing that that your commentary strikes as naive to me is how you don’t comment on how deep rooted the problem is, and the solution you suggest for the people is to just simply change their actions, and the wheels of fate will spin the rest.

Imo, free speech has to be bled for. Without blood, pain or suffering, there will never be an incentive to resist. You can sit in Hong Kong all you want, be an academic and publish books overseas in an attempt to break into this already heavily reinforced culture, but without taking up a stance locally and inciting violence there will never be change.

There are people who have power(both monetarily and politically) that greatly benefit from this hive mind mentality in Singapore. It is in their interest to maintain this kind of status quo and to change up the system will require the people to shed the blood of these oligarchs.

After releasing the word wall above and fuming slightly at your naivety, my question to you is:

Do you really think that you can achieve change by supplying tools that people are unwilling to pick up?

Answer: Are you saying that the chances of bloodless, peaceful reform is 0%? Surely history would contradict you. To cite just one example: think of the many countries that have adopted freedom of information laws in recent decades (something discussed elsewhere in this forum). Am pretty sure that in most cases, this was achieved without “inciting violence” as you put it. So let’s say the chances of bloodless, peaceful reform is 1% or even 0.5% (I think it’s higher than that, but I don’t want to quibble). I just happen to believe that even if the odds of success are so low, I’m prepared to invest my time into it. That’s not being naive. I am fully prepared to accept that there’s a 99% chance that the months I spent writing this book (or doing this AMA) is time down the drain. But I know that if I don’t do it, there’s a 100% chance that I will feel I’ve let myself down. These are very personal calculations and, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it, and that’s perfectly fine with me.
Question: Last question, Cherian. Can you comment on the differences between Singapore’s laws on hate speech and those of Western Europe? I ask this question because the defenders of Singapore’s restrictions on freedom of speech almost always bring up Germany’s laws on holocaust denial and other restrictions on speech.
Answer: Even Germany, which treats hate speech very seriously, only prohibits speech that carries a real risk of actual harm, like promoting discrimination against minorities or forcing them to live in fear (and of course inciting violence and genocide, which even the Americans regulate). In Singapore, the government also prohibits speech that offends people’s feelings, even if there’s no objective harm that would arise from it. That’s the difference. When you legislate against insult or wounded feelings, the way Singapore does, you are allowing the law to be used as a weapon to silence speech that may be quite necessary.
Question: A common response to the call for greater freedom of speech in Singapore would be that the current laws in place are there to ensure social harmony and security (as Calvin Cheng wrote here Do you think a trade off between freedom of speech and security/safety exists and if so how significantly?
Answer: Yes, of course there is a trade off. But that shouldn’t justify all sorts of restrictions regardless of whether they are really necessary to achieve the desired social end.

In my book, I give this example. I don’t think we’d want national media to be captured by religious groups or ethnic-chauvinist movements and turned into vehicles for intolerance. So it might be appropriate to have legislation that says that big news organisations cannot be owned by such groups (just as there’s a ban on foreign ownership). That would be an example of a restriction that has a logical connection to its stated purpose. But instead what do we actually have? We have a licensing system where the government decides who is allowed to own and control news organisations, period. The government can turn down an application without even giving any reasons. How in the world is such a law justified on the grounds of ensuring social harmony and security?

For a fuller explanation of how restrictions should operate, please do visit one of my websites,, or read this essay,

Question: What, in your opinion, is the most productive thing the average Singaporean can do to encourage the opening up of the institutions you refer to (press, universities etc)? What argument do you think will hold the most weight in our current iteration of government? Or for that matter, to whoever is standing next to us, given how apathetic the majority is towards such issues.

What major paradigm shift do you think is most likely to occur organically within Singaporean society without it being forced down from the top brass of government?

Thanks for your time.

Answer: Although I have my own wishlist of changes, I’m very mindful of the fact that most citizens are not on the same page. And PAP ideology is so widely accepted by now that I don’t think a very direct assault on it will be very effective. (I’m aware of the irony here, that my book is a pretty direct critique of some key aspects of that ideology. But it’s not a book that I expect a mass market for.)

