No strikes and… democracy?

Bernise Ang
1 October 2004
From Singapore Review

I am writing in response to Siow Jia Ruis letter of 6/9/04, Strikes and no teachers (Today) and “Right of assembly doesn’t translate into having power to produce an effect”, ST 17/9/04.

I agree with Siow Jia Rui that it is unadvisable to blindly clamour for change, and agree even more with his/her recommendations to seek pragmatic improvements within the political realities of Singapore.

To date, Singapores economic success for such a small country is indeed an achievement which has gained much attention from our international counterparts. Notably, it has also come about within the context of Singapores orderly society and political stability.

A question that comes to mind, though: Is political stability necessarily mutually exclusive to the exercise of civil liberties, and indeed, a flourishing forum for political debate?

Having studied in Australia for 5 years, I have also, like Siow Jia Rui, witnessed rallies and other actions pertaining to various campaigns and causes.

In my time here, I have had the luxury of the opportunity to speak to some of these protestors. When questioned about their service-providing responsibilities, they have acknowledged that their actions had consequences, and emphasised the importance of voicing their concerns on particular issues, for which other avenues had proven ineffective.

It would seem that many people in Australia value political freedom in particular, freedom of association and protection of the right to organise even over the type of stability which may be compared to that in Singapore.

But that is Australia.

Perhaps a more pressing issue for us Singaporeans, then, is the consideration of priorities the priority of political stability and the priority of political freedom. To what extent do we want the freedom to express dissent? To what lengths will we go to ensure the political stability entrenched in our social framework?

It is one thing to argue against demonstrations and protests in the interest of security and non-violence. It is another to remove the ability of individuals to speak out on issues that affect them, particularly when more conventional methods have proven unsuccessful.

In such cases, what is to become of the ignored individuals who are not allowed to seek representation through numbers and assembly, in order to address them? Should we place the issues of certain individuals as a lower priority than others? Correspondingly, are we to rank certain members of our society below others?

Or, in a sentiment that many Singaporeans I know of may relate to, should we just ignore them as long as its none of my business?

A serious implication that invariably needs to be considered in this case is the notion of democracy. It is said that a true democracy allows for the expression of all opinions, even that which is in dissent to the powers that be.

If it is the collective will of Singaporeans to eliminate such dissent, then perhaps we may need to be prepared for the possibility that our claim to a democratic society may be challenged. And not just by Singaporeans.

On the one hand, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has stated that political reform need not go hand in hand with economic liberalisation.

On the other, PM Lee Hsien Loong has expressed his vision of a more open society.

Are the two statements to be seen as complementary, or contradictory?

More significantly, can we have a more open society if we are not prepared for the expression of politically diverse views? If so, do we really want a more open society? Do we even want to be called a democracy?

To be clear, this letter carries no intention to advocate for either extremes of oppressive fascism or total anarchy.

It is, however, a challenge for all of us to think about what it is we want. Where do our values lie on an issue as contentious as this?