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Civil society and the SDP came together to discuss the future direction of Singapore and to provide a counter conversation to the one held by the PAP Government.$CUT$
Several of the speakers criticised the National Conversation as being staged and insincere in wanting to listen to the views of the people.
They were speaking at the National Conversation Roundtable organised by the SDP at the Quality Hotel last Saturday.
Ms Teo Soh Lung reminded the audience that S21, an initiative carried under the Goh Chok Tong prime ministership and led by then PAP MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock, was nothing but talk.
Nothing of substance has changed since then. Back then, housing prices was an issue, today – after decades of talk – housing prices is still an issue. Likewise the present National Conversation seems to be more a PR exercise for the PAP.
Agreeing, Mr Samydorai Sinapan of the Think Centre said, “How much freedom do we have to speak in this Conversation?” He pointed that before the PAP came to power, civil society was vibrant in Singapore with student organisations, labour unions and political parties actively speaking up. Today, everything is shut down.
Mr Kumaran Pillai, chief editor of The Online Citizen, felt the same way but went further to make an impassioned plea for Singaporeans to take action to bring about change. “Write to TOC if you see problems and we’ll publish it,” he said, “we need to do something about the situation and we cannot remain silent anymore.”
Carrying on the enthusiasm was Mr Andrew Loh of Publichouse.sg called on civil society actors to come together with political parties to effect change. Politics, he told the crowd, is not a dirty word.
Dwelling on the issue of civil liberties, Mr Loh said that “at the end of the day, if we don’t have rights, the Government will trample all over you.” Political rights, he said, is the other side of the coin of economic issues.
Dr Vincent Wijeysingha who spoke for the SDP made the point that people should have a say in the decision-making process. Democratic participation, he said, was a duty of citizens, not a privilege as the PAP would have us think.
Many of the speakers while acknowledging that bread-and-butter issues were foremost on the minds of the public, nevertheless, felt that the issue of human rights cannot be downplayed.
During the Q&A session that followed, a member of the audience asked why the other opposition parties did not participate in the forum and how would opposition unity come about if parties did not cooperate more.
(The SDP had invited all the opposition parties who contested in the 2011 GE to speak. We had done that in 2009 and 2010 as well.)
A couple of the panelists indicated that opposition unity is perhaps overrated and was not such a big factor in the voters’ minds when it came to elections. Mr Alex Au pointed out that he would not necessarily support some of the opposition parties over the PAP in a straight fight. Voters, he said, ought to be given a choice in the type of opposition parties they wanted to see in Parliament.
Opposition parties should just concentrate on developing their own strengths, TOC’s Mr Kumaran Pillai added. It was difficult to expect, given such differences in personalities and ideologies of the various parties, to come together.
On the subject of the Internet, filmmaker Martyn See pointed out from the floor that the Government has had no choice but to react to some of the issues raised by bloggers. He was sanguine about change as social media had opened up the political discourse in Singapore.
Dr Wijeysingha reinforced this view by calling on netizens to continue what they are doing because “they give oxygen” to important issues that would otherwise be buried by the state press.
(As if to help underscore this point, none of the media were present to report on the event.)
With more and more younger voters who are Internet savvy and who rely less on the mass media for their news, it is difficult for the PAP to mentally condition them compared to their older counterparts.
But whatever the issues and whatever the differences in views, one thing was clear: The pro-democracy forces are alive and well in Singapore. Their enthusiasm in wanting to see Singapore progress and become politically diverse was in full display at the forum. It bodes well for the country.
The SDP looks forward to working with civil society to bring about change. Deep and long-lasting political reform can only occur when the political opposition and civil society come together to demand change. Hong Kong, Malaysia and Burma are good examples.