So I think that the way forward has to be quite indirect: help Singaporeans discover for themselves the wisdom of having a more open and competitive system. This is why, whenever young Singaporeans ask me similar questions, I simply encourage them to get involved in any social/public project or movement. It can be government-led, quasi-government, civil society, opposition, political, non-political, anything. As long as it’s to help other people, and you do it seriously. Regardless of the avenue one chooses, the committed “kaypoh” will eventually feel hemmed in by administrative, legal and political barriers. This is even true of PAP people engaged in charities, for example. Then, like it or not, you are forced to confront the big questions like: how can we make our system more hospitable to social entrepreneurship, more open to discussing issues of fairness and justice, which are precisely the kinds of question I hope more Singaporeans will think about.

Question: Cherian, what are your opinions on the 4th generation of the PAP and how will the political transition be like?
Answer: Oh boy. I keep being asked – and ducking – this question, like at my book launch events. What I have stated openly in my book is that we should be very concerned about the lack of inductees from the private sector – or more specifically from non-GLCs operating in industries that are highly exposed to global competition. That sort of experience is surely extremely important to have in a Singaporean Cabinet. But such individuals are conspicuous in their absence.

As for the fourth generation ministers we have, I do have a preference. But I don’t want to make it public for two reasons. First, I have been wrong before in my assessment of politicians’ potential and it’s not as if I know all the candidates that well. So adding my view is just adding to the noise, and I don’t want to add to the noise.

Second, popularity – least of all popularity among liberals like me – does not decide succession, and may even work against candidates. Remember the PAP has always been suspicious of public opinion. The PAP wants to ride public opinion, yes, but it doesn’t want public opinion to ride the PAP. Nor would the leadership be comfortable with one of their own having too strong a personal connection with the ground. The fear is that such a person would be less reliant on his senior Cabinet colleagues and might get too big for his boots.

Question: Hello! I’m not sure if you’ve answered similar questions already here, but I’m gonna give it a shot.

1. How can we, as average citizens, make Singapore’s political scene more interesting?

2. What do the opposition parties need to do to be taken seriously by Singaporeans?

3. In your opinion, why is it that the majority of those who support the opposition seem to be people of a lower education level? Do you think this is an issue? (I’m basing this on the comments I’ve seen on alt media sites like TOC, where people seem incapable of forming rational arguments and seem to vote on emotion rather than reason)

Answer: 1. No need to make the political scene more interesting. Just try to get more interested in public affairs, no matter how boring. That’s our duty as citizens.
2. There’s a mix of reasons why Singaporeans don’t take the opposition more seriously. In some cases, the onus is on the opposition to improve so that they merit more serious consideration. In other cases, Singaporeans are looking at the opposition through distorting lenses – lenses created by the ruling party with the assistance of the national media.
3. I’ve not aware of any evidence that political party affiliation is affected by education level. But I’m pretty sure that reading online comments is not reliable evidence. I’ve seen a lot of irrational and emotional arguments being made by fans of the PM’s Facebook page, for example. What we see on various platforms probably just tells us something about the kind of people who speak up on those platforms and the moods they are in, rather than giving us insight into the groups they supposedly represent.
Question: > We are ticked off if we answer back.

Don’t you mean “they” are ticked off (angry/upset), not “we” are ticked off?

Answer: The original British English meaning of “ticked off” is “chastised” or “scolded”. I think you are referring to American usage, where ticked off = angry. Singapore uses British English. I never realised the term is used in these different ways until you asked your question, so thanks. Learn something new every day.
Question: In your opinion, how bad is the brain drain situation in Singapore?
Answer: Not as bad as the brain drain that other countries suffer as a result of losing their people to Singapore. Where would Singapore be without Malaysian talent? And the Burmese, Indonesians and Filipinos in Singapore could probably be doing great things in their respective countries if they weren’t contributing to the Singapore economy.
Question: Hi Cherian, do you think an educated electorate that votes for their own interest and the country’s interest ever possible? Looking at how the US and UK developed, it is clear that there are people who will votes against their own interests and drag the country with them.
Answer: The fact that electorates sometimes do suicidal things doesn’t mean that this usually or always happens, and that it’s not possible for electorates to vote in their enlightened self-interest, surely?
Question: Hi Cherian,
1) Do you think the Lee family (particularly Pinky) is the cause of our political stagnation?
2) What do you think it takes to get take down the Lee family (they remind me of the monster living underground in Stranger Things 2)?
Answer: I often hear such theories (though the Stranger Things analogy is new to me) and find them simplistic. Political systems are rarely if ever reducible to individuals or families. And such theories also too easily let us, as citizens, off the hook. It’s too pat to characterise anyone as the arch-villain, which implies that the rest of us are pure victims/heroes like Eleven, when in fact we are partly responsible for our own plight.

