Redefining the political landscape

Singapore Democrats

SDP’s Treasurer, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, spoke at the ‘The Young Guns Forum 2012’ last week organised by the National University of Singapore Political Association. The other panel speakers were PAP’s Mr Vikram Nair, NSP’s Ms Nicole Seah, and WP’s Mr Gerald Giam.

Dr Wijeysingha outlined the prerequisites of a progressive society which were based on “principal freedoms” that emerged from societal struggles in the past. Below is the full text of his speech.

My friends,

I would like to thank you for your kind invitation to this event today. Societies progress on the strength of the public discourse and its universities play an essential role in incubating and shaping public opinion for the good.

I would like to congratulate you on your bold step in inviting the Singapore Democratic Party to participate. It has been an unspoken policy of the governing party to ensure that our proposals for change remain absent from cauldron of ideas. In these last several weeks we again witnessed this when Focus, a current affairs programme, in its instalment on ministerial salaries, invited all the major political parties except the SDP although we were the only one to produce a substantial paper on reforming the salary system.

The age of revolutions is past. If we cast our minds back to the period of the late seventeen to eighteen hundreds, the world was engulfed in a series of revolutionary conflicts that changed the face of the globe and ushered in the modern era.

But in our own period of history, change and redefinition are following a different track. For change to be enduring and sustainable, to be meaningful and intelligible to communities of today, political activity and policy redefinition must be incremental and gradualist. We must harness the concerns of the people and draw them with us into a new world of fairness, justice and progress.

But the underlying prerequisites for successful and meaningful progress remain unchanged from those of what Eric Hobsbawm called the “age of revolution”. The motivations and priorities of human beings today are the same as they were when the peoples of France, the colonies of North America, and later Russia and China rose up against horrifying injustice and exploitation to shape their own destinies.

Let’s take a minute to reflect on those fundamentals. Societies move forward because of – not despite – an unwavering commitment to the principal freedoms. And the new nations that are created from the ashes of revolution then go on to try and entrench those freedoms as their parameters and guiding lights.

What are those fundamental freedoms? President Roosevelt referred to the “four great freedoms” that, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in December 1948, were written into its Preamble:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people…”

To these have been added the freedoms of association and assembly as the accepted global standard of justice.

The principal notions that orientate towards the justice and equality that societies should strive for are the key notions of freedom from fear and from want. For a society to truly evaluate its success, it must measure it against these ultimate tests. To be free from fear and from want are the litmus tests of a functioning society. It was Winston Churchill who said that societies are judged on the basis of how the weakest are treated.

Now, in order for us to achieve these freedoms, certain key principles of governance must be in place. These are openness, transparency, accountability and the rule of law. We have seen in recent months how the nation has learnt far more than it ever knew about ministerial remuneration and thus the debate has moved in a different direction, articulated in terms of proportionality and service.

We have seen how poor performance on the train system, brought into debate and discussion in the online press, has led to arrangements designed to improve conditions for the citizenry. And they have ultimately brought about the downfall of the head of the train system, a woman whose previous utterances belied a belief in her immutability.

None of these developments would have been possible without the online media which have confronted the monopoly of information of the mainstream press and allowed the people to begin truly participating in the affairs of the nation.

If we are to ensure that that the key principles I listed above become part and parcel of the nation’s dealings, they must be operationalised in concrete legal terms intelligible to the habits and practices of the community. By this I mean that the legal system must be exemplified by an agenda intended to promote rather than hinder them.

A nation, I said earlier, progresses on the strength of its public discourse. The vigour and potency with which we approach the task is deeply proportionate to the freedoms enshrined in the rule of law; a canon which, it bears repeating, should promote and not hinder.

You have taken, in the words of the first man on the moon, “a giant step” with this forum. I urge you to continue. And while I occupy this lectern for a moment longer, allow me to suggest to you some of the more regressive policies and legislation that, if we are to truly grow up and become what we can be, we must discard.

The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act which places control of mainstream information firmly in the control of the governing party, and often used for its own ends rather than the people’s benefit, must be reformed. If the governing party will continue to use the phrase ‘knowledge economy’, it must act as if we were one.

The Internal Security Act, with its capricious and unpredictable power to silence the government’s detractors, must be replaced with a modern variant that protects us rather than silences us.

The Elections Department, coming, as it does, under the direct purview of one of the political contestants, and which the governing party has used to convenient effect, must be reorganised and re-situated outside of the political process.

The parliamentary innovations instituted in the 1980s, such as the GRC system, whose justification no longer holds water as a means to guarantee minority representation, must be done away with to afford all political contestants a fair chance to convince the electorate of its aims and ideas.

Judicial appointments should be taken away from the Executive to guard against any undue power it may be tempted to bring to bear.

Closer to home, here on this very campus, the Suitability Certificate for students studying politics or sociology, and the habit of the Executive to inspect the work and lectures of academics, must once and for all be abandoned. They fulfil no more purpose in a ‘knowledge economy’ and will only serve to attract and retain substandard rather than outstanding minds.

And finally, the habit of the ministries to haul in the NGOs on the ostensible pretext of a cup of tea but in reality to circumvent and curtail their legitimate activity of calling attention to injustice, must finally be repudiated. The government pretends to a free and frank relationship with civil society which is false and it must stop.

Ladies and gentlemen, the knuckleduster and hatchet politics of the past regime are gone for good. And not a moment too soon. But as we grow into a more mature and more grown-up politics, as citizens, we have a responsibility. A primary respect for the other’s viewpoint should and can become the hallmark of our political system.

Evidence-based approaches to policymaking – including their considered effect on all our people – rather than clinging to the shibboleths of years past is the way forward. In relation to this, public policies must always be oriented preferentially towards the people of Singapore, not towards a certain group who benefit most and who have the most power to subvert them to their own ends.

And underscoring all this, and most important of all, a commitment to our nation and to our people, programmatically designed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our citizens; to ensure the four freedoms prevail. This will be the genuine test of redefinition and the measure of our progress in these next five years.

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