Sunday’s panel discussion at the SDP’s exhibition, A Look Back – 35 Years of Democratic Service, saw bloggers and activists Alex Au, Martyn See and Jolovan Wham talk about the party’s role in Singapore’s political and civil society scenes.$CUT$
Chaired by teacher and poet Ms Teng Qian Xi, the two-hour discussion started off with a screening of excerpts from two videos. The first was produced by the SDP in 1996 which was banned by the PAP government (see here). The second was Singapore Rebel, a 20-minute documentary about Dr Chee Soon Juan. (Watch re-edited version here.)
Martyn See related how he was put under investigation by the police for 18 months after he made the film. During questioning, the police asked him questions about who he met and why he made the film. The filmmaker said he was shocked when photographs of him participating in privately organised seminars and workshops were shown to him.
Mr See said that “the civil disobedience years of the SDP was not without merit. It gave birth to the Speakers’ Corner.”
Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME, picked up on this theme: that SDP was at the forefront fighting for the political rights of the people. He added that the party was the first to make the case that our economic well-being is closely tied to our fundamental freedoms.
But at that time, he noted, few dared to talk about human rights. “SDP was a trail blazer in this regard. Where civil society was not able, or did not dare to do, SDP filled up that space.”
The freedoms it used to champion, Mr Wham added, is now being taken up by other individuals and groups.
Blogger Alex Au spoke up on the need for the SDP to turn to persuading the people that it had a viable plan for Singapore’s future. He echoed Mr Wham’s point that the party had to focus on winning elections from here on out.
He noted that in this regard the SDP was off to a good start as it was “the one party that has been producing a lot of very thoughtful reports on a lot of important issues”.
Dr Chee summarised the discussion by taking the audience through the years of SDP’s development.
He recounted how the SDP had started off under his charge with a set of alternative ideas published in his first book Dare To Change in 1994.
But he very soon realised that the PAP was not interested in any discussion of alternative policies even as it criticised its opponents of not coming up with solutions on how to govern Singapore.
Coupled with the hounding and expulsion of the late J B Jeyaretnam from Parliament, the SDP secretary-general concluded that without the freedoms of speech and assembly, the PAP would use unfair means perpetuate its dominance.
“It will change the rules and raise the bar every time the opposition catches up,” he said.
It was this period that the party embarked on fighting for the people’s political freedoms. This led to the establishment of the Speakers’ Corner which is now being used by activists to give voice to Singaporeans’ concerns.
Seeing such a development – and with the advent of social media – the SDP was reassured that it could revert to the more conventional role of electoral politics.
We did this in the 2011 GE (which saw us being the most improved party in vote percentage) and we look forward to getting into Parliament in this upcoming elections.
More event photos at SDP’s facebook photo album.