Having said that, if things are not right with government, the buck must obviously stop with the prime minister.

Question: What’s the best way that Singapore can prevent Trumpism (i.e. ethno-nationalism, protectionism) from taking root without being overtly authoritarian?
Answer: We already have some protections. Our GRC system, though it’s been abused to tilt the playing field in favour of the ruling party, is at its heart a way to check against majoritarianism. To be a winning party in Singapore, you basically have to have a multiracial slate, and that’s one way to reduce the chances of an ethnic-nationalist party taking over. But I think the longer term answer is to invest in civic education. Citizens need to be inoculated against fear-mongering and simplistic solutions, which are at the core of the intolerant populism that is rising in many parts of the world.
Question: To add on, I’d like to know OP’s thoughts on the [Causeway Bay Books disappearances](
Answer: What can I say – not a happy situation, is it? We need Beijing to accept (even if not publicly) that this is totally unacceptable; but the Hong Kong government is pretty powerless to press the point.

What I am less clear about is what this means for Hong Kong’s autonomy. Should the abductions be interpreted as a specific assault on Hong Kong’s SAR status? Or is it really just a symptom of the attitude among some of China’s state actors that they are not bound by any rules, anywhere in the world? In other words, how personally should Hong Kong take this? I’m not sure.

Question: And on Tharman, many Singaporeans (myself included) think he’s the obvious choice. I would think because of his intellectual/political leanings you are in this camp too. But the man himself has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the job. Is it time we let him be? There’s a romantic ring to #TharmanforPM but I wonder if it’s in the national interest to have a reluctant leader occupying Sri Temasek.
Answer: Tharman. Tharman. Tharman. Sigh. The one that got away.

OK, since it’s a virtually lost cause, and (according to other participants of this forum, I seem to love lost causes), let me say more about Tharman. I have not come across any credible reason why he should not be Singapore’s next Prime Minister.

I mentioned in answer to another question that my judgments about politicians haven’t always been accurate. So I’m careful to balance my own views with those of others. If I think highly of a politician, I actively seek out naysayers who will help give me a more rounded view. That’s what I’ve been doing for some years with regard to Tharman. And it’s with that background that I say it’s extremely sad that Tharman is evidently not being considered for the top job. Because the kind of respect he enjoys from across a wide spectrum is quite extraordinary; indeed, without parallel past or present.

What are the arguments against Tharman? Sure, he may not be perfect. Some tell me he still has civil servant instincts, for example (hence his reluctance to seize the initiative?). But such nitpicking is like saying that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are nothing great because, after all, Messi needs good supporting players and Ronaldo is too egoistical. Sure. But if the other contenders are, at best, Wayne Rooneys and Daniel Sturridges, then, hey, maybe we should “settle” for our Messi?

Then there’s Tharman’s age, which is said to be too close to Lee Hsien Loong’s. I don’t get it. Tharman is five years younger than Lee Hsien Loong. Basically the age gap is a full parliamentary term. So whenever Lee Hsien Loong chooses to retire, mathematically, we could still squeeze in a one-term Tharman premiership before he reaches Lee’s age of retirement. So why not give us that? It’s not as if there is another younger equally qualified leader ready to step in. Or are we saying there is one retirement age for a Lee and a different one for others? Sure, that’s what happened in the case of 1G – Lee Kuan Yew. If the PAP believes that such a two-tier retirement age should still apply, it should come out and say so.

Finally, there’s race. Really? Let’s be clear about what the PAP is implying if it’s really treating Tharman’s race as a disqualifier. It’s saying: “We, one of the most successful political parties in the history of democracy, will not be able to carry the ground if our multiracial, Chinese-dominated cabinet selects, as its first among equals, a non-Chinese leader. We won’t be able to win over Chinese Singaporeans who hold racial prejudices. We don’t have enough accumulated political capital or a sufficiently compelling vision for the country to outweigh the liability of a brown-skinned leader.”

