Lessons from our cousins up north

Singapore Democrats

Malaysia's protest march
he protest rally in Kuala Lumpur conducted by the pro-democracy forces in Malaysia on Saturday was nothing short of historical. In there are many lessons for us in Singapore.

The most glaring one is, of course, the fact that there were 39,996 people more than the limit for public gatherings (yes, the five-or-more-people-constitutes-an-illegal-assembly law is also in play up north).

All of them had broken the law which, by the way, was put in place by the British colonial government to prevent the locals they lorded over from coming together.

“Respectable” opposition must operate within the bounds of the law

Among the tens of thousands of law-breakers were people like Mr Anwar Ibrahim and Mr Lim Kit Siang.

Mr Anwar is the former deputy prime minister and finance minister while Mr Lim Kit Siang is the chief of the biggest opposition party in Malaysia, the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Why are these factoids important? Singaporeans, it seems, like their political leaders “respectable” and “credible”. Apart from being university graduates with a string of letters following their names, politicians must not be seen to be on the street acting like dissidents.

Messrs Anwar and Lim don’t come any more “respectable” by Singapore standards. In fact, Mr Anwar was recently invited to speak in Singapore by the establishment and Mr Lim is not just an MP but the official Leader of the Opposition in the Malaysian parliament.

Yet these people were out on the street, encouraged by the Agung no less (our equivalent of President Nathan), breaking an old and repressive British law in order to reclaim the right of freedom of assembly for their people.

This begs the huge question: Are we in Singapore somehow intellectually and morally superior to our counterparts in Malaysia, not to mention Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, etc?

Or has our notion of what constitutes “respectable” and “credible” been crimped by our rulers and thereafter relentlessly pounded into our psyche?

Disconcertingly, some of our fellow oppositionists insist that our reform efforts must be conducted within the bounds of the law even when the laws are unjust and even as the PAP continues to pass more laws to proscribe the development of democracy.

Opposition must unite

One of the many criticisms Singaporeans have about the opposition in this country is that its various players cannot come together to present a united front against the PAP. The Singapore Democrats concede that this is a drawback (read here also).

Contrast this with the Malaysians where the four main and very disparate opposition parties came together under the umbrella of BERSIH, a loosely organised group formed to push for political reform.

In terms of ideology the difference between PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia), an Islamist party, and DAP, a socialist party that draws its main support from the Malaysian Chinese community, is chalk and cheese.

Yet on Nov 10, they put aside these differences and accentuated what they had in common which is that they are toiling under a system that did not practice free and fair elections.

In Singapore, one would find it a lot harder to identify the ideological differences between the WP, SDA, and SDP. And yet, it seems that the chances of our parties coming together are even more remote than our Minister Mentor becoming a democrat.

Clearly, the opposition camp needs to work on this and to this end the Singapore Democrats accept our responsibility in this endeavour.

Just like the DAP does not have to buy into PAS’ party objects and vice versa, opposition parties in Singapore need not embrace each other’s platforms before we come together to press for reform of our election system.

The opposition must win more seats first

The conventional wisdom is that the opposition can only strengthen its hand by winning more seats in parliament and eventually take over as the ruling party. By its very definition, however, conventional wisdom is not necessarily true.

In an autocratic state like Singapore, opposition parties will not be allowed to win enough seats to threaten the power of the ruling elite.

Our Malaysian counterparts understand this very well and have taken action to press for change to their electoral system.

Why can’t we do the same in Singapore? Is it because the Malaysians have less to lose? Between DAP, PAS and KeAdilan, the Malaysian opposition controls 9.2 percent of the seats in the house (compared to Singapore’s 2.4 percent). In addition, PAS governs the state of Terengganu.

Clearly, the Malaysian opposition stands to lose much more if the government goes on a witch-hunt following last Saturday’s mass rally. Yet they know that any punitive action the Malaysian Government takes would anger the electorate even more and bring on international censure.

But why can’t they stick it out, hold more ceremahs, visit more households, shake more hands, and win even more seats in parliament at the upcoming elections? After all, they have already won 20 seats in the house. Why not just build on it? Why civil disobedience?

The simple answer is they know that with the control of elections in the hands of the ruling coalition, any gains they make could be wiped out when rules are changed.

Conversely they know that with a genuinely free and fair election system in place, they will win many more seats and position themselves to take over as government. They know that only when the foundation of a democratic system is in place will the opposition thrive.

Without reform, they will be like us in Singapore forever consigned to token roles.

Question: Why should the opposition in Singapore be any less ambitious and forward looking?

Civil society must be non-partisan

Civil society in Singapore is deathly afraid to be associated with the opposition lest it be seen as being partisan.

But the BERSIH protest was a collaboration of opposition parties and NGOs. Is civil society in Malaysia any less protective of their independence?

The reality is that NGOs in Malaysia are able to distinguish between being non-partisan and being non-political. Joining forces with opposition groups to push for political reform is not to indulge in partisanship.

NGOs know that they exist to champion the interests of the society, whatever sectors they may belong to. When freedom and democracy are suppressed, their work is hampered. When this happens they join hands with the opposition to establish a free society.

Conversely the Malaysians know that with a genuinely free and fair election system in place, they will win many more seats and position themselves to take over as government. They know that only when the foundation of a democratic system is in place will the opposition thrive.

Fighting for justice and human rights is a political act, not a partisan one.

Civil society in Singapore must appreciate this distinction. Given the political state that our society is in, the opposition and civil society must work together to push for reform.

Again, we must breakout from the mind cage. A case in point is the NTUC. While NGOs are cautioned against participating in politics, the NTUC is not only political (it supported the late Ong Teng Cheong’s candidacy for president) but also partisan (it is run by PAP ministers and MPs).


Democracy in Singapore does not have a bright future because of two factors. One of them is, of course, fear. The other is no less potent. It is our mindset. As long as we are intellectually crippled, we cannot hope to look beyond the mental wheelchair that the PAP as put us in.

We, especially the opposition and civil society leaders, desperately need to challenge the boundaries of debate and action put in place by the ruling clique. The responsibility falls on us to shift the political paradigm that has been in place for far too long.

Ultimately it boils down to us controlling our own minds for if we fail to do so, the PAP assuredly will.

Also watch video of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s message on this subject.

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