Democratic Transitions: Not just about waiting for change
By Kirsten Han
In 2006 John Mayer sang, “Now we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it; we just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it. So we keep waiting, waiting on the world to change.”
But if the events of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt have shown us anything, it is that the youth are not waiting any more. Instead, they are now stepping up to the plate and taking things into their own hands.
Of course, a transition to democracy will never happen overnight, and change can come in many ways. For example, P N Balji, the director of the Asian Journalism Fellowship at the Nanyang Technological University, suggested in April 2011 that change in Singapore (my home country) will come – and in fact, is coming – in the form of an “evolution” as opposed to a “revolution” as seen in the Arab Spring .
However, the lack of a revolution does not mean that youth will have any lesser part to play in the transition towards a fully-fledged democracy in their countries. This essay will examine how youth can play a significant role in Singapore’s democratic transition, drawing from recent events as well as my own experiences as a young person participating in pro-democracy activities.
But what is democracy? How should we define this term? It is a question that many have tried to answer, with various degrees of success. For the purposes of this essay, the term “democracy” would refer to a political system where citizens are able to elect representatives to government through free and fair elections. A democracy would also include the protection of civil liberties and human rights such as – but not limited to – the freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of religion and equality before the law.
Background: Singapore and Democracy
Although Singapore claims in its national pledge to be a democratic nation from the time of its independence in 1965, the harsh truth is that it still has a long way to go before becoming a fully-fledged democracy. In 2010 Freedom House listed Singapore as only “partly free” , and the Economist Intelligence Unit categorised Singapore as a “hybrid regime” instead of a full democracy .
While it is true that the country has never actually been a one-party state, it has been commented upon that the deck has often been stacked in the favour of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) . For example, the electoral boundaries are revised during every election. Neighbourhoods are arbitrarily switched from one constituency to another; it is possible for a voter born in 1965 to have lived in three different constituencies without ever having moved! As these boundaries are drawn up by the Electoral Board under the purview of the Prime Minster’s Office – the Prime Minister also being the leader of the ruling party – there have been many complaints of gerrymandering by the PAP to tilt the contest in their favour .
Singapore also has many issues in terms of human rights, civil liberties and freedoms. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 136th out of 178 in its Press Freedom Index. Under the Public Order Act introduced in 2009, “cause-related activities will be regulated by permit regardless of the number of persons involved or the format they are conducted in” – effectively meaning that even a single person could constitute an illegal assembly if he/she did not have a permit for the activity. The only place where Singaporeans can hold outdoor demonstrations without a permit is at Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park, in downtown Singapore – a small park surrounded by surveillance cameras. Such regulations have led Singapore to be heavily criticised by international organisations such as Human Rights Watch .
However, things are changing in Singapore. As noted by P N Balji, there has been a shift in the political consciousness of Singaporeans. 2011’s General Election was the most hotly contested election since independence , and saw the PAP get its lowest vote-share ever, with the number of opposition seats in Parliament tripling from 2 to 6. This led mainstream politicians to admit that Singaporeans would like to have more alternative voices in Parliament and increased engagement with the government , something that has now been dubbed the “new normal” by President Tony Tan . In his first speech after the reopening of Parliament, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to take a “more open approach” to governance , signalling that Singapore might be taking steps – however small – towards more civil participation and political equality to transition towards becoming a more democratic society.
To encourage democracy, join some groups…
Although Singapore does not have the most open or free society, there remain many ways in which young people could become active in the nation's transition towards democracy. In Singapore, a number of political and civil society groups have fought for years to increase transparency and accountability in government and the protection of human rights. These groups provide the perfect avenue for interested youngsters to be more involved in governance and civil society.
For youth interested in direct participation in politics, many of the political parties in Singapore have youth wings, such as the People's Action Party's Young PAP and the Singapore Democratic Party's Young Democrats .
During the 2011 General Election, there were twelve candidates below the age of 30 , most notably Tin Pei Ling from the ruling PAP and Nicole Seah from the National Solidarity Party, making it the largest slate of young candidates ever to stand for elections. The participation of such young people in the elections were seen as a sign of greater political interest and participation from the younger generation, and a commitment from the youth to being part of the process towards greater democracy in Singapore.
However, not all young people would like to be directly involved in politics, and despite a widely-held belief in Singapore, entering politics is not the only way to effect change in a society. For young people uninterested in joining political parties or standing for elections, there are a number of civil society groups representing various issues and causes in which they can participate. These groups might not be directly pushing for a more democratic Singapore, but their existence, along with the advocacy work that they participate in, are an important aspect of working towards a more democratic society where civil liberties are respected and civil society is allowed to flourish.
In Singapore, where civil society has often been neglected or even forgotten, many NGOs and campaign groups are often short-staffed and constantly recruiting volunteers. This means that there is no shortage of opportunities for the youth of Singapore to get involved in civil society.
Young Singaporeans are welcome to join a number of local non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) , Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and human rights organisation Maruah , to name a few. There are also youth-centric groups such as Young Out Here , a group set up by young Singaporeans from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community to support gay rights in Singapore.
There have also been numerous events in Singapore geared towards getting young people involved, such as 'From Student Politics to Real Politics: Youth, Politics & Civil Society' organized by local think-tank Think Centre to encourage young Singaporeans to think more about becoming politically aware and involved .
The government itself has also made efforts to encourage young Singaporeans to take action. Recently, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) supported the launch of 'Be The Change!', an initiative launched to gather ideas from young Singaporeans on how to "make Singapore better" .
