Why dissent matters

Chee Soon Juan

How many of us wouldn’t give anything to rid ourselves of pain?

Don’t you just hate it when you accidentally stub your toe in the middle of the night on your way to the toilet (and muttered some expletive along the way) or scald yourself on a hot stove? Pain. Who needs it?

Meet Grace, a three-year old girl, who, by all accounts, is a happy child. But unlike other children, little Gracie cannot feel pain. She suffers from Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, or CIPA, a rare neurological disorder that prevents her from feeling pain.

When Grace started teething, she gnawed at her gums, tongue and fingers till they bled. She would run and bang her head against the wall because it seemed like a fun thing to do. She would stomp her feet so hard that her ankles were swollen and when she broke her leg, she didn’t cry, she just dragged it around. Understandably, people like Grace don’t live very long.

Pain performs the crucial function of providing feedback to our brains so that we don’t mutilate our own bodies. It is one of those strange things in life that we expend much energy avoiding or trying to rid ourselves of but cannot survive without.

You know what I’m driving at. Dissent, like pain, provides that indispensable feedback to the state without which society suffers like a dysfunctional CIPA body destined for early destruction.

Dissent prods, cajoles and, in cases of autocratic states, compels the government to mend its ways to become a better one – one that is responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people.

Pushing back

Singaporeans know this. This is why through the years, despite the near total clampdown on the expression of dissent, people of this nation have not relented.

In 2002, a handful of individuals attempted to gather outside the American embassy to protest against the war in Iraq. The police had to move quickly to ensure that the puny gathering of six didn’t take place.

Falungong practitioners have repeatedly challenged repressive laws by defying orders not to gather in public and say anything to offend the Chinese communist government.

Then there was the white-elephant cardboard protest against the Government’s refusal to open the Buangkok MRT station even though construction was completed and the facility was ready for use.

On the eve of the executions of Nguyen Van Tuong and Amara Tochi, anti-death penalty activists assembled at Changi to oppose the mandatory death sentence for drug peddlers.

Thirty participants donned brown tees and congregated at an MRT station to express their opposition to the removal of Government-jibing satirist Mr Lee Kin Mun’s, aka Mr Brown, column in the Today newspaper.

And despite police threats and harassment nearly 20 people filed down Orchard Road in conspicuous yellow last December, distributing copies of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The gay and lesbian community also did their part. They organised two public events, one a picnic and the other a jog, to vent their grievances against the criminalisation of homosexuals. Despite the authorities banning both activities, the picnic went ahead (with an even greater number of picnickers turning up in defiance) and the joggers proceeded with their run albeit singly rather than as a group.

And in the last week or so, the local Internet scene has been abuzz with talk about a black-shirt protest at 4 pm on 8 Sept 2007 at the Centrepoint Shopping Centre. The protest is in response to the Government’s plan to force Singaporeans to purchase annuity for their retirement. The speed and determination with which the protest was planned (on an online forum called the Sammyboy’s Coffee Shop) clearly rattled the authorities so much so that they have resorted to sowing confusion, discrediting protest planners, and intimidating potential participants in an attempt to thwart the initiative.

Even lone individuals have taken the initiative to defy laws designed to silence dissenting voices. Martyn See’s production of political films has brought to light the perversity of the Films Act which forbids the production of such videos. The police investigated him for 15 months and ultimately issued him a warning.

We are not alone

Wittingly or otherwise, these citizens were engaging the state using Nonviolent Action. Some of the activities were acts of civil disobedience where activists defied the authorities in attempts to challenge repressive laws. (I have discussed the concept and practice of civil disobedience in The Power of Courage as well as here and here on this website, and will not elaborate them in this essay.)

But not only have activists pushed the boundaries of political dissent in the local context, they have also reached out to the international community for support.

