Word of the Day: Opportunism

Jun 06, 2016 01.23PM |

by Tan Chu Chze

MAY the winds be in your favour: May they blow when your laundry is wet, when the afternoons need cooling, in the direction that flows through your windows, and parts your hair stylishly. As long as you don’t break wind.

Winds play an important role in our understanding of fortune. Seemingly unpredictable and uncontrollable, we feel lucky to have winds blow the way we want them to. Sailors of the past understood this very well, since ships depended on winds to propel them. This is why Latin speakers of the past had the phrase ‘ob portum veniens‘. It means “towards the harbour”, describing a situation which worked very much in their favour.

Hundreds of years later, we retain ‘ob portum veniens‘ in the English language – only in a shorter form. It is now the word ‘opportune’. The noun form, ‘opportunity’, is our go-to to describe a favourable situation.

In that perspective, ‘opportunities’ seem like a good thing to have. However, taking opportunities isn’t always seen positively. When you change ‘opportunity’ to ‘opportunism’, it becomes an ugly behaviour. How is it that the practice or behaviour of taking opportunities is considered undesirable?

The past week or so has been rampant with cases of ‘opportunism’ – specifically legal opportunism – reported in the media. And by rampant, I mean a total of two cases. That’s a lot considering that MSM has no apparent record of legal opportunism prior to this. Even if there had been cases before, legal opportunism was clearly not an issue often talked about.

So the first was the Kho Jabing case. Despite being quite drawn out, the case had quite the fiery closure. Kho’s lawyers Gino Hardial Singh, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and Alfred Dodwell fought hard to save Kho from the death penalty, and took every opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) saw their actions as taking advantage of legal appeals to delay Kho’s execution. While Kho’s lawyers argued that they were only doing their best to serve their client, the AGC maintained that it was at the cost of abusing legal processes for motivations the procedures were not designed for.

A similar situation goes for Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung. Both Teo and Ngerng are being investigated for publishing articles on the recent Bukit Batok By-Election on Cooling-Off Day. You can read our report here.

However, the tables have been turned. This time, it is the police force who are seen as overstepping the requirements of their investigation, particularly with the confiscation of the two people’s computers and mobile phones. The group, Function 8, has gone as far as to describe the police’s fervour as – you guessed it – legal opportunism.

What is clear from these cases is that opportunities remain a positive thing for the people taking them. In Kho’s case, it is his lawyers, while in the case of Teo and Ngerng, the police. However, what makes opportunities ‘opportunism’ is when there are negative consequences, like when the intentions of legal appeals, confiscation policies, and powers of search are undermined.

Perhaps what best defines ‘opportunism’ is that it is not considered illegal or even malpractice (we covered “malpractice” here). There simply isn’t much basis to determine if it’s wrong or unethical. At least not clearly so. It just happens that the outcomes of taking some opportunities can sometimes really piss some people off enough for them to call it ‘opportunism’.

Then, ‘opportunism’ is just a vague and windy way of saying: “I don’t like what you’re doing.”


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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