POA and the politics of fear

Singapore Democrats

The PAP Government cited the violent protests in Bangkok and London as a reason for the introduction of the Public Order Act. Such a line of thinking is as old as autocracy itself.

Whenever despots want to consolidate their grip on power, the most effective weapon in their armory is the inculcation of fear. If the people are appropriately and adequately frightened into believing that they face imminent danger, then it is easier for the rulers to implement laws, usually in the form of curtailment of political rights, in the guise of protecting the public.

Security analysts Richard Barnet and Maurice Raskins wrote:

Leaders have always protected their power by hinting at mysteries which only they know and only they can control. The effect of official secrecy is to make the citizen doubt his own judgment and his own best instincts. “If you only knew what I knew,” his leaders continually tell him. The official pretence at knowing more than what a conscientious newspaper reader and television viewer would know disarms the citizen, makes him more dependent on the keeper of the secrets and permits the government to play on his hopes and fears.

History abounds with examples. In the early 1970s, former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos arranged for a bomb to explode in one of the cars of the convoy his defence minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, was travelling in.

Following the explosion, Marcos declared that the government was “imperiled by the danger of violent overthrow, insurrection and rebellion.” He abolished congress, took over the media, banned public speaking and declared martial law.

In Kwangju, South Korea, former dictator-general Chun Doo Hwan sent in troops to clear student demonstrators off the streets during the tumultuous 1970s. What happened next was inexplicable as the army turned viciously on their fellow citizens, committing unspeakable atrocities in the process.

Violence broke out during which many civilians were killed, writing the infamous day, now called the May 18 Kwangju Massacre, forever in the nation’s history books.

A few of the soldiers were captured by the protesters during the clashes, and they confessed they had been given little food but lots of soju (rice wine) that were laced with drugs. They were then sent out to brutalise the people of Kwangju.

Following the incident, Chun Doo Hwan pinned the blame on his rival Kim Dae Jung (who later went on to become South Korea’s president) and terrorized the Korean population into submission by curtailing the citizen’s civil liberties.

Shih Ming-teh (with moustache) and Annette Lu (on his left)

Shih Ming-teh (with moustache) and Annette Lu (on his left)

On 10 Dec 1979, a group of Taiwanese had gathered in Kaohsiung to commemorate Human Rights Day. Ruling Kuomintang officials ordered in police thugs who repeatedly charged and clubbed the hapless protesters.

The activists fought back and the scene degenerated into chaos. The authorities arrested the organisers, prosecuted them and declared that opposition rallies were banned because they created disorder.

Among those charged were Shih Ming-teh (who later became the chairman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and was elected to the Legislative Assembly) and Annette Lu (who later became Taiwan’s vice-president).

Closer to home, the late Indonesian strongman Suharto also employed such tactics, regularly sending out his military gangsters to create unrest and then using the incidents as excuses to continue restricting civil liberties of Indonesians.

Such tactics are discussed in greater detail in To Be Free: Stories From Asia’s Struggles Against Oppression written by Dr Chee Soon Juan in 1998. (Available at Kinokuniya Bookstore and Select Books).

More recently, Mr Alex Au’s excellent review of the violence in the on-going political situation in Bangkok, Abhisit declares emergency in Bangkok over Red Shirts, reveals that there may be forces at work other that the “red-shirt” protesters.

The PAP is doing the same. The only difference is that it justifies its actions by pointing to incidents in other countries. But the tactic is unmistakable: The Government restricts freedom for the public good, never for its own unconstitutional hold on power.

Singaporeans must not be deceived by this. The enactment of the Public Order Act and the amendment of the Films Act are desperate measures for desperate times by the PAP. It comes at a time when the economy has turned sour and the Government is bankrupt of ideas on how to go forward.

The laws are clearly designed to ensure that citizens cannot publicly express their discontent with the PAP Government.

The intensified repression is not just the SDP’s concern. It is the concern of all Singaporeans.

At a time when we need creative and bold leadership, when the success of our future depends on political openness and accountability, the PAP further deceives the people and tightens legislation to suppress democracy even more.

This is not the way forward for our nation.

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