Democracy conference held in S’pore for first time

July 29, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Agence France Presse
26 July 2003

Democrats from Europe, Asia and the United States met in Singapore Saturday, July 26, for what organisers said was the first-ever conference on democracy and human rights.

About 100 delegates, among them human rights advocates and MPs, attended the International Youth Conference for Democracy after police issued a permit for the event, organised by the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Veteran opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam said it was the first time since Singapore’s independence in 1965 that a conference discussing the subjects of democracy and human rights was held in the country.

Singapore, an ethnically diverse city-state rocked by bloody race riots in the 1960s, has banned demonstrations and politically sensitive gatherings in an effort to preserve stability and national unity.

Such stability, along with a reputation for incorruptibility, efficiency and cleanliness, has been a key factor in Singapore’s ability attract foreign investments, enabling it to emerge as one of Asia’s wealthiest states.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has dominated politics since independence, has stood by its record of bringing prosperity to the tiny island-nation in just over 30 years and slammed the opposition for not offering an alternative platform of government.

But delegates to the conference said that despite the prosperity, Singaporeans were living with few political freedoms, instilling a sense of fear about speaking out.

“Your need to apply for a permit to hold a gathering like we have today. Surprisingly enough, even in an indoor conference like this we need to apply for a permit, but you must not take it for granted that it will be granted,” said Ling How Doong, chairman of the SDP.

“In Singapore, democracy is being tolerated. Democracy elsewhere is being enjoyed,” he told the delegates, which included MPs from Sweden and Thailand, as well as human rights advocates from the Philippines, Myanmar, Taiwan, Malaysia and the United States.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan criticised the government’s clampdown on public gatherings and urged Singaporeans to speak their minds.

“Are we sheep? Are we constantly living under fear?” he asked.

Addressing young Singaporeans in the audience, he said: “What I’m asking you is … for once be a rebel. Stand up for the truth.”

Foreign and local delegates spoke on topics such as the importance of democracy, human rights and people power, as well as Asian democracy and Asian values.

Graham Watson, a member of the European Parliament, said in a message sent to the conference that “freedom and democracy are just as important to Asians as to Caucasians.”

“Young people all over the world must be at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and the International Youth Conference for Democracy will add significantly to that effort,” said Hong Kong MP Martin Lee, also in a message because he did not attend.

The conference was sponsored by the Sweden-based institutions Jarl Hjalmarsson Foundation, Olaf Palme Institute and the Swedish International Liberal Centre.

Singapore authorities have begun easing up on some regulations in an effort to foster a more vibrant lifestyle and keep in step with the rest of the world.

They have recently given the green light for the high-adrenalin activity of bungee jumping and removed a ban on bar-top dancing.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also said the government has begun employing homosexuals, even though old laws still ban acts like sodomy.