“Human rights cannot make us better off”

October 30, 2012
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

Even as the SDP continues to focus oncost-of-living issues – proposing ways to reduce healthcare costs,coming up with alternative ideas to lower HDB prices, fighting for minimum wagefor our workers, and so on – we would be negligent if we did not, at thesame time, educate the Singaporean public on the urgency of claiming our right to freedom of assembly.$CUT$

There are many people, even those whowant to see political change in Singapore, who continue to think thatmatters like political freedoms and civil liberties are esotericconcepts, far-removed from their everyday lives.

“Human rights cannot make mebetter off” is the common refrain. They have never been morewrong.

It is precisely because we don’t havepolitical rights that most of us will have little to retire on eventhough we are the biggest savers in the world; it is because we havebeen stripped of our civil liberties that we work one of the longesthours compared to our counterparts in other economies and yet see our real incomes decline; it isbecause we do not enjoy freedom of expression that we find ourcountry more expensive than New York, London and Frankfurt but ourpurchasing power parity equal to that of Kuala Lumpur.

The truth is that the stripping away of our political rights has also deprived us of the ability to live less stressful lives, retire with a little moresecurity, and build a nation-home that we can call our own.

But how did we cometo such a cheerless state? How did things get so bad?

These problems did not just emerge yesterday; they took decades to develop. Which forces the question: Why did we allow them to fester and grow? Why did we not remedy them when we had the chance? After all, we had elections – severalof them – to change course and right the wrongs. And yet, wedidn’t.

“Next elections”

The truth is that we couldn’t. We couldn’t have changed anything through elections even though we thought otherwise. We held out the hope that we could vote out the PAP or, atleast, vote in the opposition in sufficient numbers to change policyand take the country to a better place.

But change eluded us. And when each electionresulted in the status quo, we kept saying, “Next elections.”

The hard reality is that under a system which drove the political process in one and only one direction, there was never any doubt what the outcome of the elections would be. The onslaught of the mass media, the amendments to the Constitution, the paying out of money just before voting ruled out any possibility of political change. And all the while, the outcome was billed as the will of the people. 

In addition, there seems to be an ‘issue’ at every election to distract the masses. In 1988, it was the Marxist conspiracyand the foreign interference Singapore’s politics. In1991, it was the promise of a series of by-elections promised by PM Goh ChokTong. In 1997, itwas HDB upgrading. In 2001, it was the pall of terrorism. In 2006, it was the giving out ofthe progress package shares. In 2011, it was another pay out, this time calledthe growth-dividend.

With each election, another fiveyears passed. It has been three decades since the late J B Jeyaretnam brokethe PAP’s stranglehold on Parliament with his by-election victory atAnson. Nothing meaningful has changed in our politics and policies since then.

If anything, the PAP’s policies havebitten in, making our problems now almost intractable.

Singaporeans, the watchful ones, sawthe problems a long time ago, the situation worsening with each passing year, each passing election. They felt helpless to do anything and many chose to emigrate.

This is the truth: Wecannot change anything just by relying on elections – elections thatthe PAP controls. If we could, we would have done it already. Evenwith the problems so severe, we have barely made a dent in theParliament’s configuration.

This is not conjecture. Mr Lee Kuan Yew made it plain: “Please do not assume that you canchange governments. Young people don’t understand this.”

Doing the math

Will the 2016 GE be any different?Many hold out the hope that Singaporeans will wise up and vote for the opposition this time around.

But consider this: The PAP has been converting20,000 new citizens a year and will continue the trend in theforeseeable future. This means 100,000 naturalised Singaporeans by the nextelections, more if you go back a decade. Many of these new immigrants undergo programmes conducted by PAP grassroots members, chances are that they will be more pro-PAP thanpro-opposition.

That’s not all. There is a continuing decline in the number of locally born and bred Singaporeans. A survey by Mindshareshowed that 56 percent of Singaporeans want to emigrate. Data from the World Bank shows that in 2010, 10.1 percent of locals actually left thecountry, leaving us with a net migration (total number of immigrantsless the annual number of emigrants) of 721,738.

Those who have left or expressed adesire to leave indicate frustration with PAP policiesrelating to cost-of-livng issues. Conversely, new immigrants arereceptive of the such policies (otherwise they would not have chosen tosettle here). This combination gives the PAP a much needed boost atthe polls.

Seen another way, the PAP’s currentpolicies regarding immigration (resulting in an increase of new citizenswho will vote for them) and living costs (resulting in a decrease ofSingaporeans born in the country) is a double whammy for the people but political manna for the ruling clique.

What incentive is there for the PAP to changepolicy course? It does not have to appeal to the electorate by coming up with better policies but by cynically – and dangerously – manipulating the immigration-emigration flow.    

Given such a scenario, is it smart toput all our eggs of policy change into that one basket of elections?

If the morning after Polling Day 2016shows that the change-needle has not moved much, what do we do? Tellourselves that 2021 is just five years away? How many more five-yearterms are we going to wait before the PAP’s policies cause our societyto implode?

The real hard truth

We needsomething more and that something is our political rights and our civil liberties. We need a free media. We need an independentelections commission.

And we can only get these if we publiclyand visibly demand them. We must assemble – peacefully – inmassive numbers to compel the Government that it must, one, amend theNewspaper Printing and Presses Act to allow private citizens to ownand start newspapers. Two, re-write the ParliamentaryElections Act to ensure free and fair elections, and introduce anelections watchdog with teeth.

Public assemblies can also directlyaffect policy-making and empower the people to hold the Government accountable if a policy precipitates direconsequences.

In the make-believe world, democratsget voted into power despite the autocracy and they then reform the system top-down.

But that’s not how things work in the realworld where democratic change comes about because the people demand it – loudly – and work for it. They amass in large enough numbers to forcea government to relinquish control of the media and implementgenuinely free and fair elections. Such efforts can, and have, beendone peacefully. But never without determination and perseverance.

What do we do?

What do Singaporeans have to do? The first step is to acknowledge that elections alone are woefully inadequate to bring about realand meaningful change. We also need to learn that peaceful protests are a force for good, not destruction. 

We have been conditioned to fear protests and, more insidiously, to frown upon expressions of political passion. As long as we retain this mindset, the PAP will have successfully put us in a mental box and, more disconcertingly, one in which we choose to remain.

We must jettison the foolish talk that human rights is a Westernconcept, inimical to Singaporeans. Moreover, the idea that we must focus onbread-and-butter issues to the exclusion of defending our rights is one that the PAP has planted in our mindsto disastrous effect. It is such thinking that has allowed the Government uncheckedcontrol of the election system, the media and, as a consequence, public opinion.

Once we overcome this mental obstacleand stop repeating the utter lie that political freedoms and civil liberties have no value in changing cost-of-living issues, we have overcome the hardest part ofthe battle. Our political rights have everything to do with oureconomic well-being. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.