No matter how polite or coded the language it uses, that is what it’s actually saying when it claims Tharman’s race disqualifies him. When the PAP brings up the colour of Tharman’s face, it is slapping its own.

Question: Do you think that there is some reluctance by Singapore universities to hire Singaporean faculty and/or give them tenure, especially in the social sciences and humanities, because the latter potentially have more ‘skin in the game’ and are more likely to challenge received wisdom of the government?
Answer: To save time, I am going to cheat here and refer you to a chapter in my book that addresses this. It was also published in Times Higher Education, so you can read it online here:
Question: In what ways has HK been good to you that Singapore should learn from? Do you see any possibility that we may become freer?
Answer: Well, the kind of research and writing I do makes me more dependent on academic freedom, so that’s one respect in which Hong Kong has been more hospitable to me personally. The vast majority of academics, especially in the sciences, are not as affected by political restrictions or interference, so one shouldn’t generalise and say that Singapore must change just because I and a some others have found the environment there difficult.

I’d prefer that we make the case for academic freedom in terms of how it would benefit the public, not how it would benefit individual academics. That’s how I look at press freedom as well. It’s ultimately not for the press, but for the public. Universities are important institutions where society can experiment with ideas. The depth and quality of that experimentation depends a lot on the freedom to explore and to publish. So, for my country’s sake – and not for my own career – I do hope Singaporeans have a serious discussion about how they can get the most out of their universities.

Question: My hypothesis is that pap members are drawn (duped?) into the party by rhetoric to serve the public but then find rules, regulations & norms within the party that prevent them from speaking up as they would like. Do you think this is the case? I cannot otherwise fathom why there is so much groupthink in the pap even though they like to tell us there is so much debate.
Answer: That’s the thing about groupthink isn’t it. When you are totally gripped by it, you are convinced you are not. That’s only human. Which is why it’s so important to ensure that the system is remains highly competitive and open. Look at the corporate world. I am sure the tendency towards groupthink is there in companies as well. The difference is that firms that give in to this tendency will swiftly go out of business. In the most competitive industries like IT, firms very quickly realise that they simply can’t afford the luxury of groupthink; they know their very survival depends on being among the first to know when they are not responding to the market.
Question: “Unfortunately, many Singaporeans have decided not to care because they think they can get enough information and ideas elsewhere.”

In that sense maybe the “alternative” media like the TOC hasn’t really been doing us a favour at all. I appreciate the alternative coverage and the existence of such channels is a counterpoint to the MSM. But to many, the fact that the alternative media exists is enough already. It is not! We’re still seeing crap on MSM and we expect alternative media to provide another view point while we sit back passively and “see show”. Sorry for the rant but I feel that the quality of our Straits Times is really quite shameful. I’m not even sure who’s responsible for this!

Answer: On the long list of people to blame, alternative media are probably near the bottom. And in fact MSM would probably be even worse if not for the competition from alternative media. But you do raise an interesting point. It’s probably fair to say that in the course of their self-promotion, alternative media may have been too effective in convincing people that they could do without big media, because these little blogs could supposedly fill the gap. In that sense, the mutual animosity between MSM and alternative media was never healthy. The truth is that they were always symbiotic. A healthy media ecosystem requires strong MSM as well as strong alternative media. But that’s not how either side behaved. They each trash-talked the other.
Question: Thank you. Can you give examples of how the absence of a FOI act diminishes public accountability in Singapore?
Answer: Good question. It’s not something I have directly studied, so I struggle to come up with examples here. But, OK, here’s one. We know that the public sector does some mysterious form of security vetting before people are given jobs. There are Singaporeans who have been offered jobs by statutory boards and universities, and then suddenly they are told that they can’t be hired. And it’s hinted to them that they haven’t been security cleared, though there’s nothing in writing. So you have this situation where a citizen finds himself locked out of a job (by the country’s largest employer) and he has no clue why. In a country with a freedom of information act, he would have the right to see the information that the government holds about him. This is important, because it could well be the case that his file contains outdated or misleading information, and it’s on that basis that he’s been blacklisted. But in Singapore, he’s helpless. He can try his luck and ask, but you can bet he’ll get no satisfaction.

