CSJ’s speech at book launch: Civil disobedience works

Singapore Democrats

Dr Chee Soon Juan launched his new book “A Nation Cheated” during SDP’s annual dinner on 31 Aug 08. Below is Dr Chee’s speech in which he talks about how civil disobedience has helped bring about political change and that its application needs to be stepped up.

Part I: Has Singapore been cheated?

When I was in jail in 2006, I re-read the book
Comet In Our Sky, a compilation of essays written by friends and associates of the late Lim Chin Siong. I will assume most of you here know Lim Chin Siong and will not endeavour to go into detail how he was seen by the majority of Singaporeans as the natural leader of our then fledgling republic in the 1950s and 60s, other than to say that his charisma and compassionate style of leadership won the hearts and minds of many.

The book includes a chapter written by Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, Tim Harper, from Cambridge University. Professor Harper documented his research after poring through bundles of de-classified papers, memos, letters, etc. written by Britsh colonial officials during the turbulent period leading up to Singapore’s independence.

The picture that emerged was one not quite the story that I heard and read growing up. In a nutshell, the Professor’s account was that the people of Singapore wanted Lim Chin Siong as their leader but the British would not allow it and wanted Lee Kuan Yew instead.

So we have two versions of what happened: one written written by a disinterested, third-party academic and based on verifiable de-classifed papers, and the other by Lee Kuan Yew who still has vested personal interests in telling these events. I do not think I would be far wrong if I say that the majority of people would look to the former for a more accurate and objective account of that part of history.

This is what I tried to do in the first part of A Nation Cheated, that is, summarise Professor Harper’s research finding’s.

But my nerves are rubbed raw when I keep hearing Lee Kuan Yew, who came to power backed by the colonialists, rant about how the West should not foist its system on an Asian people, meaning us. Somehow the democratic practices that allowed Lee Kuan Yew to become prime minister suddenly become Western and not suited for us Singaporeans.

Today the propaganda continues unabated, that Singaporeans are not interest in human rights and democracy. I will come to this subject in a moment and show you how this lie has now been exposed.

For now, let me dwell a little on the notion that things have worked worked wonderfully for Singaporeans.

Whether it is our CPF or healthcare costs or wages or our financial reserves, I have presented evidence in the book to show how things are not quite what they seem. I have tried to stay away from polemics especially in part two of the book and concentrated on putting together the data from alternative sources to make my case. I will leave it to you the reader to decide for yourself whether I have done my job or not.

To illustrate what I really set out to say in this book, I want to relate a story. It is about a man whom I met when I went for my jog one morning. He is in his mid-seventies and works for the town council as a cleaner. He starts work at 7 am and knocks off at about one or two in the afternoon depending on how much work there is that day. He works six days a week. His salary? $400 a month.

When he was a young man in his 20s, he was told that if he just stayed disciplined, didn’t support independent unions, didn’t clamour for his rights and trusted the PAP to govern in his best interest, he would be better off. He did that, or at least he wasn’t given a choice.

Today, he is told that he must not think of retiring. In fact he is told that he needs to work for less pay. He is told that part of his savings is in Merill Lynch and in about 15 to 20 years, he should be able to start seeing returns on the investment, that is if the bank doesn’t go belly up first.

Doesn’t the word “cheated” come to mind?

This old man’s story is not an aberration. Statistics tell us that our poorest segment of society continue to see their wages shrink. Fifty percent of the people haven’t seen their incomes grow over the past ten years.

But then our ministers increased the salaries in 2007 by a heart-stopping 85 percent. The president is paid $4 million a year, for what no one quite knows. The Senior Minister and Minister Mentor are also paid close to that amount, again for what no one quite understands. The Prime Minister is paid $3.8 million which works out to be about $10,000 a day.

They tell you that they must be amply rewarded for building such a fine country. Really? Let’s see what Singaporeans think:

  • Despite having gone through national education at school, 37 percent of Singaporean youths say they are not patriotic. More than 50 percent want to emigrate overseas if given a chance. (Channel News Asia, 17 January 2007)

  • Another survey of older Singaporeans showed that two-thirds said they have considered retiring in another country. (Straits Times, 20 August 2008)

  • A few weeks ago, the Government confirmed that an average of 1,000 Singaporeans had given up their citizenship annually over the last three years. (Asia Times, 21 August 2008)

Have you thought of this number before, ladies and gentlemen? These are astounding figures. I cannot think of another country where after 50 years of uninterrupted rule, we produce a nation where its people profess no love for it and can’t wait to get out?

