Protesting in Singapore: Part 1

Chee Soon Juan

As the clamour for democracy in Singapore grows louder, so will the discussion of how to go about the democratisation process. I have advocated the use of non-violent action, or more commonly known as civil disobedience (CD), as a tool to achieve this objective.

Expectedly, such a stance has provoked some debate. The unbelievers say that the method is wrong, the skeptics say that the time is not yet at hand. I will deal in this first of a two-part write-up with the first view: While democracy is a worthy goal to work towards, CD is not the right tactic.

Most Singaporeans, when asked about CD, respond that it is not for Singapore, a society where order is prized over law. Besides Singaporeans are too materialistic and politically lackadaisical to want to be involved in political movements.

Change starts with the few – always

I do not quarrel with such a view. But I hasten to add that it misses the point.

Political change does not start with the masses. It always begins with the few who are informed and interested about the need for reform, and who are willing to act on it. If change was initiated by the masses, much of the world would still be ruled by monarchs and dictators.

It is a fact that people are apathetic to change. History is replete with individuals lamenting the inaction of their fellowmen and women. And yet many of these situations end up in change. Henry David Thoreau, the man who conceptualised and advocated the notion of civil disobedience, lamented about his fellow Americans:

There are thousands who are opposed to slavery and war, who yet do nothing to put an end to them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to every virtuous man.

American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr, had to repeatedly call on his fellow Americans to overcome apathy and get involved:

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

Yet for all the apathy the Civil Rights Act was passed, paving the way for an Africa American to become the president of the United States.

Closer to home, Filipinos were just as fearful and/or apathetic during the Marcos years. Former Philippine senator (the late) Jose Diokno, echoing Thoreau’s and King’s sentiments albeit in a more colourful manner, once said that his country was inhabited by “49 million cowards and one sonovabitch.”

These cowards later rose to overthrow Marcos to bring about an era of democracy in the Philippines. People Power became an inspiration for oppressed peoples around the world.

Taiwan was little different. The island’s activists despaired over the apathy of their fellow citizens during the martial law years under Chiang Kai Shek. The wife of a journalist who died in defence of freedom of speech lamented about the apathy of her fellow citizens, saying that she would never “encourage anyone to sacrifice for the 20 million Taiwanese because sometimes when I see them, I feel like giving them one big slap.”

But it was precisely the sacrifice of the courageous few that encouraged the fearful and apathetic many to end martial law in Taiwan and usher in freedom to the island. Incidentally, the wife of the martryed journalist became the transport minister when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 1998.

The late Kim Dae Jung, when he was still a dissident figure in South Korea’s opposition, wrote that he felt “crushed” when his fellow citizens criticized him for being too hard and confrontational even as his country’s military dictators jailed and tortured him.

Of course, we all know that South Korea is a democracy today and Kim Dae Jung its former president.

No confrontation, please

Are Singaporeans really that different?

Suddenly Singapore and Singaporeans don’t sound quite as unique, do we?

The reality is that not only are people initially apathetic to change, many are usually hostile to the idea. There will always be those who will accuse the dissidents of being too aggressive. They will advocate a softer, non-confrontational approach.

Even during the dark years of slavery in the 1800s Frederic Douglass, a former slave, was accused of being a troublemaker for fighting against the cruel injustice. Douglass, not mincing his words, countered:

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.


Martin Luther King, behind bars

Even King was criticised for being impatient and acting impulsively. In 1963, a group of clergyman, while acknowledging the injustice of segregation laws, said that King’s actions were “unwise and untimely”. They said that his “extreme measures” were unjustified and urged the Negro community not to support his demonstrations.

King wrote an open letter while he was in jail in the town of Birmingham, Alabama. His reply, now famously known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, is a supremely erudite exposition of CD. I urge everyone to read it (
here). For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to highlight the opening paragraph of the civil rights leader’s missive:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.

It might come as a shock to many but as evil as segregation and as noble as King’s response were, there were many in his time that could not understand his motives and strategy. But it was through dogged perseverance that he and his associates started winning the argument.

The important point that needs to be repeated is that history is littered with instances of people rejecting the idea and practice of CD. With time (and lots of hard work and sacrifice in between), more and more people will understand and appreciate the nobleness of defying an unjust law in order to bring about socio-political change.

As recent as 2004, I even hesitated to use the word “protest” when I spoke at a forum, much less the two words “civil disobedience”. Today, the terms aren’t such a taboo, at least not on the Internet. People are starting to talk about defying and protesting against unjust laws.

We will not get there all at once. But let us, the people who are interested, the people who know better, start the process. The rest will follow and change will then be upon us.

Read also: Protesting in Singapore: Part 2
                Protesting in Singapore: Part 3
                Civil disobedience works


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