Student and youth movements are key to freedom

Charles Tan

In the seminar held on 19 June 2004, Mr Charles Tan was among the panel of international speakers discussing the subject of ‘Engaging youth in politics and civil society.’ He talked about how young Singaporeans can participate in the political process. We produce his speech below.

Youth movements around the world

Youths and students start some of the worlds most famous revolutions.

One of them was the proletarian Cultural Revolution in China between 19661976 where Mao Zedong promoted a cult leadership. He freed the students from school and brainwashed them into zealous infamous red guards, who swept the entire country following campaigns such as Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom and The Great Leap Forward.

More than a decade later, in 1989, China witnessed another shake-up in which students and intellectuals went on hunger strikes on Tiananmen Square, demanding for democracy. It would be met with harsh retaliation from the Chinese Communist Party, which declared martial law, rolled tanks in, all resulting in death and destruction. Student leaders and other activists were detained, several of whom are now in exile including Wang Dan, Wuer Kai Xi and Wei Jing Sheng.

Across the straits, a few months later, the Taiwan Lily Student Movement in March 1990, saw the participation of enthusiastic students who demanded constitutional reforms, parliamentary elections, a fully elected legislature, and the revision of Criminal Code which was passed to restrict political expression in substitution of martial law. Their actions were supported by the Taiwanese public who congregated in silence at the Chiang Kai Shek memorial.

In Indonesia, the 1998 Reformasi Movement was sparked off by the death of six students in Triskati University, Jakarta, ultimately leading to the collapse of the corrupt Suharto regime.

The sacking and detention of Malaysias Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in September 1998 who clashed with then Prime Minister Mahathir on economic issues and People Power I and II in Philippines were all popular movements within the region in recent years that included participation from university students and youths.

The demonstrators acted in defiance against an oppressive system and to right injustices they had seen or undergone. Though the Reformasi movement in Malaysia did not free Anwar who continues to be under detention, People Power in Philippines, on the other hand, gained considerable results. The first People Power which was non-violent ended the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship while People Power II in 2001 ousted Joseph Estrada, accused of major corruption.

Student uprisings in Europe have also been responsible in bringing historic changes to their own countries.

The famous movement in Paris on May 1968 was initially a student sit-in and protest in the University of Sorbornne against the explusion of their counterparts in Nanterre University. The riot police reacted with brutality against the students that soon gained support from the masses, leading to nationwide strikes and demonstrations by workers demanding for reforms against the conservative Charles De Gaulle leadership.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, November 1989, overthrew the long standing Communist regime. Initially, Czech students had gathered legally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Jan Opletal, a student who was shot in a demonstration against the Nazis. The event turned out to be a demand for democratic reforms which was again met with police brutality. It again provoked support from worker unions leading to nationwide strikes.

1989 was the same year that saw the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall just prior to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. The collapse of the communist regime in East Germany spread like wildfire to Romania, Poland and Hungary, effectively ending the Cold War.

The youth movement in United States of America gained momentum in the mid 1960s. In 1960, a small group of young people formed the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which urged participatory democracy, or the idea that all Americans, not just a small elite, should decide major economic, political, and social issues that shaped the nation. By 1968 some 100,000 young people around the nation had joined SDS.

A year later, student groups at the University of California, Berkeley, organised the Free Speech Movement. Political activism and protests spread to other campuses in the 1960s.

The youth movements demonstrations soon merged with the protests of students who opposed the Vietnam War which peaked at an antiwar protest at Ohios Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops gunned down four student protesters.

The power of mass movements

These examples highlight several characteristics of student lead movements which I shall discuss. You are free to raise doubts later.

First and foremost, revolutions or movements are neither inherently evil nor good. It is merely one of the symptoms of society. It could be organized or not, often provoked by one or multiple external stimuli such as wars, increase in difficulty of an acceptable standard of living, or oppressive laws and regulations passed by a government. Ironically, demonstrations have been used by dictators, the rise of fascism is an example, to raise national consciousness and patriotism.

Most of these movements are attempts to bring about important changes or to prevent an injustice being done. Sometimes, the effect is achieved. Even at times when it does not, it creates a dent against an existing rigid bureaucracy which paves the way towards future actions.

As I have mentioned earlier, while the Cultural Revolution in China, inspired by a dictator, destroyed lives, homes, families, art, and literature collections the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, inspired by the desire to bring about democracy, brought down a communism dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Revolutions can topple oppressive regimes.

Because of the nature of demonstrations, governments are afraid of public gatherings which have the effect of creating a synergy that will spark off more public action. It is one of the fastest and most confrontational methods of bringing about a momentous change.

Peaceful non-violent demonstrations are possible. More often than not, it is due to violence of the riot police that begets an equally provoked reaction from the students or public. Dictators declare martial law, call in riot police to create fear, pandemonium and create a false perception that demonstrations are unstable and detrimental to society.

