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People tend to be suspicious, if not outright critical, of things that they don’t understand or those that lie outside their zone of familiarity.
In Singapore, that familiarity is placidity. Any expression or action that takes Singaporeans out of this comfort zone is immediately met by cynicism and distrust.
Civil disobedience is one such concept. People who have lived decades under a system that prides itself on fear-induced political placidness, understandably feel uneasy whenever they see political action that directly challenges the Government’s authority.
But such apprehension or non-comprehension of the philosophical underpinnings of nonviolent civil action does not make the activity wrong. On the contrary, civil disobedience is very much needed to bring about political reform which is crucial for Singapore’s future.
To be sure, civil disobedience is not only advocated by anti-establishment figures and dissidents (Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, once on the fringe of establishment, are icons in mainstream society today.)
Even former US presidential candidate Al Gore, who can hardly be described as a rabble-rouser, recently called for civil disobedience in dealing with intransigent builders of coal plants. A CNN report headlined Gore calls for coal plant protests said:
Speaking at the opening plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York, Gore said: “If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.” (emphasis added)
Here is a former law-maker (Mr Gore was a US vice-president and senator before he embarked on his campaign against global warming) who has now openly called for citizens to break the law in order to stop more coal plants from being set up.
Yet, Mr Gore lives in a country that upholds and practices freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. What more in Singapore where citizens have been completely stripped of their civil and political rights.
The truth is that when governments use their power to shut the people up and prevent them from coming together to express opposition to policy, there is little recourse but to defy these laws — unjust laws — that ban public assembly.
Singaporeans must remember that laws are not always made for the good of the people. It is the duty of citizens to single out such bad laws and work to get them repealed, if need be through the use of civil disobedience.
Below is an excerpt from Dr Chee Soon Juan’s Power of Courage that crystallizes the concept of civil disobedience:
Before we get into any discussion of how effective civil disobedience, or non-violent action, is and how it can be applied to Singapore, one needs to be clear about what it is. In its simplest form, non-violent action describes the act of refusing to obey unjust laws and the demands of a government without resorting to physical violence.
Power itself is not necessarily derived from violence, although auto-cratic governments often resort to violence, or the threat of it, to achieve their goals. The compliance of the majority, no matter how begrudgingly it is given, is what enables the authorities to oppress the people. A coordinated and concerted withdrawal of that compliance will render the State impotent with its repression. Refusing to cooperate with unjust laws, carried out in a systematic manner, can bring about change.
In other words, nonviolence may involve acts of omission. Non-violent action also includes acts of commission. Individuals or groups of indivi-duals can engage in activities that would require the authorities to respond. Sometimes this may involve activities that are within the proscribed boundaries and sometimes they need to go beyond that.
Nonviolence is the active pursuit of socio-economic-political goals through peaceful means. Its goal is to transform power relations between the oppressor and the oppressed. It seeks to empower citizens through the exercise of the various sources of power available to the people.
The Power of Courage is available at Kinokuniya and Select Books. Or write to [email protected].