Peaceful assembly the key to change in Singapore

Chee Soon Juan

Admit it. Most of us have little understanding of what our national anthem means beyond ‘mari kita.’ Still, it beats singing God Save the Queen.

There is something else that many Singaporeans know very little of and that is how we came to rid ourselves of our British overlords.

Pictures produced ad nauseum by the state media of a certain youthful-looking Lee Kuan Yew shouting vein-popping “Merdeka!” have been irreparably seared onto our visual cortices so much so that independent Singapore has become synonymous with the PAP.

Pardon our French, but this is pure, unadulterated bovine scatology.

The independence putsch came not from the PAP but from Singaporeans who cared enough and were courageous enough to publicly demonstrate their disdain for colonialism.

The PAP expertly rode the waves of public enthusiasm, waxing lyrical about freedom and democracy along the way, and came to power on the backs of courageous, ordinary Singaporeans.

Why peaceful assembly

Once ensconced in the Istana, the ruling party made illegal all the democratic freedoms that enabled us to remove the British in the first place.

The most important of these is the freedom of peaceful assembly. It was the right of assembly that enabled Singaporeans to register their voices against colonialism and all the attendant injustice, including discrimination against the locals. Public protests were the staple of the independence movement.

The PAP now makes peaceful assembly to be an evil from which Singapore must exorcise itself. It restricts the people to indoor forums and passes off MacDonald’s-suggestion-box type of feedback for national debate.

Imagine if luminaries like Lim Chin Siong and company were confined to just writing petitions to the Governor and contributing their views to Her Majesty’s Feedback Unit, where would Singapore be today? Yes, one can see that the British would have been quaking in their boots and after enough letters from the public, packed up and left.

Let us not delude ourselves. No regime will voluntarily relinquish power. It is only when those they govern demand it that autocrats will pay heed.

To this end, peaceful assembly is the only tool that citizens have to pry open the tight grip of tyranny. It is the most basic right of citizens without which ordinary folks are rendered powerless.

Still not persuaded? Let’s do a simple demonstration. Take a piece of paper and divide into two columns. On one side write down all the political grievances that you can think of: the use of the foreigners to compete with Singaporeans, the continued increase of living costs coupled with the downward spiral of wages, the atrociously expensive medical costs in this country, the creaming off of our hard-earned CPF savings, and so on.

In the other column, write down all the ways that the people can register their unhappiness publicly and, more important, the number of times the Government has heeded your call.

Now do you see the point?

Effecting change

The right of peaceful assembly is a right guaranteed not only by our Constitution but also one that is enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is a terrible shame for our nation that we remain one of the very few Asian countries that prohibits the peaceful gathering of citizens (see Like Burma, like Singapore). When we should be up there competing with dynamic Asian societies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (and increasingly India, Thailand, and Malaysia), we instead find ourselves in the same political league with the likes of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma.

Being in a political straitjacket creates a double whammy for Singaporeans. Not only does it produce inane policies from a Government that is becoming increasingly out of touch with reality, it also ensures that our economy cannot benefit from the energy that would otherwise be generated by a free and dynamic people.

The truth of the matter is that as long as the citizens are deprived of their political rights, especially the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, our problems will remain. Without vehement opposition and, more important, a very public display of that vehemence, there is absolutely no incentive for the Government to acquiesce to public demands.

Over the years, the PAP Government has become impervious to the voice of the people, resulting in economic and social injustice that we currently witness. These ills will, if they haven’t already, drive our nation into a morass of problems that we will find impossible from which to extricate ourselves.

(For example, we have yet to examine fully the unintended socio-political problems that may arise from the influx of foreigners into this country – yes, very much like the repercussions of the unthinkingly harsh Stop-At-Two policy of the 1970s.)

The coming together of citizens in peaceful protests is not the only thing to do; it is the right thing to do. It is the duty of every citizen to stand up and be counted at a time when our country needs us most. Shorn of this right, our citizenship is absolutely meaningless.

Most of you would be able to see the importance and the necessity of peaceful assembly. That’s the easy part. What is significantly more difficult to do is to take that first step to take part in a peaceful assembly.

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to exercise your right as a citizen of Singapore and participate in the Empower Singaporeans Rally and March to be held during the WB-IMF meeting in September.

Remember, wresting back our rights of free speech and peaceful assembly is the ultimate honour one can claim as a citizen of this country.

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