Despite its confrontational nature, in engaging youth in politics, we must note that public gatherings such as peaceful marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience are some of the most effective tools in showing strength in numbers and unity, and demonstrating citizens’ displeasure on policies passed by the government.

Its universality as a democratic tool reveals the stage of a countrys democratisation process. In Singapore, we are denied this right which even communist countries have been known to allow at times. This deprivation constitutes an assault to the very fundamental and universal human right to congregate in a peaceful manner.

I would like to clarify that changes in the political and social arena can be achieved through other channels and methods including forums and debates, and that democracies in transitions and democracies are not necessarily attained through revolutions. However, it is important to note that we are essentially very backward in terms of being a democratically modern state.

Youths in Singapore must resist being brainwashed

We have been brainwashed over the years by the media and government into believing that demonstrations are: aggressive, detrimental to social stability, untypical of Asians, will affect business and investor confidence, and affect tourism.

We have been warned that accepting a liberal form of governmental democracy is not only going to affect national productivity and our economic growth but also destroy the basic fabric of our society as it will open the doors to more western evils ultimately corrupting the Asian values that we have guarded jealously over the years.

It is against all this propagandistic hogwash that youths in Singapore need to retaliate and work against. Not an easy job but nevertheless something that needs to be done.

We need to eliminate the parochial mindset that we can only achieve our goals by cooperating with authorities and within the accepted parameters as defined by the powers-that-be or pandering to social normative expectations.

This is unfortunately a delusional concept because NGOs thrive on co-operation with other mutual groups, yet being fiercely independent to its cause with a dedication and commitment from its members. They should act as checks or third-party groups in preventing abuse of authority.

Hence, youth eager in entering politics, especially alternative or oppositional politics, must be wary of falling into the mindset of working within narrow parameters of stated national goals as defined by the ruling elite.

We must be wary of practising self-censorship. All these will compromise and destroy the fundamental ideals and aims of what we want to achieve in the first place.

We need to be creative and consider adopting tools that have been proven effective in other countries when engaging in lobbying. Hence, the implication is the need to hijack the current authoritarian approved feedback system.

It is obvious that in Singapore, many existing channels such as political or civil society forums are organized by the government or government related/ approved organizations. A balance is needed, one that comes from the ground. Youths and NGOs need to take the initiative in organising more large scale events that will help them accrue experience in garnering support.

There are many things that youths in Singapore can do to be more politically involved. These can be done concurrently:

1. Keep yourselves posted on current affairs. It is important that we read from various sources leftist and rightist press, and avoid using a Singaporean perspective and judgmental system.

2. Join an opposition party or volunteer for a NGO whose cause interests you. Learn how the organization works, affect changes and think of how you can improve the existing system.

3. Join an opposition party. I cannot stress enough the uneasy feeling one gets about being subversive when one joins an opposition party. However, being involved in one is a perfectly legitimate way of expressing our loyalty to Singapore. I would like to appeal to youths who feel strongly about the need to bring about democracy in Singapore to join Young Democrats of Singapore as it is only one of the few opposition parties that has a youth wing and is totally committed to achieving democracy in Singapore.

4. For those who believe that no existing organizations represent their interests, do something. Start small by looking for other like-minded individuals online, forming informal groups with well-written mission statements, clear and concise short- and long-term goals.

5. Submit letters, essays, commentaries to papers, magazines, internet newsgroups if you feel strongly with regards to certain issues. Someone, somewhere is likely to pick it up. Do not let fear or rejection stop you from airing your opinion, no matter how radical it is. Besides, one learns how to articulate their thoughts better after much practice.

6. Networking. The lack of networking and inter-group co-operation in Singapores civil society is a major factor in the impediment of political advancement in Singapore. Networking, sharing of resources and experiences fosters a stronger and mutually trusting and beneficial civil society. I would like to appeal to present NGOs and opposition parties to come together and form a formal inter-NGO organization body, with stated aims to promote human rights and democracy in Singapore.

Youths in civil society and politics in Singapore have to bear in mind that it is not an easy job or a quick-to-fame path. Certainly, they have to be unapologetic and undeterred towards their cause.

It will be appropriate to end my speech by reading the lyrics to a song titled, White Riot, written by The Clash, a British punk rock band formed in the seventies, a socially and politically conscious outfit who reflected the youthful ideals and disenchantment of their time. I hope it will serve as an inspiration for the many of us present here.

This is a public service announcement
With guitar
Know your rights all three of them

Number 1
You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime!
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat
Know your rights

And number 2
You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Dont mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers

Know your rights
These are your rights

Know these rights

Number 3
You have the right to free
Speech as long as youre not
Dumb enough to actually try it.

Know your rights
These are your rights
All three of em
It has been suggested
In some quarters that this is not enough!

Get off the streets
Get off the streets
You dont have a home to go to

Finally then I will read you your rights

You have the right to remain silent
You are warned that anything you say
Can and will be taken down
And used as evidence against you

Listen to this