Dignity, rights and economic progress

Jeremy Chen & Mansura Sajahan

We were privileged to interact with Tunisian activists and MPs from various parties and hear about their experiences in the on-going process of drawing up the Tunisian constitution when we attended a conference there in December last year organised by the Swedish International Liberal Centre.

We also heard from Egyptian activists about the missteps pro-democracy forces made in the continuing democratisation process. There was also a panel where representatives from various countries, including us from Singapore, shared our experiences of working in undemocratic states and how to operate within such environments.

A major thread running through the conference was how to effectively execute a transition of governments such that minority rights (and women’s rights) are upheld even as we make economic progress.

Our perspective of the so called “liberal project” has been that civil liberties and human rights (such as freedoms of interaction and entitlements to individuals) should be guaranteed on the basis of human dignity (such as sanitation, housing and healthcare respectively). They are the basis of a strong society.

Only with firmly grounded rights will citizens have a say in government and be able to advocate for and defend their well-being against cunning back room machinations geared towards (economic) extraction.

In Singapore, the truth of this has been hinted at by the power of forms of relatively new Internet-based organization and communication to effect some change in the rhetoric of the ruling PAP in Singapore, where traditional forms of political organization and communication had already been effectively reserved to the ruling party through its exercise of “rule by law” and the “emerging” Internet “blindsided” the “far-sighted” PAP government.

Yet, as evidenced by the experiences of people around the world, peoples’ willingness to stand up – even by an educated populace – to a government’s abuse of power tends to emerge only when there is prolonged economic deprivation, as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.

Though deteriorating economic well-being is the trigger for populations to realize that something is wrong, how can people be made to realize that civil rights and human rights are by far the best way to build and sustain economic well-being in the long term?

From a practical standpoint, one must canvas for votes with implementable policy plans that directly improve well-being of citizens. But how can a party raise the consciousness of the electorate on the importance of their rights?

These questions were never fully answered during the sessions, but one aspect of human nature that arose seemed to provide the answer. Fundamentally, people want to be treated with dignity. But in authoritarian societies citizens are forced to trade dignity for survival; they are told that exigencies of survival take precedence over dignity. People are fooled into thinking that dignity becomes a luxury that we cannot afford. That is, until society’s consciousness is raised.

Perhaps the challenge is how to effectively link civil liberties and human rights to economic concerns.

Many Singaporeans feel downtrodden by the economic policies of the PAP government and, as a result, found extremely compelling the idea of a legislature that would not allow extractive policies go unquestioned and wanted a fundamental change in governance where the dignity of the people would begin to be upheld. The sentiment was manifest in the 2011 General Elections results.

This indicates that, at a fundamental level, the SDP has been on the right track. We have been working on practical and implementable policy plans to improve the lives of Singaporeans and solve major problems they faced. Our proposals on healthcare, housing as well as population and foreign manpower policy are premised on rights, and they uphold the dignity of Singaporeans.

The challenges that we face, going forward, are to continue developing rational and sensible policy plans and to communicate these to Singaporeans. The SDP would have to continue to work to communicate and persuade Singaporeans to support what’s in their best interest.

The PAP’s recent “declaration of war” on non-PAP ideas is unfortunate. Instead of fighting ideas that are different from ours, the SDP will reason and persuade the people of our views and policies.

Democratic ideals are not high-minded principles separated from our everyday lives. They are held by people, advocated for by people, and lived by people.

We were extremely heartened by the activists we met in Tunisia. We met earnest and genuine people seeking to make their nations better, we met committed people who were willing to stand up and be counted often in the face of extreme danger, and we met thoughtful and experienced individuals who were humble. We are glad to have made their acquaintance.

The questions we sought answers to defied straightforward solutions, but we came away enriched from the experiences shared, sharpened from learning the specific issues faced in different settings, and heartened by our global colleagues on the shared project of promoting democracy around the world.

Jeremy Chen is pursuing his PhD in Decision Science at the NUS and is a member of the SDP’s housing policy panel. Mansura Sajahan is SDP’s Secretariat Manager.