Protests and how they serve us, the people: Part 2

Jagwinder Singh

In Part 1 of my piece, I talked about how protests served the interests of the people in that they allowed us to hold the government accountable. Skeptics, however, say that curtailing of our fundamental freedoms will not lead to anything serious.

It may not be apparent but these fundamental freedoms have a significant role to play in the overall development of both the individual and the nation. Moreover, these freedoms are also closely related to economic freedoms.

Freedom of speech is perhaps the most fundamental and sacred of all the freedoms. Singapore is a democracy, which means the citizens of this country have an active role to play in its development. Free speech allows the people’s views on national policy to be heard and debated upon, with the aim of incorporating the best suggestions into policy- and law-making. This forms the basis of sound, democratic governance.

At the individual level, allowing the young to speak freely without fear fosters critical thinking and self-confidence. In institutions and corporations, freedom of expression stimulates intellectual inquiry, creativity and innovation.

We don’t want a national conversation only when things go wrong: free speech has to be an ongoing process. If we had truly practised freedom of speech, we would today be enjoying press and media pluralism, and Singapore would not be ranked 149th in the World Press Freedom Index.

The freedom to assemble peacefully is another fundamental human right and civil liberty which is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European and American conventions on human rights. It allows us to collectively express, promote and defend common interests and is instrumental in uniting the nation when Governments turn tyrannical.

Not surprisingly, freedom of assembly is unconditionally upheld in the constitutions of most modern democracies like France, India, Taiwan and the United States. It would therefore be in Singapore’s best interests to do the same to enjoy reciprocal economic benefits with these nations.

Related to freedom of assembly is the freedom of association, which is the right to join groups of one’s choosing. This is usually manifested through the right to join a labour movement, which is pivotal to securing workers’ rights and improving their working conditions.

Unfortunately in Singapore, if one wished to join a labour union, it would be one affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress, which is chaired by a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Conflicts of interest abound in the unique tripartite alliance comprising the Government, unions and employers’ federations, and wage negotiations often come to a dead end.

It is telling that the Government has yet to implement minimum wage despite the fact that Singapore has the developed world’s highest income inequality.

In brief, the freedoms of speech, assembly and association, far from being destructive, actually promote a culture of creativity and innovation, support democratic governance by allowing citizens to express themselves freely, and ensure that our workers work under fair conditions for decent wages in a sustainable economic environment.

Okay. Got it. So where do we start?

The first step to realizing our fundamental civil liberties is to increase awareness of the fact that while these liberties are enshrined in the Constitution, it is the power of a
de facto one-party Parliament to enact laws restricting these rights that prevents us from enjoying them. You might want to share the salient points of this article with your friends and family. Or you may want to use social media to share this and other similar articles.

Once enough awareness is generated, and people can relate our current social and economic predicament to the curtailment of our civil liberties, action naturally follows. Petitions, campaigns and rallies in permitted areas can then be harnessed to pressure the Government to repeal article 14(2) of our Constitution.

The SDP activists and other patriotic Singaporeans have sacrificed much over the years for exercising their fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and movement. Let us ensure that henceforth no Singaporean need suffer their fate just because he or she wants to speak, assemble and associate freely.

Jagwinder Singh is a member of The Young Democrats