Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugararnam has been quoted in the Straits Times as saying that the PAP is a centre-left party and that it is more focused on providing for the people compared to a decade ago.
Time and time again, however, the Government would promise us a better life and to change its ways, with assurances and apologies just before the elections only to disappoint us after the elections.
No wonder Singaporeans are so disillusioned about real change in our country.
Singaporeans gathered at the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park on 16 February and 1 May this year to make known our unhappiness with the foreign workers’ policy.
But have you ever wondered how Speakers’ Corner came to be? If you thought it was the result of a kind-hearted Government handing to us because it respected our civil liberties, you’re wrong. The Government would rather we keep quiet about all our unhappiness and keep it that way for as long as possible. Just look at how they silenced and intimidated dissent in the past with the ISA, arrests and countless lawsuits.
So what happened? In January 1999, a brave, young former psychology lecturer of NUS by the name of Chee Soon Juan made a speech at Raffles Place not once, but twice, with hundreds coming to listen to him the first time, and hundreds more the second time round.
He was prosecuted and charged with speaking in public without a permit and was made to serve prison time for almost three weeks. Many people dismissed it as frivolous and a waste of time and effort as the Government wasn’t going to listen anyway.
The following year, Lee Kuan Yew said in an interview with an international reporter that the Government would consider setting up a free speech venue. Eight months later, the Speakers’ Corner was born.
In 2008, the Tak Boleh Tahan (Can’t Stand It) protest campaign was launched which highlighted the rising cost of living and income inequality. Eighteen people, including many SDP members and Dr Chee, were charged and jailed. Again, many people dismissed the protest as frivolous and a waste of time and effort.
In September that year, the government relaxed rules at Speakers’ Corner to allow demonstrations. These are but just a few of the many events that took place.
Read also: Chee Soon Juan, Freedom of Assembly and Pink Dot (by Martyn See, 2011)
The truth is, today’s Speakers’ Corner was not a result of a government willingly granting its people freedoms and rights, but a result of brave people, like everyone at the ‘No to 6.9 million’ protests at Hong Lim Park (pictured right, by publichouse.sg), standing up and speaking out for our rights. As Frederic Douglass, a former African-American slave, once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
Let’s come back to the question on whether the Government really has changed for the better. In 2010, DPM Tharman Shamugaratnam said they would reduce dependence on foreign workers and in 2011, then Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong said they would increase the foreign workers’ levy. But in 2012, after the elections, it was revealed that the intake of foreigners increased.
Just last month, after the first protest against the population white paper, Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said that his Ministry would tighten the intake of foreign workers and would not do a U-turn like before. Can we really trust his words now? You’ll have to decide that yourselves.
But what’s interesting is that the statement was made following our protests. This proves that the more we speak up, not just online but also physically in public like what we did at Hong Lim Park, the more we can pressure the Government to act in our interests. That’s why civil liberties are important and that’s why Dr Chee’s campaign for the right of peaceful assembly was not a waste of time and effort.
Kenneth Lin is a member of The Young Democrats