The Politics of Madness (by Dr Wong Wee Nam)

By Dr Wong Wee Nam
12th June 2008

The incarceration of free-thinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder.Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author

Last week, a friend brought to my attention some newspaper articles profiling Chee Soon Juan after he was sent to jail for contempt of court. One piece suggested Dr Chee could be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. This conclusion was based on Dr Chee’s behaviour that had matched the symptoms of a condition that the writer had gleaned from a medical website.

Another piece in another newspaper, with some clever quotes here and there, even imputed that Dr Chee could be mentally challenged and might even be psychotic.

I find these articles distasteful because the tone was to run down a person while attempting to look objective.

It is one thing to disagree with a person’s ideology, his methods and his political agenda. By all means, attack his thoughts, his values and his principles. By all means, criticise him with the harshest of words on his methods and his agenda. But to suggest that a person may be mentally not right when there has never been a psychiatric examination, is the meanest thing to do, especially from journalists whom the public expect to be factual and objective. Where is the medical evidence?

I have worked in Woodbridge Hospital, a psychiatric institution, before. Before we make a diagnosis of a patient, he needs to undergo a psychiatric examination. This requires one to two hours of examination of the patient by the psychiatrist, another one to two hours of interview with his relatives, some days of observation in the ward, some psychological testing by a psychologist and a conference of doctors and psychologists before a firm diagnosis is made.

How on earth then could a lay person have the temerity to make any claim on a medical diagnosis, especially a psychiatric one?

If we can make diagnosis from medical websites, then everyone in this world would find himself or herself mentally ill.

There are implications in such damaging articles and I do not know if the writers realize this.

In my opinion, it is all right for one politician to call another politician mad. I give leeway to political polemics. However, when writers, who are supposed to be objective and factual and not combatants in the political arena, take up the hatchet to demolish someone in this manner, I sigh and ask: As a society and a nation, where are we heading?

On reading the articles, I recall the use of psychiatry to suppress political dissent in some countries where, as New York Law School Professor Michael Perlin an expert on this form of suppression put it, “a patient’s conviction that the state must be changed was seen as an indication of mental illness.”

In such places, “If you protest politically, you demonstrate by that an absence of instinct for self-preservation, or if you pursue a legal complaint against a corrupted or repressive official, that’s a sign of mental illness.”

According to Professor Perlin, throwing dissidents into mental hospitals rather than prisons has three advantages:

(1) It avoids the already limited procedural safeguards of a criminal trial.
(2) It stigmatizes people to subordinate them, and
(3) It confines dissenters indefinitely at the State’s discretion.

Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities. We have not criminalised dissidents or accused them of suffering from “Reformist delusions”.

I know our psychiatrists very well. They are very ethical professionals and none of them are likely to put a psychiatric label freely on those individuals who hold strong vocal opposition to government policies. I, therefore, hope our journalists will learn to be similarly responsible.

Surely, all of us, including our journalists, do not want to see us becoming like Russia where, as recent as July last year, Larissa Arap, a Russian journalist, was declared as suffering from paranoid personality disorder and was thrown into a mental hospital for writing an article for a newspaper produced by Gary Kasparov’s dissent movement that focused on the treatment of children in psychiatric hospitals?

According to MindFreedom director David Oaks said, “If a journalist and psychiatric critic and political party leader can be locked up in a psychiatric institution, then no one is safe.”

I am not a great fan of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s methods. Many years ago, when he was about to go on his hunger strike, Mr Chiam See Tong, his SDP party chief called me and asked me to try and talk him out of his impending action. I tried but failed and I told Chiam he was too obstinate to change his mind.

He may be a stubborn person but that does not mean he is mad. Until a person is properly diagnosed, I think it is wrong to impute a psychiatric label on him. Furthermore, by using a mental illness label to character assassinate a person, we would be perpetuating the notion that a mentally ill person has the status of an outcast and is something that our can society can do without. Aren’t we trying to de-stigmatise our mental patients?

Marina Trutko a nuclear scientist, a vocal activist and public defender for several years who had also been forcibly taken and thrown into a psychiatric hospital, knows what it is like to have a psychiatric label.

“Now I have this stamp on my forehead that I am a psychiatric patient,” she said. “I will always have this medical record now. That means I cannot go to court because judges say I’m a psycho and call for an ambulance.”

I hope the articles merely reflect the thoughtlessness of the writers and nothing else. Let us also hope that imputation of mentally abnormality will not become a popular way to discredit vocal people who hold alternative views.

It’s not too late to save ourselves from dropping into the gutter. Just learn to be fair.

  1. An excellent article. Many thanks to Dr Wong Wee Nam.

    Reading the same articles in the national newspapers, I can’t help but felt that there could
    have been a co-ordinated effort to cast a very bad light upon the mental state of Dr Chee
    Soon Juan, especially immediately after MM Lee had started name-calling Dr Chee openly
    in court as a “near-psychopath”. Without close examination by medical experts, the same
    symptoms quoted by the journalists and newspaper editors could be equally applied to
    them also.

    And from the way they have written their articles, I can’t help but perceive that these
    journalists/editors are themselves having some serious mental problems. And my advice
    to them is to go immediately to see a psychiatrist.

    We do not want mad journalists or mad editors to be writing things that will inffect our mind, and probably also make us mad, do we?

    Inflamed Reader – 14 June 2008.

  2. While I don’t support the PAP, I also feel there are too many cock talkers in the opposite camp like Dr Wong.
    Of course in a One-Party-State the establishment gets away with saying nonsense and more.
    What else is new?
    We have enough of cock talkers. What we need most are catalysts for Change especially among the minorities. Dr Wong is no where near the real issues. He should really go back to Macpherson Con where he tried so hard to win a PAP candidature immediately on becoming a doctor.
    PAP is having a hearty last laugh as far as the good doctor is concerned.