I give this example because many Singaporeans buy the false line that freedom of information is some weird idealistic right that will result in military secrets being leaked and so on. No. There are very good reasons why ordinary citizens would benefit from this right.

OK, here is another example. There are many concerned Singaporeans who believe that some deeper inquiry is needed into SMRT mismanagement. In most such cases, public appeals for independent commissions of inquiry are brushed aside. With a freedom of information law in place, citizens would be able to get some of that information whether or not an official inquiry is launched.

Question: Adipoli!
You don’t see many malayali people on publications like this.The usual places you see malayalis are on articles or things related to India or Kerala.
Answer: Really? I thought Malayalis are everywhere. I grew up on the story that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there was already a Kaka shop there. Not true?
Question: Government should have the ability to determine that balance? I believe in freedom of speech, even if it offends.
Answer: No, a government should not have the final say in deciding where to draw the line. That’s a bad idea because you can bet that the government will set the limits in ways that protect its power. And one of the main reasons we need free speech is precisely to hold power to account. So the sensible solution is to have, first, a constitution that guarantees free speech and, second, independent courts that are the ultimate referees to decide whether government restrictions are legitimate and necessary, or just self-serving.
Question: >Second, we do need to address racial prejudice and discrimination. Our minorities don’t complain much about it, because most just accept that that’s how things go in a majority Chinese country.

Discrimination against Chinese is worse in Malaysia and Indonesia, there was wholesale genocide in E. Timor as well as ethnic cleansings in Jakarta. Chinese just don’t complain about it because most “just accept that’s how things go in a majority Malay/Indo country”.

Ahok was just jailed in Indonesia for a made up charge of “apostasy”. Where is your crusade for preventing discrimination against Chinese? There isn’t one because you clearly have a narrative to push…

Answer: Thank you very much for giving me the excuse to plug my OTHER book. “Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy” looks at discrimination in Indonesia (along with other countries). The book was published just before the Ahok case, so it doesn’t mention that. But I have spoken about Ahok and blasphemy in London, Singapore, Jakarta and Jogjakarta. Thanks again!
Question: ” There are only 9 meals between Mankind and anarchy.” – Alfred Henry Lewis.

I would contend that Singapore is unlike many of the countries that you have in mind, and will continue to refute your efforts.

Perhaps an example to refute the example of peaceful change in law would be the recent lgbt protests and culture that assimilated during the last 2 years in several countries. I would argue that lgbt is of a less significance than freedom of speech and yet, the cost underlying these reforms were bloodshed and widespread dissent. Many lives are still sacrificed in the beginning and in current times in spite of the idea continually propagating in Muslim countries.
The parallels that I draw from this example would be how the initial radicalness of lgbt laws appeared to common folk in reformed countries and the similar notion of free speech (and lgbt ideologies) in Singapore.

An attempt to align the extremism of Muslim countries with the heavily reinforced cultures within Singapore would be extremely easy. And a highlight to prove this point would be the whole Amos Yee debacle. Even the law (‘disruption of peace’) is outrageous and serves to prove the discreet yet self serving cultures that assimilates even the highest echelons of the law (who have a duty to be just).

I understand that your efforts are valiant and just, but ultimately I disagree with the notion that your methods are sound.

There are an enormous amount of underlying problems that a book, or an AMA or intellectual efforts will not solve, ranging from propaganda in the young minds of the nation to the Stasi-like surveillance system set up in the guise of National service.

Singapore is not a country depraved of something to read or of intellect, but they will never ever turn to 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell for leisure, and neither will it ever be taught to developing minds.

I would like to point all these out as a person who share your ideals, but as someone who is constantly ostracised as an outsider and no vested interest in improving this country, perhaps many have tried your way and have been shunned.

Perhaps you can comment on my thoughts?

Answer: If you disagree that my “methods are sound”, that’s perfectly fine with me. Do bear in mind that I’m not starting a movement or party or NGO and asking others to adopt my methods. This is what I’m doing and it doesn’t cost anyone else anything. So I don’t need to account to anyone for it. Conversely, if you want to choose different methods – go ahead. I am really quite agnostic about methods, and believe that it’s only in hindsight that we know for sure which routes work. So as long as people are working for causes larger than themselves, I try to keep an open mind about the methods they choose.
Question: Surely, but has there been instances where they have voted for real social change?

