Non-violence empowers us

Below is an excerpt from Dr Chee’s latest book The Power of Courage which will be launched this Saturday, 9 July 2005, at the Grand Plaza Parkroyal (see Announcement). Come to the book launch and learn more about non-violence and what it promises for Singapore!

…But how do we go about claiming back our political freedoms? Are we are not talking about a country where the media is controlled, where citizens cannot hold public rallies and protests, and the government tightly regulates civil society? Yes, we are.

But as we discussed in a previous chapter, oppressive laws put in place to deny citizens their freedoms must be challenged. One way to go about this is to do exactly what the government prohibits; that is, to initiate civil disobedience.

Before we get into any discussion of how effective civil disobedience, or non-violent action, is and how it can be applied to Singapore, one needs to be clear about what it is. In its simplest form, non-violent action describes the act of refusing to obey unjust laws and the demands of a government without resorting to physical violence.

Power itself is not necessarily derived from violence, although autocratic governments often resort to violence, or the threat of it, to achieve their goals. The compliance of the majority, no matter how begrudgingly it is given, is what enables the authorities to oppress the people.

A coordinated and concerted withdrawal of that compliance will render the State impotent with its repression. Refusing to cooperate with unjust laws, carried out in a systematic manner, can bring about change. In other words, nonviolence may involve acts of omission. Non-violent action also includes acts of commission. Individuals or groups of individuals can engage in activities that would require the authorities to respond. Sometimes this may involve activities that are within the proscribed boundaries and sometimes they need to go beyond that.

Nonviolence is the active pursuit of socio-economic-political goals through peaceful means. Its goal its to transform power relations between the oppressor and the oppressed. It seeks to empower citizens through the exercise of the various sources of power available to the people as described in Chapter I.

One of the main features of non-violence is that its adherents, while seeking change, do not advocate the destruction of their adversaries. The respect for human life, dignity, and property is a mainstay of the philosophy of non-violent action. In seeking to rid ourselves of unjust laws and policies we must not, inadvertently or otherwise, degrade humanity in the process.

Gandhi’s movement for India’s independence that I talked about in Chapter II characterizes the essence of non-violent action. Gandhi’s unshakeable commitment to non-violence is renowned. Even when the state resorts to violence, Gandhi preached, the most appropriate response of the civil-disobedience practitioner is non-violent action.

And yet this is only one side of the civil disobedience coin. Gandhi believed that while violence was not the solution to state repression, inaction was even worse. He railed against cowardice as much as he did against violence.

When he campaigned in South Africa against racist laws during his early years, he found that speeches, petitions, letters, and meetings had little effect on the government. In order to bring pressure to bear on the authorities, Gandhi came up with the idea of satyagraha, loosely translated as the persistent force of the truth. The idea behind satyagraha was that citizens had to wake up to their conscience and confront the authorities with the truth. They would then have to refuse to cooperate with repressive laws; that is, deliberately break these laws.

Of course, this would entail punishment from the state. But Gandhi insisted that satyagraha practitioners submit themselves to punishment after breaking a law—yes, even an unjust one—by paying the penalty. Gandhi believed that part of satyagraha was “the willingness to endure great personal suffering in order to do what is right.” If one person committed acts of satyagraha, it would be easy for the government to handle him. But if tens or hundreds of thousands of people performed satyagraha, the authorities would find it hard to crack down on everyone. As the peaceful revolution expands, the government would very soon be unable to hang on to its despotic power. All this is done without bloodshed (at least not to government officials and innocent bystanders) and property damage.

How much power you possess as a citizen is dependent on how much energy and time you are willing to contribute to the cause. Keep this book in a handy place and read it from time to time to refresh what you have learnt as well as to sharpen your arguments—and conviction—for non-violence.

Non-violent action is more than just coordinating campaigns carried out by groups of people. It is also the process where one discovers the innate but dormant qualities in oneself that can be awakened. More important, it enables us to find the courage to act on those qualities. Non-violence challenges us to confront our fears and dispel the notion that we are not capable, competent, or courageous enough to act on our convictions. Non-violence empowers us.

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