SDP activists attend free speech workshop in Sarajevo

December 19, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Warren Eswaran presenting Singapore's caseThe Singapore Democrats recently sent two activists to attend a 4-day workshop on “Freedom of Speech” held in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. The workshop which was organized by the Young Liberals of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC) was held from 8 to 11 December 2005.

Ms Chee Siok Chin and Mr Warren Eswaran, and two Indonesians, were the only Asians to take part in the workshop which included activists from all over the world. They were gathered to present their countries’ political situation on democracy and, more important, to learn how to work for freedom of expression.

What impressed the Singaporeans was the fact that the other young participants were extremely aware and concerned about the political circumstances in their country. “They jealously guarded their civil and political rights to ensure that the state works for the people and certainly not the other way around,” Ms Chee said, “which regrettably is not the situation in Singapore.”

The workshop proved to be an extremely important platform for the exchange of ideas and information among the participants. For example, the regulating body for the media in Bosnia is an independent entity. One of its main functions is to ensure that radio and television networks do not carry “hate speeches”. This was especially born out of the horrific war that ravaged the country from 1992 to 1995 in the shameless name of “ethnic cleansing”.

The Singaporean participants could not help comparing the situation to that in Singapore: The Media Development Authority (MDA) recently withheld the license from a local theatre group to stage a play about the execution of a drug courier until it revised some scenes, taking out all references to the hanging of Australian Nguyen Van Tuong. The MDA is also the body that lodged a complaint against the film Singapore Rebel made by Mr Martyn See because it featured Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Chee Siok Chin with Indonesian counterpartsThe participants also met with the chief editor of the most vocal and independent newspaper Oslobodenje. The building is nothing like the SPH state-of-the-art complex in Toa Payoh. The staff of Oslobodenje works out of the remains of its bombed-out facility. Yet, the paper is able to publish two editions a day. The spirited chief editor spoke of how the newspaper remains independent despite the attempts by the state to use the daily to propagate its views.

When Ms Chee asked her if she was afraid that political leaders would sue her newspaper for defamation, she said that this has not happened to her before. Much as self-censorship is practised, the chief editor said that she maintains her journalistic integrity.  This again, is a stark contrast to Singapore’s government-controlled media which serves only to amplify the PAP’s agenda.

Two newspapers in Sarajevo carried news about the workshop. One report carried the headline “Singaporean saw snow for the first time in his life.” Actually the journalist had mistaken the Indonesian for a Singaporean. This raises an interesting observation. While many Singaporeans may have traveled widely and may have experienced snow and consider themselves “modern” and “sophisticated”, most are still naive when it comes to exercising their civil and political liberties.

Many Singaporeans do not seem to realize that unless we have the freedom to question the Government and hold the authorities accountable, Singapore will never belong to the people. Citizens will continue to work to benefit the PAP at their own expense as long as we remain slavish in our attitudes towards the regime.

The sense of pride for the country is artificially instilled with National Education propaganda. How can there be a sense of ownership if Singaporeans are constantly told what to do and all decisions are made by those who wield power? We are constantly led to believe that talent is such a rare commodity in our tiny city-state that we need to pay exorbitant salaries to the top civil servants, especially the ministers. Unless we are able break the shackles of control that the PAP has over our minds, Singaporeans will always be made to feel powerless.

But there is hope. Opposition parties still exist. The Singapore Democrats believe fervently in democracy and the right of Singaporeans to hold the government accountable. We believe that the freedom of speech is the key to ensure that there is transparency in this administration.

Unless the government answers to the people, it cannot act in our interest. The SDP is committed to empowering Singaporeans through bold initiatives and to do this our freedom of expression and assembly must be respected and upheld. This workshop is one of the many training grounds for Singaporean activists.