Even Australia when they instituted gun control, the conservatives went against their base to do it and Borbich lose his job because of it

Answer: All I’m hearing is that change tends to be partial, messy and complex. Do you expect any political decision-making system, whether voting or autocratic rule or anything in between, to be otherwise? To put it another way, what’s an example of “real” social change that comes at zero cost? If such an example exists, then we can look at how it came about and use it as a benchmark against which to measure how well electoral democracy performs. But if there is no such real-world example, then all we can say is that electoral democracy falls short of heaven, which would be 100% true but also not particularly enlightening.
Question: What would the core elements of such civic education be? I have noticed that any talk of human rights is frowned upon. The education ministry also talks about civic virtues like responsibility, without the mirror aspect of rights. Other mature democracies always mention “rights & responsibilities” together, but not in sunny singapore.
Answer: Yes, education about rights is crucial. Democracies are founded on two main principles: majority rule and equal rights. Without the latter, democracies are prone to the “tyranny of the majority”, including intolerance and violence against vulnerable minorities. Some of the dark stuff going on in the US, Europe and elsewhere is happening precisely because majority communities have been convinced by populist politicians that democracy is simply a numbers game.
Question: They only feel as if they’re not bound by any rules because it’s Hong Kong.

The signs that point to Hong Kong’s autonomy being over are plenty and most people in Hong Kong know it.

Edit: I would also like to point out that saying the Hong Kong government is powerless implies that there are threads of resistance. As most know, the Chief Executive is directly appointed by the Beijing inner circle.

Answer: The reason I’m prepared to entertain the “don’t take it personally” theory is that the Chinese also abducted one of the booksellers from Thailand, remember? So maybe this sort of behaviour needs to be classified together with Russia’s poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in the UK in 2006, as examples of regimes prepared to violate human rights even across borders.
Question: If Tharman takes over and brings on all the good changes to Singapore, he will greatly threaten Hongyi’s chances for taking over wouldn’t it?
Answer: Is that all that’s in L3’s way? I know people will accuse me of being naive (again) but I have more faith in the PAP; I believe there will be some internal resistance to L3. Just because 1G and 2G ministers swallowed their pride and allowed L2 to be fast-tracked ahead of them doesn’t mean 4G and 5G leaders will respond the same way to L3. I’ll go so far as to say that any attempt to pressure 4G/5G to defer to L3 could be the thing that finally splits the PAP.
Question: Not sure if you’re in the US, but even there the government does determine limits on free speech. Threats and things like “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” are not protected forms of free speech.
Answer: Yes, even in the US there are limits set by government. But one key point to note is that the government’s limits are open to challenge. In that sense, government doesn’t “determine” limits. Courts can – and often do – overturn government restrictions. A second important point is that the examples you give are not political discourse – the kind of speech about public affairs that citizens need to engage in to give life to democracy. When it comes to political speech, the courts generally don’t tolerate government restrictions.
Question: What would your quick response be to this argument: Are you being too harsh and ignoring the nascent discourse that is perhaps outside of your specialty?
Answer: I found it difficult to follow a lot of the arguments in this rejoinder. As a fellow academic commented on Facebook, his observation about the critical discourse of artists and activists was especially odd. Yes, it’s absolutely true that many artists and activists are pushing the boundaries. But I’m not sure what this has to do with academics, unless he is saying that since artists and activists are doing it, academics don’t need to; or if that academics can somehow take credit for all these other goings-on.

To answer your question, was I being too harsh? I don’t think so. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) My essay didn’t just germinate in splendid isolation in my own head. It’s the result of conversations with other (mainly Singaporean) academics who feel the same way, across many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

It’s not an across-the-board problem. In my original essay, as published in my book, I point out that the problem is less serious in sociology, for example. Geography is another relatively bright spot.

As for history, it may seem from this NTU historian’s reply that my essay beat up his department. In fact, I wrote exactly one (accurate) sentence about NTU history in a 2,200-word essay. Perhaps part of the reason why he got so worked up was that he misread what I wrote (or maybe he misread it because he was already worked up): he claimed that I made an unfair comment about NTU historians’ publications about Singapore pre-independence history. In fact, I made this (accurate) observation about NUS’s history department, not NTU’s. THE’s editors later deleted this paragraph of his because it was so obviously inaccurate, so you won’t find it in that linked article anymore.

