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Human rights are the building blocks of democracy. This was the theme that ran through the speeches of the panelists at a forum entitled LKY: Liberal democracy will do us in. Will it? held on Saturday at the Public House.
The speakers included opposition MPs Mr Tian Chua (Malaysia) and Ms Mo Sochua (Cambodia), local blogger Mr Alex Au and SDP Vice-Chairman Mr Vincent Cheng.
As if to underline the problem in Singapore, the forum was at one point in danger of not being able to proceed as the original venue at The Verge was cancelled by the owner at the last minute.
The doors were locked and on them was a sign telling attendees that the event was cancelled. The manager said that he did not know that the discussion was going to be about politics and that the venue could not be used for political disucssion. The event was hurriedly switched to another venue at the Public House.
Opposition parties not all the same
Mr Alex Au cited this fiasco in his presentation as a illustration of how far Singapore is from democracy. Politics is still very much under the control of the PAP which, unlike its Malaysian counterpart, is not about to abolish the Internal Security Act anytime soon.
He pointed out that there can be no democracy without human rights. He said that historically most countries established human rights and the rule of law first before democracy came about.
He also pointed out that opposition political parties which are weak in their commitment to human rights are just another potential autocrat waiting to replace the PAP as government.
“I look at opposition parties but they are not all the same. Just because they are all equally anti-PAP does not make them all equally the same,” he said. “When it’s this kind of thing, that is, weak commitment to human rights, it is really a case of another potential autocrat trying to replace that autocrat. So at the end of the day what difference does it make?”
Speak up despite fear
Mr Tian Chua, Malaysian activist turned politician, recounted how Malaysians were willing to sacrifice their political rights for economic prosperity until the financial crisis in 1997 which made them realise that their lack of rights didn’t necessarily bring them economic gain.
In the past Malaysians were worried about social uncertainty that human rights brought. In recent years, however, this has been overshadowed by their desire for democracy. According to Mr Chua, Malaysians now back reform to break the political system which has been under authoritarian control for the past few decades.
In order for human rights to gain traction, however, Mr Chua said dissidents need to constantly speak up despite the fear and oppression. There will come a time when the ruling party will have to come round to the idea that political reform is necessary. Otherwise it risks becoming irrelevant.
This is the reason Prime Minister Najib recently announced that the ISA would be abolished. A former detainee himself, Mr Chua said that it was too early to say whether the Malaysian Government is sincere about the the move but added that it was a victory for those who have long called for the abolition of the ISA as the government is now beginning to respond to the dissidents.
Doing what is right
Another speaker was Ms Mo Sochua who was formerly a Minister in Hun Sen’s cabinet but resigned because of the government’s corruption and joined the opposition Sam Ramsy Party.
She was subsequently sued for defamation by Hun Sen. Her party leader Sam Rainsy was also prosecuted and is now living in exile.
Ms Sochua makes it a point to educate Cambodians, especially those in rural areas, of the need for democracy and human rights which she admits are alien concepts to the villagers who are more concerned about their survival than their rights.
A mother of 3 grown-up children herself, Ms Sochua says it is important to educate the people of their rights because without rights, they have little say in policymaking and cannot protect their economic interests. The work is often tiring and thankless. “Why am I the one doing this, where are the other Cambodians?” she finds herself asking. But she quickly adds that she cannot imagine herself not doing what she needs to do for her country.
When asked whether she considered herself a politician or activist, Ms Sochua answered that she is just doing what she thinks is right. As for what a “politician” should do, she replied, “I don’t know. You should ask those who consider themselves politicians”.
Stay comfortable, achieve nothing
The fourth panelist was Mr Vincent Cheng who is also SDP’s vice-chairman. He pointed out that long after his release from ISA detention, he was still very frightened of speaking up. Mr Cheng was detained in 1987 for two years under the Marxist-conspiracy charge.
He noted that the trauma of ISA detention kept most of its victims silent, including himself. But he slowly realised that whenever he related his experiences, many Singaporeans began to realise that the PAP Government is not as virtuous as it paints itself to be.
He therefore called on former ISA detainees to break their silence and use their experiences to educate the public about the its cruelty. Instead of trying to forget about the past, they should talk about their imprisonment which will turn people’s hearts.
His parting advice: For justice to work, one needs to make sacrifices. Nothing can be achieved by staying comfortable.