Civil liberties precursor to strong opposition

This letter was published in Streats on Nov 7, 2002

In response to the letter “No danger in fair opposition” (Streats, Nov 6), I would like to comment on the subject of opposition parties in Singapore.

When Dr Chee Soon Juan spoke in public without a permit, he was arrested. One opposition party came out to say that it did not support Dr Chee’s civil disobedience.

To be without a permit is a legal point that the legal profession would be better placed to debate, but is the act of speaking in public a crime to start with?

I would understand it to be freedom of expression, among other freedoms such as freedom of the press, freedom of participation and freedom of association.

These values should be closely studied and not dismissed as unimportant, let alone bad for society. These values are – as far as politics is concerned – actually the basis for creating a level playing field for political parties.

They are also the very processes that political parties in democracies use to effectively engage the people so as to broadcast their viewpoints and win support.

More space, or civil liberties, was available to the PAP in the days when the party itself was the opposition. There can be no denying that the political space enjoyed by the PAP enabled it to significantly boost its following and eventually come to power.

Unfortunately, since then, it has denied other opposition parties the same democratic rights.

What future is there for opposition parties when the people’s support for them shrinks from one election to the next?

If opposition parties are to have any hope of reversing the trend, the first thing they must fight for is the restoration of those civil liberties.

Their focus on other issues, whether big or small, will come to nothing because, ultimately, it is the ability to galvanise ground support that matters. And for that, the channels and processes of engagement must exist.

Therefore, the danger to opposition party members is not just potential PAP lawsuits for defamation or arrests. The more immediate danger is the foggy thinking of some of them.

Just because democratic freedoms have been denied to our society for more than 30 years, it does not mean that people, let alone opposition politicians, should rest easy.

To challenge undemocratic ground rules is simply one of the roles of the opposition.

Chia Hern Keng