I am glad, though, that my essay gave him the opening to advertise the good work being done by his department to engage with the public. While I believe most of our academic departments don’t do enough, I also think what they actually do isn’t given enough credit or publicity, partly because our broader national culture is somewhat anti-intellectual.

Question: Thanks for the insightful reply. I also feel that Singaporean students are sometimes pressured by their educators and expectations to play it safe when it comes to assignments and research. For example, to replicate a study just to get good grades instead of venturing to research less-studied fields. The unfortunate fact is many of us want security and certainty.
Could it be that we’ve been too “well-taken care” of that we would rather not rock the boat so long as our rice bowls can be kept intact?
Answer: You raise important points, but I wouldn’t want to over-generalise. The truth is that there are many educators in Singapore who work very hard at encouraging students to be more creative and well-rounded. And I regularly meet young Singaporeans who are everything one hopes they would be.

But, yes, there is certainly something about our culture that isn’t conducive to innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. Many others have commented on this and studied the problem for years, and there clearly aren’t any quick fixes.

Question: The challenge seems to be that firstly, the so called constitution here does not carry the same weight as in more developed democracies. Secondly, that laws here are crafted vaguely. Thirdly, that courts are conservative in their interpretations in order not to be accused of advocacy. Fourthly, that laws are crafted such that parliament has the final say (hence courts will repeat it is a matter of policy, not law, as in the ridiculous counting fiasco of the EP). Fifthly, the media and citizens don’t flag this out as questionable behavior and hold the gahmen to account for this.
Answer: Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
Question: Lol. That’s not speech. I get that.

What I mean is suppression of ideas not accepted by those in power, or in the case of the US, the media. Right now our government is fine with free speech, but our colleges and universities, our media and celebrities are trying to label those who participate in conservative speech as “outsiders” or “dumb and ignorant”. The reality is, the majority of people in the US are conservative and compromise the “silent majority”.

I’m interested in understanding the “liberalization” of Singapore, and risks of doing so.

Edit: spelling

Answer: I understand what you’re referring to. And, yes, I agree with you that in the US there’s a lot of condescension and intolerance towards conservative speech. And even censorship of such speech. The US is quite different from most other countries I know in that regard. Elsewhere, the left is associated with free speech, while most calls for censorship come from the right. In the US, as a result of your cultural politics, there are those on the left (especially on campuses) that believe that some ideas are so oppressive to vulnerable groups that speakers who espouse them should be silenced. I (like many Americans on the left as well) find this a troubling trend. It has allowed the right (including Fox News) to claim that they are the defenders of free speech, which is far from the case.
Question: Chinese utilized Singapore as a safe-haven to get away from genocide, state-sanctioned race riots, and racial cleansing among its neighboring states; it’s extremely hypocritical and disingenuous to focus on Singapore when the reverse racism is *far* worse in the neighboring countries. Chinese minorities can only hope to be treated the same way Singapore treats non-Chinese. This is like Trump talking about how bad racism is in SF, and ignoring large swaths of the country where it’s actually far worse.

If OP actually cared about racism, he would be crusading for much larger issues. But he doesn’t – OP cares about pushing an anti-Chinese narrative, and will ignore far larger racial issues to do so. Ahok is literally imprisoned in Indonesia for “blaspheming Allah” and OP wants to talk about how bad Chinese are, what a joke.

Answer: Yippee, another chance to plug my other book. You are absolutely right that there are much larger issues than discrimination against Singapore Indians and Malays (both in terms of numbers involved and intensity). This is why I devote around 6 pages in “Singapore, Incomplete” to the issue of racial equality in Singapore, and around 320 pages to hate, discrimination, blasphemy, genocide etc outside Singapore in my other book “Hate Spin”. Here’s where you can buy a copy:
Question: Convenient sidestep of the quoted portion in my comment, but that’s okay, you got your marketing in. Absolutely no rebuttal besides, “Buy My Book!”.

Lazy and intellectually dishonest, especially when your book only marginally addresses the far worse reverse racism *against Chinese*, yet you choose to single out Chinese racism in a separate treatise. It’s clear you want to highlight and push a defined narrative.

