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Sunday last marked a very special occasion. It was International Human Rights Day commemorating the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations on December 10, 1948.
But December 10, 2006 was more than special for Singapore. It was a watershed.
It was a day when a group of Singaporeans discovered the valour they never thought they had and conducted a march for democracy and human rights through the heart of downtown Singapore.
Think about it. If someone had told you that a group of Singaporeans were going to stage a freedom walk along Orchard Road, your reaction would be probably one of incredulity. In Singapore? Never, you’d say.
But they did. In spite of all the threats, overt or otherwise, a bunch of your fellow Singaporeans cared enough for our country to defy the authorities and spoke up not just for their rights, but for all of ours as well.
Why did they do it? Because they knew that without our democratic rights, we could never meaningfully address issues that affect our everyday lives.
Whether it’s the GST hike, the crippling poverty that leads some to suicide, or the uncaring face of elitism, no political rights mean no voice, and no voice means continued suffering in silence.
One of the marchers, Tan C P, could not look the other way any longer: “I made a choice to express my belief in exercising my basic rights. I walked with my fellow human rights advocates on the International Human Rights’ Day in Singapore. I chose not to remain silent.”
Were they not afraid of what the Government might do to them? Of course, they were. But they also instinctively knew that if one’s action is principled and just, fear can only do so much. “All this happened under camera surveillance by plainclothes policemen. I could spot about four across the road,” Chong Kai Xiong, another marcher, recounted. “But they were not going to frighten us.”
Charles Tan, an active human rights campaigner and President of the SDP’s Young Democrats, encouraged Singaporeans: “I ask that you act on your beliefs and take that first step towards overcoming your own fear.”
The fear may have come from the PAP’s indoctrination. Chee Siok Chin pointed out that the PAP-controlled media always ensured that these pro-democracy actions are always labelled as “confrontational”.
Given the circumstances, It is hard to understand what motivates these young Singaporeans. Perhaps, Martin Luther King Jr left us a clue:
Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?”
Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?”
Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?”
But, conscience asks the question, “Is it right?”
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.
To be sure, a group of 20-odd freedom walkers will not shake the PAP’s grip on Singapore. But like everything else, it always starts with the few.
Echoing writer Margaret Mead’s words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”, Teoh Tian Jing, who, together with Kai Xiong, walked two-and-a-half hours from start (Hong Lim Park) to finish (Queenstown Remand Prison), said: “However small this step is, if more people are willing to stand up as we did, we should not need to feel helpless. Instead, we should be hopeful. This is what active citizenry is all about.”
Tian Jing’s hope is not vacuous. Rages Ambalam cites that the momentum for change has picked-up. “This is evident in the fact that more and more friends and supporters have been coming over the last few nights to keep vigil with us outside QRP…the shackles of fear are slowly being broken…”
But the responsibility of fighting for our rights doesn’t just belong to Tan C P, Tian Jing, Rages, Charles or Kai Xiong. Kao Wen Sheng, another young Singaporean, reminded us all that standing up for justice is “not someone else’s burden, it’s yours.”
Singapore’s very own freedom walkers may not have realized the significance of their actions on December 10, 2006. History, assuredly, will be a good teacher.