Tell me, hand on heart, that you still think that the PAP has governed in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans. Tell me that we have not been cheated.

Part II: Now is the time to press ahead

Singaporeans not interested in human rights?

The Government insists that we Singaporeans exist only to make money. Human rights are not in our makeup. To Singaporeans, even Martian values are less alien than democratic ones.

This really seemed the case because for years when I talked about protests, people looked at me as if I was a raving lunatic. I’m sure many still do. Here is this island paradise that works and here is this green-eyed monster wanting to tear everything down.

And when I embarked on a course of civil disobedience, even some of my more progressive associates thought that I had really lost it, that I had gone too far. When I stood up at Raffles Place during lunch nearly ten years ago on 28 December 1998 and made a speech without a permit, I was roundly and almost universally castigated for being a radical who could not see that Singapore was different and that Singaporeans were not interested in their civil and political rights.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew said then that if we allow such activity on the streets, “there’ll be pandemonium. We are not that kind of society.”

Several months later he was confronted in Davos, Switzerland if my memory serves me correctly during the World Economic Forum by William Safire, a New York Times journalist and former speech writer for Richard Nixon, who asked him point blank whether he would allow free speech in Singapore. The MM said he would consider it.

Whether he was caught by surprise and didn’t want to look bad and so said that he would consider it, no one knows. But shortly thereafter Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park was established.

That gave me the first glimpse of how civil disobedience could work. I knew that with the right strategy, we could win or, at the very least, extract concessions from the Government.

I didn’t stop there because restricting free speech to a grass patch beside a police station was a human rights joke. And so we pressed on, now focusing also on freedom of assembly, that is, the right to stage peaceful protests.

Again I was chastised and called all sorts of names from being a show-off pulling on publicity stunts to playing up the to the West to being a traitor, undermining the interests of Singapore. But I knew deep down in my heart, I was right and they were wrong.

All through this, a few people remained steadfast with me. Gandhi Ambalam was one of them. Together we persisted and we fought on. Slowly our numbers began to grow.

A stunning admission

Now years later and after several arrests and prison terms, the Government has finally acknowledged the moral imperative of the freedoms of speech and assembly. Last week, the Straits Times reported:

Asked by an undergraduate if the move towards more political openness was done out of ‘necessity’, Mr Goh replied: ‘Necessity, in a way. Because to be relevant as a government, you must know the aspirations of the people.

What are these aspirations? He answered the question in his next sentence which is a stunning admission of the reality:

‘We can control you, oppress you. But we’d lose you – you’ll move elsewhere. So we have to move with the times.’

He hit the proverbial nail right smack in the middle of the head. Mr Goh has acknowledged that the aspirations of the people are to live in a society where they are not controlled and oppressed, in other words they want a democratic Singapore. What’s all this talk about Singaporeans not being interested in human rights?

What was political and social taboo only a couple of years ago is now accepted by the Government as a necessity. This admission is much more significant than the Government’s decision to allow protests at Hong Lim Park because for the first time the PAP has conceded the legitimacy of public demonstrations.

But it wasn’t put on a platter for us. We had to fight for it. We had to sacrifice for it.

I tell you this not to claim credit or to gloat for there is nothing to gloat about because nothing has been achieved yet. I tell you this because I want you to see that the PAP is not this immovable wall that we keep talking about and we are certainly not the eggs. I want to banish the unfortunate and long-held perception that it is no use going aganist the PAP because we just cannot win.

Martyn See’s production of his films despite the prohibition of the Films Act is another case in point. It started it 1996 where I wanted to make a video about the SDP and we produced a 20-minute documentary. There was no law against that but the Government banned it anyway and thereafter passed legislation to outlaw political videos.

Martyn challenged that law by breaking it. Today many can see the absurdity of the law and the real intention behind it and the PAP is under pressure to amend it.

The truth of the matter is that the Government can be made to back down. You have seen with your own eyes that civil disobedience, if carried out in an astute and disciplined manner, works.