Answer: I “single out Chinese racism in a separate treatise”? Wow, looks like there are works of mine that Limitz remembers reading that I don’t remember writing! If I can have such a deep impact on a reader without lifting a finger, I guess I should continue with my lazy ways.
Question: Would it be correct to classify you as more of a passive person towards this issue? Many of the people whom I’ve spoken to also share the same perspectives as you(albeit not as intelligent), disdain for the situation but unwilling to follow through with sacrifice.

May I ask a personal question? As to why you’ve chosen the path you have instead of a more active, central role (family, friends, career)? From what you’ve said about assuming an “agnostic” position, would it be right to assume that you’re so risk adverse that sacrifice for failure would be a catastrophe to you? And that if there was a right way you would give up everything to achieve it? Would be right to say that months writing a book is incomparable to a death for the cause?

I bear no good will to Singapore and would personally prefer to contribute to it’s demise. But one thing that strikes me the most is that most Singaporeans are passive in their contribution to their society, and would prefer to live in harmony with small pains than a utopia through great pains.

Would you agree that “Lee Kuan Yew would not have brought Singapore to become his utopia if not for his sacrifice, but because of passive aggressiveness of the culture in Singapore means it will never escape his shadow.”

Answer: I’ll answer your “personal question” because I realise I may not have made myself clear in my previous reply. When I say I’m “agnostic”, I’m referring to my stand on other people’s approaches, not to my own stand. I have strong views about what needs to be done, but I’m not going to say that my way of achieving it is the only way. If you want to die for a cause, while I write books safely in my comfortable home, I’m not going to say you’re wrong to take such risks. And I’ll try, through my writing, to explain to others why you felt you needed to die for the cause (since you wouldn’t have a voice by that stage).

As for your first question – how to classify me. I really hope you don’t think I’m important enough to require classification.

Question: That’s my point, isn’t it?Change is messy and the citizenry typically would preserve what they think is beneficial for them even if it is clearly isn’t (American gun control, UK Brexit, Aussie Gun Control)

I personally think that citizens won’t become smarter and vote for better social welfare because they think they have it better and don’t have to subsidize others.

Answer: Actually, the examples you give don’t really illustrate your point. US gun control: polls show that the public is in favour of tighter controls; the problem is the capture of lawmakers by the NRA. Brexit: it’s not the case that the public was well informed and then voted irrationally; the debate was skewed by a sophisticated disinformation campaign aided by rightwing media. Neither case proves that citizens are inherently limited in their capacity to make choices for the greater public good. In the gun control case, the problem is lack of regulation of money in politics, which allows a small group like the NRA to set the agenda despite, not because of, public opinion. In the Brexit case, the media carries a large part of the blame.
Question: In the case of courts and rulings in cases of human rights, would logic-trees/logic-gating, being transcribed publicly in rulings, help? I always found it interesting that philosophy students of logic have this system to break down and analyse arguments, yet this is hardly ever disseminated to the public. It could, idealistically I admit, serve to break down the legalese that keeps the general population down.
Answer: Or, read books like “Living with Myths”, which have done the work for us – helping us see through ideology. (
Question: Thanks! I’m happy to have had the opportunity to peer into your mind briefly!
Answer: My pleasure. (My mind requires only the briefest glance!)
Question: Which leads to the ultimate question:

Do you believe there needs to be change?

If yes, how so? and how will you enable this change?

If not, then why did you write this book?

Answer: Yes of course, the book is entirely about the need for change.
Question: Yes, but the citizens are affected by the media. That’s my point right? That people know what they want and vote for it.

The fact that the same anti guncontrol politicians keep getting elected despite majority of citizens being for gun control in the US. If the citizens were actually voting for pro guncontrol politicians, there wouldnt be 28 mass shootings in schools in just Jan 2018 alone

Answer: No, I don’t think we should be so quick to blame voters. They can only choose from among the candidates presented to them, and if the slate of candidates with the resources to mount a big campaign is predetermined by groups like the NRA, that’s not a real choice. And you are assuming voters care about only one issue when of course they don’t. If a politician A is superior to B in most respects, you can’t expect voters to reject him just because he is beholden to the NRA. This is why the solution is to get big money out of the process.



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