Stop using the lousy excuse that we are helpless citizens

Serene Chua

The Singapore Democrats recently nominated Ms Serene Chua, a young Singaporean activist, to attend two back-to-back conferences in Sweden in July this year. One was the congress of the youth wing of the Liberal Party and the other was the Dag Hammarskjsld International Youth Peace Assembly (IYPA) in Jsnksping, Sweden.

About 80 participants between 18 and 25 from around the world were invited to participate in the IYPA. One of the goals was to familiarize the participants with the set-up and operation of the United Nations. As such the program of the Assembly was organised according to the procedures of the United Nations, with a general assembly and committees. Ms Chua also attended the congress of the Liberal Youth, the youth Wing of the Liberal Party in Sweden.

We reproduce the speech below that Ms Chua delivered at the conference.

Dear fellow participants,

First, I would like to thank the Swedish International Liberal Centre bringing me here where I can say openly, publicly, what I feel like saying, no matter how foul the message about my subject may be.

We don’t do this back home, that is, open our stinking mouths to comment on anything that might vaguely be construed as political. Because if that was allowed, according to our now Minister Mentor, “there would be pandemonium.” My government does not want to hear me speak. So I do it here, where they do not have to hear me.

Before I go on blabbering about the state of free expression and democratic participation, I will first explain why I think democratic freedoms are important in Singapore or anywhere for that matter.

People often ask why. Why do some people insist on kicking up such a fuss over this democracy thing? Our government does not behead the opposition or jail their families. This is a government that has brought us from Third World to First World over the span of a single generation. Poverty has been eradicated. We are wealthier than we would have been with any other government. Why are we complaining?

In the first place, we cannot critically assess the state of our economy if we have no access to unbiased reports on the state of our economy. I will not go further into this here because it will take too much time and I want to keep this speech to 15 mins max. But enough evidence can be found, if you do look for it, to argue that our economy is nowhere near as healthy as most Singaporeans are made to believe.

And even if our economy is as well run as our government would have us believe, to suggest that we should be content with the mere satisfaction of our material wants and needs reduces our existence to that of animals. It demeans and debases our humanity.

I mean good food, nice clothes, good sex, these are things that are nice and good. These are all things that I would not want to live without. But there is more to life.

I want to live in a human society. Both words are important here, “human” and “society”. To be able to actively shape the social, economic and political environment that is the basis of our lives; this makes us human. Take that away and we lose some of our humanity.

To be able to collectively, as a community, decide how we live our lives together, this is what makes us a society. Take that away and we become atomised individuals, accepting whatever opportunities come our way, but unequipped and unwilling to deal with injustices when they fall upon our neighbours or ourselves.

When we assert our rights to control over our lives, when we assert control over the social, economic and political landscape that governs us, we reaffirm our humanity, we reaffirm our society.

But all this is just rhetoric and you’ve probably heard it all before. Let me ground that in something practical. Two months ago, a Singaporean man was sentenced to hang for the possession of about 1 kg of Marijuana. I never met Shanmugam but I saw his mother and his 2 young sons 2 weeks before his hanging. It’s been more than a month now since I saw them but their faces, and what I constantly imagine to be their thoughts and feelings keep coming back to me.

What I cannot stop wondering is whether, if ordinary Singaporeans had a greater part to play in the formulation of the laws that govern us, whether Shanmugam would still be living. Whether ordinary Singaporeans who understand a father’s urgent responsibility to provide for his young children and elderly mother would think it necessary to execute the father and only breadwinner of a family for making one stupid mistake for fast cash; whether many others see the obscenity of allowing a judge, one who is far removed from the social and economic realities of those who commit these offences, to decide on the life or death of a man whose family and financial circumstances he could never fully appreciate; whether ordinary Singaporeans would see the need to put in place laws that compete, on the barbarity scale, with those that burnt witches at the stake and chop off hands of thieves.

My feeling, from the countless Singaporeans I have talked to, is that laws democratically formulated by our citizenry might look very different from the ones currently in place.

Yet, we have the highest per capita rate of executions in the world. And at the time Shanmugam was waiting to hang, he said there were eight others on death row. I can’t verify this figure so don’t hold me to it. But numbers are not the point. The point is that Shanmugam is only one of many and these executions go on.

And what Singaporeans have to realise is this: When a man is executed by the state, he is executed by us, the citizens of Singapore. Because our consent is necessary for the practice to continue. Because our consent is implicit in our silence.

And Singaporeans are a great fan of silence; something we like to claim is a neutral take-no-side position. The fact is this: When we remain silent, when we do not speak, we are not merely maintaining neutrality. We are actually saying ‘yes’.

