The non-violence way to change Singapore

March 22, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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On 20 Jan 2005, a representative from Non-Violence International, Southeast Asia (www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia/), was invited by SDP to conduct a training workshop here in Singapore on the use of Non-Violence methods in bringing about democracy in Singapore. One of my friends who attended the workshop together with Dr Chee Soon Juan and company, waxed lyrical about the trainer, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, who was described as truly inspiring and thought provoking. Since I missed the benefit of attending the workshop and I SERIOUSLY doubt the local media will report on this event, I contacted the trainer, Yeshua and managed to conduct an interview with him as a columnist with New Sintercom. I am hoping to help spread his sage advice on bringing about change in Singapore through non-violent methods.

Note : For those interested in finding out more about what Non-Violence International (SEA) does or those who wish to make contributions to this non profit organization, please do not hesitate to contact Yeshua at seasia*at*nonviolenceinternational.net. You can also find contact details of Non-Violence International (SEA) at www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia/contact.htm

Interview on 8 Mar 2005

Q : Can you give us a brief introduction of Non-Violence International and what it does?

A : Non-Violence (NV) International is an organization seeking to move ahead the understanding and the use of NV methods in human society. We do this in a variety of ways, we have training programs, we have research in ways in which NV has been used, where we analyze and disseminate the results of the use of NV methods. These are the activities which we carry out. Sometimes we are also asked to give advice to certain organizations.

Q : Can you tell us a bit about yourself, for example, what got you started in NV International?

A : I personally have a long history of pacifism or non-violent activism. I was old enough to be conscripted in the United States for the Vietnam War and I refused to do my military service and I had to suffer a number of consequences for that but not nearly as many of the consequences that the Vietnamese people had to suffer. Ive also been a political prisoner several times of the United States government because of my opposition to US foreign policy issues.

Q : What projects are NV International currently pursuing in the region?

A : NV International is currently involved in many projects. For example, we have a program which is pushing ahead the concept of a nation-wide ceasefire in Burma. In Burma, there is a variety of armed groups in conflict with the ruling military junta and a number of these groups have agreements, we term as non aggression pacts with the junta which essentially means I wont attack you for now. However, sometimes these pacts are termed internationally by the media as ceasefires. But, if you examine these non-aggression pacts, they are not ceasefires a ceasefire is a very specific first step which calls for an end to fighting before a comprehensive peace accord takes place. It has certain protocols, for example, soldiers have to be cantoned in camps and communications to the opponents before any troops are moved. There are also other protocols like a non-build-up clause in a formal ceasefire. None of these protocols are in effect in Burma but yet many times when the media report on the Burmese situation, they mention about the ceasefire in place. Such reports do a great disservice to peace because when people have the misconception that there is a ceasefire in Burma, they will be unwilling to commit resources to bring about a true peace through tactics like a non-violence movement. So Non-Violence International is educating people on what is actually a peace process.

Q : What is your impression of Singapore and Singaporeans? Can a NV movement be initiated in Singapore?

A : I dont see why a Non-Violence movement cannot be initiated in Singapore. I am always impressed by the Singaporeans I meet. Singaporeans are extremely pragmatic and practical highly educated, very articulate and well-spoken. I believe that if anyone can wage a strategically organized non violent movement for an expansion of civil rights, it should be the Singaporean people. However, of course, they are under the thumb of a very controlling government which sees any opposition to its policies as tantamount to lawless behavior. When the authorities have such an attitude, it makes it very difficult for people to organize themselves as it is a highly repressive atmosphere. But I certainly have no doubt that the Singaporean people certainly have the personal capacity to wage a strategic non-violent campaign.

Q : Recently you conducted a NV workshop in Singapore, can you tell us more about the workshop you conducted?

A : I was invited by a group in Singapore to introduce them to the concepts of Non-Violence. Essentially these concepts are unknown in Singapore, not taught in the education system and the newspapers do not give information to think in such ways. So I was invited to conduct an informational workshop to address what exactly is non violence, how do people use it, how have people used it in neighboring areas, what has been the results. The workshop was primarily for education and such education is always the first step. If you want change, such education is always the first step.

Q : Do you think such workshops can spark awareness among Singaporeans of the political choices available to them?

A: Sparking awareness of the political choices available to Singaporeans is done through education, training workshops allow you to develop methodologies to pursue the goals that youve defined for yourselves.

