A lesson for the opposition

Singapore Democrats

The oft-quoted poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller “They came first…” (see below) has much to teach the opposition in Singapore. A variation of this truism is the adage: United we stand, divided we fall.

We are, of course, referring to the victimisation of the members of the opposition and civil society groups by the PAP, and the concomitant lack of solidarity among the actors in these sectors whenever the ruling party embarks on one of its crackdowns.  

The latest, of course, is the issuing of a fine to a member of the National Solidarity Party (NSP) by the National Environment Agency for selling the party’s newspaper.

Let it be clear that the Singapore Democrats find such action by the Government a travesty of democracy. It is shameful that even the simple act of selling a party newspaper is prohibited by the law. The NSP, or any other opposition party, must be allowed, in the interest of democracy, to sell its party publication unmolested.

But herein lies a deeper problem that the opposition and civil society must consider. Clearly, the law says that it is an offence to hawk goods in public without a permit. What do opposition parties do? If we continue to sell our party newspapers in such a manner, we are knowingly breaking the law.

So how do opposition parties go about the sales and still keep within the law? Obtain a hawking license? The Ministry of Environment has said that it does not issue such licenses. Sell them through news outlets and proprietors? It is an open secret that all the newsvendors are licensed to sell SPH newspapers and do not dare to sell newspapers published by the opposition (the SDP has tried repeatedly to ask newsvendors to sell our newspaper
The New Democrat to no avail).

Selling our newspapers is just one aspect of the problem that the opposition faces. Everytime a party goes on a walkabout to meet the people or distribute flyers, it is either conducting an illegally assembly and/or procession. The fact that the SDP is the only party prosecuted for these offences does not mean that other parties have not broken, or are not breaking, the law.

For example, SDP’s members and friends have been charged for assembly without a permit (trial to begin next month) for distributing flyers on National Day 2008. And yet, we have evidence that members of the Workers’ Party (WP) and NSP also conducted similar activities that particular day but have not been prosecuted. Is the SDP the only party that has broken PAP’s law? 

Such a scenario presents the opposition with a dilemma. Do we comply with such laws? If we do, and we must if we are honest about strictly keeping within the bounds of the law, then we must cease most of our activities including walkabouts and newspaper selling.

The question that is screaming to be asked is: Are such laws, and/or their undemocratic application to stifle the activities and eventual electoral success of the opposition, just?

More important, what do other opposition parties or civil society organisations do when one party is victimised? The obvious answer is that everyone must speak out. This is where Martin Niemoller’s poem rings so loud and ominous:

“THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

The Singapore Democrats have not restricted ourselves to exhortations. We spoke up when other parties or their members have been attacked by the PAP. We defended Dr James Gomez when the WP candidate found himself held for questioning after the 2006 elections. We upbraided the National Development Ministry for coming up with an absurd report on Town Councils that ranked the ones run by Hougang and Potong Pasir at the bottom of the pile. And now we speak up on the NSP fine.

Readers of this website must know by now that the Singapore Democrats have repeatedly called for greater cooperation and unity. We organised forums and meetings in 2008, 2009 and, most recently, in May 2010 encouraging opposition parties to come together.

In civil society, we stoutly defended Mr M Ravi when he was attacked ad hominem for his campaign against the mandatory death penalty. We decried the persecution of Falungong practitioners even though none of our members are followers of the faith. We spoke up for Mr Martyn See when he was interrogated by the police for his films.

Whenever and wherever democratic rights are trampled upon, the Singapore Democrats rally and speak up.   

This we do in the knowledge that it is only through unity that the pro-democracy camp in Singapore can withstand the authoritarian onslaught of the PAP. While opposition parties may have their own approaches and platforms, the lack of democracy and freedom in Singapore must bind us all in unity of purpose.

The SDP has often cited our counterparts across the causeway. As disparate as the ideologies of Parti-se-Islam (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) are, they are able to come together for the sake of entrenching democratic practices in Malaysia.

The opposition in Singapore must likewise demonstrate such political maturity. For a start, we must stand up and speak up whenever one party finds itself at the end of the PAP’s oppressive whip. If we are unwilling to do this we should, at the minimum, not adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. For under the PAP’s laws, we are all transgressors.

Perhaps it is worth remembering the wise words of Benjamin Franklin when the American independence fighters were battling their British colonialists: “Gentlemen, we must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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