Freedom of expression important now more than ever

Singapore Democrats

Many Singaporeans have, in years past, questioned the SDP’s fight for political freedom for our people. They say that these ideas have little to do with their everyday lives. Fortunately, such thinking is on the wane.$CUT$

It must be reiterated that without such freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, citizens cannot hold those who rule over us accountable and make them serve the people instead of themselves.

For example, our retirees’ hopes to have their CPF savings returned to them, the younger generation’s aspirations to be able to afford HDB flats, the people’s desire to live in a city not crammed beyond its limit and so on all necessitate the public’s ability to voice out its concerns.

This is the reason why the PAP, once it assumed power in 1959, moved hand over fist to ensure that it closed down the various avenues where the people could exercise that right. Newspapers were brought under the management of the state, journalists were detained without trial, public political meetings were outlawed, strikes were prohibited and the Law Society was gagged.

It is for our own sakes that we work to claim back our rights to freedom of expression.

There is another reason why democratic freedoms are important. In order for Singapore to gain preeminence in international law and become a First World country, we need to adopt full democratic practices.

The rule of law, including widening the rules on freedom of expression, is an essential ingredient in our bid to be a modern legal centre in Asia and the world. Unfortunately, the PAP’s continued clamp down on Singaporeans’ democratic rights runs counter to this endeavour.

This is the subject of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s address at the International Bar Association’s (IBA) conference taking place in Tokyo this week. The SDP leader will make the case that the PAP Government has to make significant progress in the democratisation of Singapore in order for the country to be part of the international legal framework.

Unfortunately, the Government seems bent on preventing this. An opportunity came in 2007 when the IBA held its conference in Singapore. Instead of demonstrating leadership by committing to the rule of law, the PAP tried to prevent the symposium from being opened to the public. It failed.

This allowed Dr Chee to attend the event in which then Minister for Law, Mr S Jayakumar, was a speaker. Mr Jayakumar insisted that the rule of law needed to be “contextualised” to suit the needs of different cultures – an argument widely discredited by the international community.

Dr Chee rose to challenge Mr Jayakumar’s point, citing the case of Mr Chia Thye Poh who was imprisoned without trial for 32 years. The session chair then intervened and tried to stop Dr Chee from saying more.

“The Government has had its say. Now I’m sure the audience would like to hear the other side of the story,” Dr Chee said, turning to the audience which broke out into a loud and sustained applause. He informed those present of the use of defamation laws and criminal prosecution to silence dissent.

Mr Jayakumar responded by evading Dr Chee’s questions and resorted to personally attacking him. When the minister finished, no one applauded.

Read also Jayakumar evades Chee’s questions

It seems that the situation has come full circle. Dr Chee will be speaking on the same platform that Mr Jayakumar did in 2007. But instead defending anti-democratic practices, the SDP secretary-general will be calling for the political rights of Singaporeans to be respected.

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