Below are excerpts of the keynote address Dr Chee Soon Juan gave at the recently held International Youth Conference for Democracy organised by the Young Democrats of the SDP.
You may not realize it but all of you in this room today are making history. Look around you. I have not seen so many young Singaporeans gathered in one place for the sole purpose of talking about human rights, liberty and democracy.
Most people who come through Singapore may not see it but Singapore is one of the most repressive countries in Asia. You don’t believe me? How many of our foreign delegates here have ever attended a conference to talk about human rights and democracy in Singapore? Similarly, how many of the locals here have attended a conference of this nature?
The control in Singapore is extremely sophisticated but the effects of the repression are no less effective. You may be tempted then to think that allowing this conference must be a change of the Singapore government’s heart. Let me give you a little bit of information that has hitherto remained largely unknown.
In 1996 the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) wanted to hold its annual conference in Singapore (its conferences have been held in most cities in East Asia except Rangoon and Singapore). But the Singapore government exerted so much pressure on the sponsors that the event had to be cancelled.
You see, the Singapore government is very sensitive to international opinion. It wants the world to see it and accept it as a modern, progressive democratic nation. It didn’t want to publicly ban the CALD conference, so it worked behind the scenes to put a stop to it.
The difference with this present conference is that the sponsors are not based in Singapore and therefore immune to PAP pressure. To ban the conference would make the government look politically infantile and cause a diplomatic sensation especially when so many of the foreign delegates are elected officials from around the world.
Unable to prevent the conference from going ahead, the authorities then made life as difficult as possible for the organisers. The government insisted that each overseas speaker had to apply for a Professional Visit Pass (PVP) even though none of them were working in Singapore and none were going to stay for more than four days.
The delegates were required to furnish two passport photographs and they had to surrender their passports so that the Immigrations department could stamp it. On top of this, the speakers had to furnish information relating to their spouses and their academic qualifications! We then had to pay $50 for each PVP application. I’m surprised that they didn’t require the speakers to be fingerprinted. Why should our friends here be treated like common criminals or illegal immigrants when several of them are MPs? [Do PAP MPs need to be subjected to such a process when they are invited to speak in other countries?] I have attended many, many conferences through the years and I am ashamed to say that this is the first time I have come across such behaviour. On behalf of democratic-minded Singaporeans, I offer the delegates my sincerest apology.
Repression in Singapore
This gives you an idea of what Singaporeans live under. The kind of all-pervasive control that the PAP exerts by insisting on retaining detailed information about the people.
Let me give you more evidence of how repressive Singapore is. Singapore is one of the few countries in Asia that does not allow its citizens to freely and openly assemble even though our constitution guarantees us that right. Even the governments of China, even Cambodia and Malaysia allows public gatherings.
Minister for Home Affars, Wong Kan Seng, declared: “The government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature.” The only countries in Asia that continues to outlaw public rallies and protests are North Korea, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore. We are in bad company.
Are public protests that important? PAP is terrified of public protests. You can write letters, scream on the Internet, but there is nothing like seeing the multitudes of citizens coming out to voice their concerns in unison.
Without public gatherings, apartheid would still rule South Africa today, blacks in America would still have to go to a separate toilet from the whites, Taiwan would still be labouring under a dictatorship and Hong Kong would not be able to beat back China’s intentions to impose Article 23. If we did not have public gatherings Singapore would still be a British colony.
The truth of the matter is that not only is there nothing wrong with public protests. In fact, the right to assembly is vitally important for the well-being of citizens.
Economist and Nobel laureate, Professor Amartya Sen wrote: “Political and civil rights give people the opportunity to draw attention forcefully to the general needs and to demand appropriate public action. The governmental response to acute suffering often depends on the pressure that is put on it and this is where the political rights (voting, criticizing, protesting, and so on) can make a real difference.”
Are we sheep?
Why is it that when the PAP tells us that something is black when it is clearly white, we say nothing? Is it because we are afraid?
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep.” I was in Australia and observed how sheep behaved. For anyone to control the flock in such a manner three factors are crucial: There must be fear, you must deprive the individual animal of information, and you must make sure that those that step out of outline are quickly chased back in. Of course it helps to have a bunch of dogs running around.