The Falungong human rights activists have taken their case all the way to the UN, forcing the Singapore Government to come out of its comfort zone to defend its actions. The anti-death penalty campaign, largely through the efforts of M Ravi, has attracted the attention of the UN. The recent visit of British actor Ian McKellan and his comments on the discrimination against homosexuals as well as the ban of Professor Douglas Sanders’ speech has kept the issue of the criminalisation of gays alive among interested foreign onlookers. Martyn See’s films have received international attention and screenings because of the police investigation.

More recently, a group of local civil society actors met with their regional counterparts to discuss how the Singaporean public can be consulted and involved over the crafting of the ASEAN Charter, which promises to include the respect of human rights. And, of course, the Singapore Democrats continue to widen and strengthen our international network to ensure that news of repression here is carried well beyond our shores.

Are things a-changing?

But has all this huffing and puffing gotten human rights anywhere in Singapore?

The honest answer is not very far. The PAP doesn’t seem to have budged very much on the issue. However, to see the fight in such parochial terms is to miss the point completely.

A singular act of dissent never yields immediate results. Every action leaves behind a residue that the next one builds upon. The experience gained and the courage that radiates from that action elevates the general struggle another notch. Even for actions that fail to achieve their stated objectives, there is gain. Every time we initiate an action and fail, we don’t return to ground zero.

It is the accumulation of each protest and each act of resistance that will ultimately take us above the threshold and allow us the success that we seek. In the meantime, every action, big or small, successful or not, is like a training session where citizen-activists hone their skills and build up towards the stage when our objectives are definitively achieved.

Overcoming fear

For this to take place, however, we need to recognise the obstacles before us. One big one sits like a boulder in the middle of the road. Its called fear Fear immobilizes. It preys on the weak-minded. It is what the PAP relies on to achieve its ends.

But if this is the PAP’s tactic of choice, it is also the people’s greatest hope. For fear is the currency of repression and repression itself is the language of the weak. Time and again, it has been shown that confronted by peoples who have liberated themselves from the clutches of fear, despotic powers have cracked and given way to popular will.

Powers-that-be generate fear by hoarding information and spreading misinformation. In another words, they need to keep those that they rule in a state of relative ignorance. Governments also generate fear by ensuring the atomization of society where each individual is corralled to become an island unto himself. When citizens are prevented from coming together, they are unable to disseminate information, exchange views and organise themselves.

This is why the PAP squats on the media and bans every application for public political activity. In the age of the Internet, however, curtailing the flow of information and keeping minds apart is like trying to breath in all the air so that no one else can have it. To paraphrase Ol’ Abe: You can co-opt some of the people all of the time, and you can intimidate all of the people some of the time, but you cannot silence all the people all of the time.

But as much as the Internet affords us the opportunity to receive and share information speedily, it does not facilitate the physical congregation of citizens. For this, we need to look into ourselves.

We must recognise that fear will not disappear, it is here to stay. (But do we really want it to go away? Think about it: Without fear, can there be courage?) The truth is that whatever we do we must act despite our fears. Nelson Mandela taught: Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. This is where our spirit as human beings must shine through. Courage is about personal integrity as much as it is about civic responsibility.

Paying the price

The courage to act in spite of our fears is what we need and need in abundance in Singapore today. Our lives are no longer ours. We have forsaken them at the altar of Mammon. We have compromised abjectly our sense of justice, on our sense of right and wrong for which there will be a price to pay.

In the final analysis, it is those individuals who dare and dare greatly for the sake of humanity that has made this world a more tolerable place for the rest of us.

As many of you wrestle with your fears about taking part in citizens’ actions and other forms of protest, remember one thing: You serve the critical function that is akin to that of physiological pain in our bodies. We must not let the absence of pain deceive our body politic.

I recognize that you may not want to plunge into the deep-end of activism right from the beginning. Take baby-steps if you must, but do take that first liberating step. It is uncertain, I concede. It is scary. It is challenging. It is empowering. And it is worth it.

I read with great profit Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, a paper published in 1848 that changed the world. Allow me to share a few of his words with you:

For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever…

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