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Chee Soon Juan
In a previous
post, I talked about the need for civil society and the opposition to persist in the struggle for democracy even though our efforts may not yield immediate and unqualified success.
For some, however, democracy is an airy-fairy word used in esoteric arguments, far removed from the people’s main concerns of daily-bread issues as well as the ground realities of campaigning for office. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Democracy is the mechanism that Hong Kongers used to stop the introduction of the GST in the territory, it is the system through which the Japanese kicked the inept and corrupt LDP out of power, and it is the means by which the Malaysians managed to break the BN’s grip on power.
It will be the tool that we in Singapore will need to get more opposition MPs into Parliament.
At present, we don’t have that tool. We don’t have that system that allows the opposition a fighting chance at the polls. Contesting elections once every four or five years without a fair elections system, a free media and a functioning civil society is not going to get us anywhere. It hasn’t in half-a-century.
From all sides
We need to fight the PAP on more than one front. We must, to use the analogy of warfare, employ a variety of approaches to overcome our opponent: outflank the enemy, drop behind their lines, use aerial assault, etc.
Fighting elections on the PAP’s terms without doing anything else is to launch a direct frontal assault – and only a direct frontal assault. The PAP simply lays all the booby traps and landmines, fortifies its position and then signals for the opposition to charge.
It doesn’t have to guard its rear, its flanks or over its head. And when the opposition starts the charge, the PAP picks us off one by one. It’s easier than shooting fish in a barrel.
Does this mean then that the opposition should not participate in elections? No.
What it means is that we cannot rely exclusively on elections to bring about political change.
In addition to contesting the elections we need to fight the PAP on other fronts, one of which is to campaign for the rights of our freedoms of speech and assembly to be restored. There will come a time where we will have to exercise these freedoms to bring pressure to bear on the Government to make the elections genuinely free and fair.
The PAP knows this and it is why it introduced the Public Order Act. It is why it and its surrogates continue to denounce activists as troublemakers and extremists out to disrupt public order in Singapore. It is why it goes out of its way to prosecute persons who conduct peaceful protest walks.
The activist front
The nonviolent action campaign conducted by my colleagues and I is not borne out of impulsive passion or angry desperation. They are a result of a careful review of what strategy works and what doesn’t.
I am gratified to note that recently Yale University political scientist Dr Ellen Lust reinforced this view in her
analysis which showed that:
Elections in authoritarian regimes not only fail to push the transition process forward, but tend to strengthen the incumbent regime. They create political dynamics that undermine public support for institutions and individuals associated with democracy. (emphasis mine)
Citing examples and statistical evidence Dr Lust cautions against expecting that legislative elections will foster democratization, adding that
Supporters of democracy should thus focus on changing the overall playing field rather than just the electoral process.
I strongly encourage you to read or, if you already have, re-read Dr Lust’s analysis here. Although the focus of her research is the Middle East, I am sure readers will be struck by how applicable her observations are to the situation in Singapore.
The results of our nonviolent action campaign may be small and slow in coming. But no one can gainsay that the needle has shifted. Just a few years ago, talk about protests and marches was taboo. Then the Speakers’ Corner was established, then there was an acknowledgement by the Government that Singaporeans wanted more freedom to protest, then demonstrations were allowed at the Speakers’ Corner, and now a judge has acknowledged that a protest march does not automatically mean that it is illegal (the AGC’s appeal notwithstanding).
The truth is that we need to keep up the work of clawing back our political freedoms. Why? Because we don’t have a choice.
Working the ground
But even as we continue to work on the activist front, I want to assure everyone that we will not neglect elections. We will put in to our election campaigning the same kind of single-minded energy and determination that we have put in to this website to make it what it is today. (And we have not stopped expanding this portal yet.)
In fact, we are deep into our campaign on the ground. The reports about our walk-abouts, the sales of The New Democrat and the distribution of flyers in the various constituencies are taking place not only on Sundays but throughout the week.
There is a place and time for everything. Now is the time for us to intensify our efforts to reach out to the people on the ground. In the weeks and months ahead we will step up our visits to the constituencies.
To be sure, pounding the streets and interacting with the people is backbreaking work. But it is necessary work. As necessary as the work of campaigning for our freedoms. For democracy.