Are we sheep? Do we continue to let the PAP instil fear in us and deprive us of information? Do we let the PAP tell us that protests are dangerous when clearly they are not?
I have been criticized for being too confrontational. Believe me, what I am advocating now is very mainstream in the rest of the world. The PAP has put Singaporeans in this well, and covered it up with only a little peephole. All we see is this little patch of light that the PAP allows us to see. The party not only tells us what to think but how to go about thinking it.
I have seen what it is to be free. For citizens to come together to protest against government action and policies is good, is necessary, and it is for our survival. I have seen mothers with children, grannies even, the disabled all participating in peaceful marches. No pandemonium. Just dignified peoples fiercely proud and loyal to their countries.
Can it be that Singaporeans are really so incapable of expressing ourselves in peaceful protests and demonstrations? Are the Brits somehow more responsible than us, are the Japanese somehow superior in their political thought, are Hong Kongers somehow more trustworthy, are our Malaysian counterparts better citizens? Or is it that our government is simply more repressive than others?
Sometimes we are imprisoned not for our thoughts but by our thoughts.
Voting for change or changing the way we vote?
But isn’t the best way to change and influence the government through the ballot box? Yes, provided that governments which get voted in don’t begin to curtail the rights of the citizens once they get into power. Otherwise elections are rendered meaningless.
The question is not whether one country holds elections or not but whether the elections are one, genuinely free and fair, two, whether voters have access to information through a free media, and three, whether there is freedom of association, speech and assembly. None of these conditions exist in Singapore.
If elections are the only measure of whether a country is democratic or not, then Cuba, former Soviet Union, the Philippines, Iraq and Indonesia are all democracies because Fidel Castro, Marcos, Suharto, and Saddam Hussein, all conducted elections.
The PAP will introduce e-voting at the next election. There are studies that have shown that with the current technology, e-voting is open to fraud. Given the way Singapore conducts its elections without an independent election commission, we might as well kiss democracy goodbye if e-voting comes into effect.
Singaporeans must realise that there is no point in talking about policies when elections are not free and fair. Whether it is the GST, price hikes, foreign talent, economic policies, education, ministers salaries – you name it, it’s not going to make a shred of difference if Singaporeans cannot express their will in free and fair elections.
Without a proper electoral system, the party in power can remain in power forever. How do we even begin to change this? By insisting on our right to freely assemble and protest against the PAP’s continued manipulation of the election system. Peaceful mass rallies and public protests is the only language that the PAP understands.
Don’t be discouraged
Ten years ago I didn’t know anyone in the international community. Today we have this conference. We are making progress.
I have heard so many times that Singaporeans are not worth sacrificing for. I refuse to belief that. The fact that all of you are here and have taken the decision to attend this conference signals to me that there is hope.
We say our pledge “to build a democratic society based on justice and equality…” One of the stars on our flag symbolises democracy. And yet, we are one of the most repressive countries in Asia. Don’t accept this lie anymore. For once be a rebel. Stand up for the truth.
Change must come from the masses but the masses need leaders. Where are we going to find these leaders? All of you here are leaders of democracy. Get together and form a youth movement for democracy. I cannot say that the PAP won’t try to trip you up. But when they do, you are not helpless. We are not alone. Democrats all over the world must and will stand up for each other.
Our friends from Sweden, America, all over Asia will you go back and tell their governments that we in Singapore want democracy like anyone else in the world. The international community will let the PAP know that the repression cannot continue in Singapore.
I have been there and I have seen what it is to be free. This is not the natural state of things and we do not have to accept it and think that what the PAP has engineered is the natural order of things. There are alternatives and better ones. We just need the courage to bring them to reality.
I cannot stand for elections but that’s okay. I don’t need to stand for elections. I just need to continue to speak up so that one some of you here can get elected and establish democracy in this country.
They can make me a bankrupt and take away all my possessions. They can convict me for speaking without a permit and put me in jail. But there is one thing that they cannot take away and that is my faith and commitment to democracy.