And Singaporeans are not speaking up: A survey taken by the SPH in 2000 found that 93% were fearful of speaking up on government policies that they disagreed with.

But can you blame us? Singapore has made good examples of those who dare make their voices heard. Look at how we silence opposition parties. Look at Chee Soon Juan, sacked from the national university for alleged “misuse of university funds”, 3 months after joining the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, jailed 3 times for “speaking in public without a permit”, sued twice and now faces bankruptcy proceedings brought on by former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.

Look at Jeyaretnam, broke 16 years of one-party rule in Singapore by getting elected to parliament in 1981, repeatedly sued for libel and defamation by Lee Kuan Yew, now bankrupt and barred from contesting elections.

And our reach extends beyond our citizenry. Look at how we silence the foreign media, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Asiaweek, Time, The Far Eastern Economic Review, and International Herald Tribune. All these titles that have international reputations for accuracy and credibility but all have spent millions of dollars defending and losing libel actions brought against them by members of the ruling party, People’s Action Party.

The case against Bloomberg in 2002 reached a new low. The company did not even bother defending itself. It paid up $550,000 to have the matter settled out of court. Members of the PAP have never lost a libel action heard in Singapore. No foreign publisher has ever successfully defended a libel action in a Singapore court when opposing a PAP politician.

In Singapore the ruling party is the entire government and the state. It has the entire state apparatus at its disposal. And it effectively uses its position to maintain its monopoly on power.

Even with the steps taken to silence alternative voices, both within and outside Singapore, even though our government has, through a whole variety of methods, very successfully crippled most political opposition, it still sees it necessary to control the electorate’s voting through other sorts of economic violence. In 1997, Singaporeans were told that those housing estates which did not vote PAP candidates into office would not have their state-controlled apartment blocks upgraded.

Upgrading of public housing usually means the building of public amenities like libraries and Light Rapid Transit lines (core public transport facility), the adding of new fixtures such as lifts that stop on every floor, the addition of small storage rooms for each unit, landscaping of surrounding areas.

These, Singaporeans were assured, would not go ahead for those housing estates which support the opposition. This message was very clearly brought across by our then-PM Goh Chok Tong. “You vote for the other side … your estate through your own choice will be left behind. They become slums.”

A very credible threat because you know the PAP will definitely be returned to power because you know the opposition does not have enough resources to contest even half the seats, and 85% of Singaporeans live in public housing

But control is not maintained through threat alone. The government has very successfully employed state ideology to maintain some sort of consent (maybe better described as lack of opposition) among the electorate. Singaporeans are repeatedly told that we are Asian. Our values are Asian. Our priority is the greater social good, not narrow selfish individualism. If we have to bite our tongues and remain silent for the social good we will because we are Asian. If political liberty and other such freedoms are not compatible with social cohesion and stability, we will not insist on these anti-social freedoms. If government policies make it difficult for some of us to live we will not complain because the government knows what’s best for the greater society. If bad things happen, if our laws execute people for stupid mistakes they make, if the poor cannot afford health care while the rich keep getting richer, if the government uses our tax money to threaten us by only upgrading those estates that bow to its will we will remain silent because we are Asian.

Who defined Asian values? Who defined the social good? Which Asians were consulted when our leaders created this new culture and labelled it Asian? I wasn’t consulted. They defined this new culture and told us, this is your heritage, this is you. Then they turned to those they placed outside these newly founded cultures, ‘This is us. You will not understand. You cannot criticise’.

We have to reject this. Respect for authority even as that authority denies us our rights as human beings and as citizens? Silence in the face of repression? How is this Asian? How is this Singaporean? And if this is ‘us’, how did we come to see ourselves this way? Why must it be an either-or choice between social cohesion and individual liberty?

Singaporeans cannot continue to live the way we have been living. It is shameful. It is antisocial. It is demeaning. We have to define who we are, decide what we want, define the social good, and decide how we want to achieve it.

We have to stop using the lousy excuse that we the helpless citizens cannot do anything because we are not the government and we cannot control the state. The separation between the state and its citizens is only as real as we allow it to be.

We, the citizens sustain the state. It is our work, as bus drivers, the police, teachers, business people that enable the smooth running of the state. It is our taxes that fund its operations. It is our consent that legitimises its actions.

We are the entire basis of the state. If the state is powerful, it is only because we make it powerful. Singaporeans have to recognise that. That recognition alone is the reclaiming of power. Not just the reclaiming, but also the assertion of power. We reclaim and assert our position, not as individuals under rule of the state, but as citizens, as a society, as the state itself.

Thank you.