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Dear President Obama,
An occasion of great moment has come upon America this 20th day of January 2009. It is a day summoned by history to what is good and noble as you are inaugurated President of the United States.
My colleagues and I at the Singapore Democratic Party, extend to you our heartfelt congratulations.
We are especially encouraged by what you said on Human Rights Day in December last year: “When the United States stands up for human rights, by example at home and by effort abroad, we align ourselves with men and women around the world who struggle for the right to speak their minds, to choose their leaders, and to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Alas here in Asia there are altogether too many men and women who still labour under authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.
Mdm Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow servants of democracy in Burma continue to languish in dark cells simply for daring to dream of freedom. The military government needs to know that with new leadership in the United States, it cannot be repression-as-usual. Change, urgent change must come to Burma, a country that civility has so cruelly forsaken.
In my country, Singapore, the repression is no less severe — its ugly form made only less grotesque by an English-speaking regime that cleverly uses terms like the “rule of law” and “good governance” to cover up what is effectively a dictatorship.
How else can you describe a government that prohibits public speech and peaceful assembly, completely controls the media, continues to detain its citizens without trial, and manipulates elections?
My party colleagues and fellow human rights advocates have been arrested and prosecuted for taking part in peaceful protests. In March last year 18 of us stood outside our Parliament and protested against the rising cost of living in Singapore. For that we were dragged away by the police and charged for taking part in an illegal procession and assembly. The trial is on-going.
I face multiple charges for speaking in public and conducting protests. I’ve already been imprisoned seven times. I’ve been sued for defamation by government leaders and made a bankrupt. As a result I’ve been banned from standing for elections and barred from travelling overseas. I’ve been jailed twice for contempt of court.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. And neither are my associates. We fight for justice and freedom with gladness in our hearts.
But even as I make this video, the Singapore government is already crafting yet more laws to make it even more difficult for the public to conduct protests.
I understand that the United States’ relations with Singapore is one based on pragmatism. We are a strong military ally and valuable trading partner. What I don’t understand is how a democratic Singapore that respects the rights of its people, undermines this relationship. In fact, a Singapore that practices the rule of law is very much in the interests of the US, both long-term and short.
It is my sincere hope that your administration’s foreign policy will be as enlightened as you. I have every confidence that under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US will pay more attention to the human rights abuses of the Singapore government and take positive steps to help Singapore join the Community of Democracies.
Before your entry into politics you were a community organiser and civil rights lawyer. Because of this you understand what it is like to be under the crushing weight of poverty.
In Singapore we have a significant layer of the underclass. Like many, I am sure you are shocked to hear that the poor in Singapore are not a small minority. People living in cardboard boxes, stealing scraps of leftovers in public eating places, and the rummaging through dumpsters for something to sell is not an uncommon sight in Singapore.
The tragedy is they suffer in silence for they have no rights and no avenue to speak their pain.
But while they suffer, our Prime Minister pays himself a salary that is six times yours. This income disparity did not come about because of the free-market system. It came about because of deliberate policy-making designed to attract the world’s wealth to this country, legitimate or otherwise. This is why Singapore has become a tax haven, one that benefits only the rich and super-rich in this country but leaves much of the rest of society neglected.
Like you I have young children whom I love dearly. Like yours I want mine to grow up in a society that places rights before riches, people before profits, a society that values justice and one that is free as it is strong.
It is my hope that the universality of human rights and your leadership will help make the world a better place for your children and mine.
Again, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you on this most special of days. The load that you bear is heavy and the responsibility you shoulder immense. But I have no doubt that the confidence that your fellow citizens have placed in you will be fully vindicated.
Under your leadership, I look forward to a world that is freer, more democratic, and more just.
Thank you and God Bless.