Q : What is your impression of the Singaporeans who attended the NV workshop?

A : As Ive said, Ive always found Singaporeans to be highly educated and articulate and the workshop that I conducted in Singapore reinforced my original impressions of Singaporeans. Participants were asking highly intelligent questions, like for example, how can we apply Non Violence in the Singapore situation there were many such questions. Participants were also intrigued with the idea of moving forward through using such concepts. Of course, the participants saw great impediments for themselves but they were excited to try the methods of non-violence.

Q : What groups in Singapore society do you think are most suitable to spearhead any kind of NV movement in Singapore?

A : Well, youths should be the primary target group to lead a non-violence movement in Singapore, youths are always out there, excited to try new things, and theyre more open to change than anybody else in society. Theyre more willing to take risks and they have less to lose when they take risks so youths should always be the key group. If you want to bring about change in society, you should involve women as a group as well. Women should be another key group to bring about change. So if I were an activist in Singapore seeking to effect change in society, these are the two groups I would focus on.

Q : The Singapore government always cites security as an excuse to clamp down on activities which threaten them, so what kind of NV tactics can be used to counter this?

A : Non Violent tactics usually look to persuade either the opponent elite that you have a problem with their policies or practices and it also seeks to persuade those who support the opponent elite. So the goal for Non-Violent activists in Singapore would be to dramatize injustice where it is happening. Yes, you must dramatize the injustice because there is a certain amount of passive acceptance in Singapore today of a certain level of injustice. So the goal of the NV movement in Singapore to bring about a creative tension in society by dramatizing that injustice and which leads to a lack of support for the policies of the current ruling elite. And they will respond to that in two ways : either be more repressive or change. These are the only two options they have. And all elites will at one point opt for change if the movement goes on long enough because the repressive policies will become counter productive or too socially costly. When you dramatize a situation, you bring about a challenge to their legitimacy, challenge the way things are and they are left with only two choices : either react repressively or change.

Q : When you mention dramatize, is it like the anti-globalization protests in Seattle or other Western countries?

A : If you look at Seattle, the media only showed hotheads burning tires and throwing stones when in fact the movement was a massive number of people doing non violent actions and making people aware of the injustice and inequities of globalization. Those involved in violent actions were only a small minority of a few hundred compared to the thousands who were performing non-violent actions. As far as the Singapore government is concerned, those minority involved in violent actions becomes reflected as the whole movement which is not true. The government only wants you to believe that because they do not want people to use the power of non-violent change. And many governments in the world will similarly portray it that way.

Q : Do you think such protests are possible in Singapore?

A: Large demonstrations can occur only when the social context allows it, for example, when a very large group of people disagree with a certain policy. In Singapore, for example, if you call for a demonstration today against some policy, probably five people will turn up. You will have to use the right method at the right time

Q : Must a non-violent campaign or movement be led by a popular person? For example, Dr Chee Soon Juan?

A : It never hurts to have a charismatic leader to lead a non-violence movement. For example, the Dalai Lama in Tibet is an enormous bonus for Tibetan activists because he is extremely articulate and he is a Nobel Peace laureate. They gain enormously from that. However, sometimes his actions overshadow the ordinary non violence actions used by Tibetans in exile and those in Tibet. A popular leader does have some opportunity cost but a movement usually benefits in terms of profile by having a charismatic leader. But many movements dont have such leaders and I do not see one charismatic leader in the short term emerging in Singapore.

Q : Is Non-Violence International aware of the situation in Singapore? Can NGOs like yourself effect pressure on the Singapore government if and when oppressive tactics are used against any NV movement mounted in Singapore?

A : We can respond to requests like for example, conducting the training workshop mentioned earlier. We do not usually organize campaigns targeted against a country government. However, we do take part in campaigns like the anti-landmine campaign where we lobby and pressure the Singapore government to change its landmine policy as it is one of the few remaining countries in the world which manufacture anti-personnel landmines. The Singapore government claims it does not export the landmines and if it is true, they should have a formal legal law against exporting such weapons which is available for public examination and debatable in Parliament. The current situation is that the export of landmines seems to come out from some decree in the depths of the government machinery which no one knows. So at this level, NV International is part of a campaign that is revealing a policy in Singapore that should be redressed.