Speak up, Vivian!

February 2, 2005
Singapore Democrats

This post is at least a year old. Some of the links in this post may no longer work correctly.

The recent exchange between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and student Jamie Han prompts the question: What took the MM so long?

Indeed, the only other surprising outcome of the episode (one was of course Mr Hans temerity) was that it took almost a month for Mr Lee to clarify the confusion that Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had sown when he called on young Singaporeans to speak up.

Mr Lees response was tired as it was deliberate. The MM chose his words carefully: He challenged the NUS student to form a political party. Why a political party? Why not just get together with peers (form an NGO if one is so inclined) and engage the Government on any issue that one feels compelled to address? And havent we heard all this before?

For decades, the PAP has warned Singaporeans who want to participate in the political process to join or form a political party. The reason is simple: A political party exists to compete for votes during elections and, as a necessity, battles the PAP on its turf a turf that is not only uneven but also one that ensures that every rule and regulation is conjured and contorted to guarantee a resounding PAP victory.

As an astute student of history, the MM is also aware that cataclysmic changes in politics, especially ones that herald openness and democracy, often have their roots in civil society, not political parties. Hence the PAPs anxiety to shepherd its more outspoken critics into political parties. Once there, the party seduces its counterparts by promoting the fact that if one works hard enough (read as going on walkabouts), one can actually win a seat in Parliament.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with working hard and winning seats. In fact, if political parties dont work at the grassroots level, how are they going to know the views and aspirations of the people? And if they dont know what the people want, how can they ask them for support?

The situation in Singapore is a little different. Opposition parties can never, under present machinations, come close to winning even one-third of the seats, let alone depose the PAP as government. Dont believe? Take it from the man himself: “The government will not be blackmailed by the people.” Or roughly translated: the people will not be allowed to vote out the PAP. But how is he going to ensure this? He disabuses, “I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best. We practice it because that’s what the British bequeathed us and we haven’t really found a need to challenge that…But we haven’t found it necessary yet. If it became necessary we should [change the one-man-one-vote system].”

Any questions?

Mr Lee then side-steps Mr Hans response that the Straits Times published only one of the students letters and encouraged Mr Han to start his own publication. Hello, Mr Lee, that was what Mr Han was trying to bring to your attention in the first instance that the newspaper laws in this country make it all but impossible for a free and pluralistic press to exist.

More important, why should the PAP have the Straits Times nay, the entire Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp at its beck and call when the opposition has only its own publication to rely on. And when the newspaper is published, how does Mr Lee propose the opposition party sell it? Every newspaper vendor, mamak shop, and bookstore the SDP has approached to sell its flagship publication, The New Democrat, has refused to do business despite the fact that we offer a generous cut (much more than those SPH gives) for every newspaper sold. The reason cited is always that they are afraid that their licenses as distributors would not be renewed. There have been a few instances where after selling the first batch of the newspaper, the vendors tell us that they have been visited by officers and told to discontinue the business. So much for There is nothing to prevent you from pushing your propaganda…Were not preventing anybody.

What about the Internet, the MM wondered. Again, why must the opposition rely on cyberspace when the PAP corners the entire local media? Again, nice try.

So, weve come one full circle. Actually weve been going round and round for quite a while now. First Mr Goh Chok Tong becomes prime minister and wants to usher in a kinder, gentler society. Then the Catherine Lim and Tang Liang Hong sagas happen. The PAP gave a not-so-kind and not-so-gentle reminder that those who want to engage in politics should form or join a political party. Now Mr Lee Hsien Loong wants a more open society. When a student uses the D-word on the MM (and its not democrat), Mr Lee again challenges him to form a political party.

Dr Balakrishnan should point this out to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. After all, hes young, hes Singaporean and he should speak up.