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The loud chants of “Where were you?” reverberated through the hall at the recently held EGM of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) at Suntec City.
They were directed at the new guard by supporters of the veterans group who were echoing Ms Constance Singham’s questions to Ms Josie Lau about where the new team was when Aware was building up. Even the men who were present joined in.
This set me thinking back to 2001 during the general elections when I was campaigning at a market in Jurong East with Dr Chee Soon Juan. Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong had showed up to campaign for the PAP.
Dr Chee had raised the issue of Singapore’s secretive US$10 billion loan-pledge to Suharto just before the corrupt Indonesian dictator was toppled in May 1998.
Upon seeing Mr Goh, Dr Chee asked him “Where is our money?” referring to the US$10 billion. Mr Goh, without saying a word, pointed to his pocket and waved us away, giving the impression that the money had landed there.
The media seized on the exchange to portray Dr Chee as gangster-like. MediaCorp’s edited footage made it look like the SDP secretary-general was tailgating and harassing the prime minister with the loudhailer.
This was not what happened. We were outnumbered by those in white and drowned out by chants of “PAP! PAP!” Dr Chee had to raise his voice to make himself heard.
Now, fast forward to the Aware EGM on May 2 and the chants of “Where were you?” as well as the heckling of the new guard when they stood up to speak.
Nominated MP Mr Siew Kum Hong defended the behaviour of the old guard’s supporters:
To begin with, I question whether these critics (well, those who are not supporters of the ousted Exco) were even there at all, to see for themselves what had happened. Did they see the way that the ousted Exco had started the meeting? Did they understand the context that contributed to this atmosphere of anger?
Yes, taken out of context these supporters can be made to look and sound like hooligans. I have worked with the broadcast media in Singapore. With clever editing, things can be made to look very different from what actually happened on the ground. It wouldn’t be difficult to make those jeering and booing at the Aware EGM look thuggish and completely out-of-line.
Mr Siew put such behaviour into perspective by citing some of the irregular developments on the part of the organisers that took place at the meeting such as blocking his right of way, turning off microphones, threatening to evict participants, etc:
Those who criticise the behaviour of our supporters miss the point. They overlook the nature of such EGMs, which are invariably contentious affairs with emotions running high. They buy into the myth of an orderly debate, which simply does not exist when the ground rules are unfair and stacked against one side. They ignore the important role of passion in advocacy, blindly emphasising rote obedience of rules while missing the positive aspects of passionate advocacy.
So no, I will not apologise for the behaviour of our supporters. Instead, I am proud of this rare display of passion in public discourse. Indeed, I only wish that we see more of such passion in future. (See here)
Straits Times’ Ms Sumiko Tan also tried to portray those who shouted at the new exco team negatively, describing the behaviour as “disturbing and disquieting.” An Aware volunteer replied to the columnist:
If Ms Tan expected 3,000 people in these emotionally strenuous conditions to sit like sheep and make polite conversation, then obviously she had not thought through the gravity or extent of the event. (See here)
Now compare this to what the PAP does to the opposition. It doesn’t just turn off mics. It prosecutes and jails, sues and bankrupts its opponents. It does as it pleases showing absolute contempt to the Constitution and the principles of the rule of law.
Under these conditions is orderly debate possible? Are ground rules fair? Are we sheep or citizens?
Yet when Dr Chee displayed his anger at the non-transparent and non-accountable way the Government handles our reserves, he was condemned by the PAP and its controlled media. Unfortunately, many Singaporeans believed them.
Through the decades, the PAP has drilled it into our heads that any show of passion especially in the political realm is dangerous. We are not supposed to get indignant, we cannot demonstrate our unhappiness with the Government. We are supposed to passively absorb everything that the Government tells us and totally submit to its will.
If there are lessons we can learn from the Aware episode it is that passion and anger in politics is not taboo. In fact in an authoritarian system such as the one we have here we need to stand up boldly – and loudly – in order that we may not be bullied and cowed into submission.
There is such a thing called righteous anger.
Mr Ambalam is the chairman of the Singapore Democrats.