  3. in 1987..there’s a movie entitled NUTS by Barbara Streisand…briefly about how the system tried to admit the protagonist into the asylum but she fought back! Great story..check it out!

  4. Thanks Dr Wong for sharing this on TOC. I hope the “journalist” feels ashamed that she has been caught out. And it’s great when people like you and Anthony Yeo point out the character assassination that is so obviously taking place. Sadly Singapore is already dropped into the gutter when such articles are allowed; when Tang Liang Hong , Tan Wah Piow and the “Marxist conspirators” have been forgotten. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and we need a check on the government. I used to get annoyed with Chee Soon Juan and his “antics”. But I have to take my hat off to him that he is obstinate enough to get to this stage where people are questioning the actions of the government (and the syconphantic press) esp on issues like the Mas Selamat escape, the plight of the old and poor, the world class ministers and their salaries…

  5. A fair comment. You think the authorities will have the sensibility to listen? They have too much to lose if they do. Until they are prepared to accord respect to their political opponents in an open style debate widely broadcasted like the american system, it will be too monumental a task to ask that they keep from committing character assassination as they would character elevation.
    If the former is tantamount to spiritual murder, the latter must be spiritual idolatry!

  6. “I am not a great fan of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s methods.”

    Chee Soon Juan methods may seem extreme to you and me but after they took away his job and censored/altered everything he said via the state media. He had little recourse but to go to the streets and engage the people directly. It is just that engaging people in the street is not a very effective method in the singapore context.

    But with little choice what else can he do to get his message to everyday singaporeans?

  7. “Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities.”

    Tell that to Robert Ho.

  8. “Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities.”

    I agree with most of what you said except for the statement. I know of at least two cases of friends who were in the army, had officers who disliked them, and found themselves thrown into the mental ward where they had what was a far from pleasant time under an official who is far from the professionalism you describe of the profession. I do not claim it is wide spread but it definitely does happen.

  9. “Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities.”

    Hold it! Thats too sweeping and too fast as statement to make. My question to you is:
    Are you so sure? If you asked for proof, then I am sorry. Go and dig up for yourself.

    Anyway, as what comment No. 9 has said, I too agree with most of what you have written
    except for the above quoted statement.

    And thanks for your effort to enlighten us.

  10. I think Hold It is not being fair to Dr Wong. If he has evidence,to the contrary he should produce it. Even Amnesty International and other human rights bodies have not accused Singapore of such deeds. So far I think Dr Wong has written a very balanced article – unlike Ms Chua of the ST

  11. “Fortunately we are not in such a state. So far we have not used psychiatry as a weapon to intimidate or discredit citizens who tangle with the authorities.”

    Tell that to Lim Chin Siong too. It was said that he suffered a mental breakdown while being incarcerated under the ISA.

  12. Bullet, you must get your facts right. Yes on July 28 1969, Lim Chin Siong suffered from depression but he was released because of that and exiled to London. He was not further incarcerated in a mental hospital. Neither was mental illness an excuse for his incarceration. Dr Wong is still correct in his statement.

  13. Why no counter-suit of defamation? If in a functioning democracy and an independent judiciary, I am pretty sure that CSJ would win such a case.

  14. My respect for my former hero Dr Wong fell when he joined the NSP…an Sg “monkey see monkey do” political party. Despite his prolific writing Dr Wong echoes diatribes and recycles cliches and second hand views. When can we expect him to push the envelopa bit.
    That is why such a brilliant person like him ends up in NSP and flaunts his command of safe recycled views like this article on Dr Chee mental state. Of course what LKY is saying about the true opposition in Sg is a whole load of shit. Who doesn’t know that. Something new please Dr Wong? When will you stop sounding like a donkey who forever likes to hear himself bray.

  15. If we want to see any politica progress, then it is the duty of everyone to push the envelope and not just Dr Wong. For those who call others to “push the envelope”, they should ask themselves if they are doing so themselves. Then we can see progress. Dr Chee is pushing the envelope all the time, yet he is having difficulty raising funds to fight his cause. Don’t monkey talk and monkey no do.

  16. Journalist? There are no “journalist” in singapore. Only ISD thugs impersonating as “journalist”. I see this all the time in 3rd world countries like singapore.

  17. Dr Wong’s description of the offending newspaper articles did not qualify as medical diagnosis, although he proceeded therefrom as if they were…. So much smoke also in the responses, oh my!!!

  18. Thanks to Dr Wong. It is evident from the trial MM Lee PM Lee vs Dr Chee the idea of using mental illness label on Dr Chee so that he can be locked up in the asylum without all the legal trials did cross MM Lee mind. Being a politician MM Lee would like to imitate Stalin in locking up his opponents in mental ward, ward designed to locked up talented people like scientists etc…. MM Lee is evil to his genes when he intended to do just that. Only God knows when he brought up that he consulted a few doctors on Dr Chee mental condition.

  19. Singaporeans can learn a lot from Barrack Obama.He never attack McCain nor Sarah Palin personally, even though they say he pallies with terrorist, not patriotic and even uses race and religion to instill fear and contempt on him.
    Instead, Obama kept his cool and only concentrate on debating issues especially the economy.He never engages in gutter politics nor character assassination which was used by his opponents..By doing this he was able to maintain his honour,character and integrity.
    It was his standing on high moral ground that got him much respect not only from Americans but from all over the world.
    The oppostion in Singapore should be like Barrack Obama and concentrate on debating issues.If they do this, there should be no fear of being sued for libel or defamation.
    He even praised McCain and Sarah Palin and there was never any hint of hostility on his part towards his opponents.
    Obama is a great man who feels that there is a purpose greater than himself in his desire to become the president of the USA..