Civil disobedience is not just about breaking laws will-nilly and challenging the authorities on a whim and fancy. There are moral considerations and the responsibility is a heavy one to bear. Civil disobedience is not about unruliness and anarchy. It is a form of civil action that requires strict discipline and sacrifice on the part of the people who advocate and practice it.

It is an effective method of compelling autocrats to listen to the people, of wrenching power back to the people.

Confronted with an authoritarian regime that is unwilling to reason and be persuaded to mend its ways, civil disobedience becomes a necessary weapon and, I repeat, it works.

Change is afoot

It works because of a few factors are at play one of which is that times are changing. The dusk of an old era is passing on and the dawn of a new one is upon us. Change is waiting to be born. The Government knows that. It knows that change is inevitable.

But if we don’t act now, nothing will happen. If we don’t become the deliverers of change, then change will be stillborn. This is because there are still some very powerful forces against change and power never concedes without demand.

In other words, people like you and me who want to see change must demand loudly and clearly for reform. We cannot just be spectators. We must be the advocates and the agents of change.

The time is right and the conditions favour the reformers. We have the New Media, we have an educated population, and we have the fading away of an old era. These factors are coming together and they spell change.

The biggest, and possibly fatal, mistake that we in the pro-democracy camp can make is to freeze at this point. At a juncture in history when we have momentum and favourable conditions on our side, the worst thing to do is nothing. If we do that we will lose the initiative and the progress that we have made will be irretrievably lost.

No, there is not a moment to tarry. Now is the time to press home our advantage. Now is the time to ensure that we consolidate on our gains and push further into our opponent’s territory. We must let the PAP know unequivocally that it either opens up the political process or it as a Government will become irrelevant.

We must seize the day. Carpe diem! Make that change that we are all capable of, that we all have a duty to carry out, that we all owe to ourselves and our children to effect.

Carpe diem! Seize the day!

Challenging the laws

In the weeks ahead, 17 of my colleagues and I will face a trial for taking part in an assembly and procession without a permit. Many of us are prepared to go to prison. We can’t wait to go to court and face the judge and prosecution and to tell the world how politically ridiculous and morally offensive this Government is.

We all know that it is the Government that has done wrong, not us. We are proud of what we have done. In fact we pledge to do it again. We may have to pay the price of sacrificing our liberty, but that is an honour. That is something we are proud of and want to tell everyone rather than hide it. For what can be a higher honour than to be jailed for the sake of justice and freedom?

This is not just false bravado. It is detemination and resolve borne out of an extended process of self-examination and confronting our own fears.

This is not just a political fight, it is a moral fight as well. It is a struggle for justice, a struggle against the preponderance of greed and exploitation by those who rule over us, a struggle for the lives and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of our fellow Singaporeans who are consigned to live more like serfs than citizens.

We need your support

But as clear and as determined as we are, our campaign cannot succeed without your support. As many activists have stepped forward, I hope all of you too will step forward to play your part. The more we get into our ranks the quicker will be the change.

The PAP is like the guy standing on the shore and trying to stop the tide from coming in. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Get in and be part of the tide. Be on the right side of history. I tell you today that victory will be ours. I say this not out of hubris and cockiness but a very humble reading of history. No authoritarian regime will last forever and when an idea whose time has come no one, absolutely no one, can stop it.

We will be announcing a major protest-campaign hopefully in the not-too-distant future which will include but not be limited to the Speakers’ Corner. We will need your support physically, financially and morally to make it a success.

But for tonight, I would like to ask you for your support. Join us, contribute financially, be on our mailing list and come to our meetings and functions so that together we can strategise our campaign which is slowly turning into a movement.

Let this truly be a new beginning in the chapter of Singapore’s journey to democracy. With the advent of new technology and the determination and passion of democracy activists, freedom is not far away.

Now is the time to tell the Government that we want transparency, we seek accountability and we demand democracy.

It has been said that it is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Light that candle in your heart and together we can make the flame of democracy burn brighter and ever more iridescent.

Thank you once again for honouring us with your presence this evening and on behalf of my fellow Singapore Democrats, I wish all of you the very best.

I leave you with this thought: “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.”

Thank you and good night.

Watch video of Dr Chee’s speech here.

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