Although it remains to be seen how effective some of these programs or initiatives might be, the increased interest of young Singaporeans in local issues is a positive step forward towards more openness and discussion in society, with correspondingly growing awareness and political maturity.
…Or start your own
If unable to find an existing group in which they feel comfortable, young people are always able to start their own. In this day and age, the youth not only have the energy and passion to champion issues, but also the resources and practical know-how to start their own initiatives using the Internet and new media.
For example, I co-founded the group “We Believe in Second Chances” with Damien Chng (then 18 years old) in August 2010 to campaign against the Mandatory Death Penalty in Singapore and to lobby for the abolishment of the death penalty. The group also seeks to encourage more young Singaporeans to speak out on this controversial and rarely discussed human rights issue. The group now has over 10 volunteers, most of who are under the age of 30.
We began by launching the campaign online, starting a blog to keep people updated and using Facebook as a platform to reach out to fellow Singaporeans. Using YouTube, we uploaded videos and made use of Twitter to reach out to other anti-death penalty groups and networks around the world. Once we’d established enough interest, we began to organise offline events such as forums and presentations.
Although the group has not been officially registered as per the Societies Act (so as to avoid potential restrictions from the government), we have been able to operate and campaign both offline and online without interference, even going as far as lobbying Parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers on the issue.
Be part of the media landscape
Singapore's mainstream media – both broadcast and print – are largely state-owned. There is also a prevailing public perception that the mainstream media is government-controlled, or at the very least influenced by and biased towards the PAP .
As the demographic quickest to adapt to new media and emerging technologies, the youth of Singapore find themselves in the perfect position to be part of a changing media landscape, where Singaporeans no longer have to go through traditional mainstream methods such as submitting letters to newspaper editors (and getting the letters edited in ways they may not agree with ) to get their opinions heard. Many young Singaporeans have the high level of education with which to reflect and evaluate pressing issues, as well as the resources to publish their views and participate in active discussion.
With the advent of the Internet, numerous outlets for alternative voices and opinions have sprung up, many of which have high levels of youth participation. For example, The Online Citizen, a website which highlights social issues and provides political commentary (where I served as Deputy Editor until October 2011), has had many young volunteers, even as young as 15 years old. In fact, three out of the four co-founders of The Online Citizen were below the age of 30 when the website was first set up in 2006. In early 2011, The Online Citizen was the first blog to be gazetted as a political association, after the Prime Minister’s Office stated that it has the “potential to influence the opinions of their readership and shape political outcomes in Singapore.”
Apart from The Online Citizen, other socio-political blogs have since emerged on to the scene, such as New Asia Republic and New Nation . Online publications from tertiary institutes such as Kent Ridge Common and The Enquirer have also begun to provide incisive commentaries and reports on local issues. On top of that, young Singaporeans are also setting up their own blogs, or using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to exchange views and share their opinions on politics and civil liberties.
The proliferation of alternative views online have changed the Singaporean public's expectation of news reporting and information, and alternative distribution channels such as those provided by online media have been credited as a major contributor towards forcing the mainstream media to be more balanced in its reportage . With more opinions being proposed and discussed, the mainstream media will feel the pressure to open itself up to different voices and groups, giving them more coverage and attention than they would have previously done.
In this context, the media provides the youth a powerful way to affect change in Singaporean society, opening the country up to a variety of issues that might not have otherwise have been aired. For example, issues such as the Internal Security Act – which allows the government to detain individuals without trial – have recently been brought under the spotlight, and a significant number of young Singaporeans are beginning to take an interest. Similarly, the death penalty has also been highlighted as an issue in urgent need of discussion, where it would not otherwise have received much attention in public discourse.
Obstacles: apathy, laws, families
All the suggestions of political groups, civil society groups and grassroots initiatives mentioned above might project the impression that it is extremely easy for young people to get involved in helping push Singapore towards a fuller democracy.
However, people on the ground might observe that this is not really the case. Singapore youth have often been described as "apathetic", "lethargic" or even "selfish" and "lazy". A regular observer might feel that young Singaporeans tend to be a rather "superficial" lot, caring mostly for shopping and entertainment. To a certain extent, this observation is accurate.
Growing up in the calm period after the upheaval of the Second World War and Singapore's independence, young Singaporeans have never known any other reality. The current government has always been the government in power – Singapore's "founding father" Lee Kuan Yew only just stepped out of the Cabinet after the 2011 General Election, although he remains a Member of Parliament . There is often a sense that the government has things under control, so we don't have to worry about it.
Cliched though it may sound, there is also a climate of fear that exists in Singaporean society. The PAP government has, in the past, used defamation suits and even the Internal Security Act to bankrupt or arrest "dissidents". Strict laws such as the Public Order Act also mean that it is possible for any activities interpreted as “political” -- including assembling peacefully to support a point of view in public -- to result in arrest.
Although observers have commented that the climate of fear appears to be dissipating (especially in the recent election), fear is still very much present, especially among the older generations. Young Singaporeans, therefore, have to also deal with opposition from worried parents and grandparents before they are able to step forward to voice out their opinions.
Therefore, the greatest obstacles in the path of the youth can usually be found at home: individual fear and apathy, as well as anxiety and opposition from family members. If unable to conquer these personal barriers, it would not matter how many opportunities there are for young Singaporeans to participate – they would simply be unable to seize them. The challenge does not come from the lack of platforms and avenues, but the lack of will and determination to make use of them.
The key, then, would be for young Singaporeans to find ways to be empowered, or to empower themselves, to action. For this, they would need to realise that socio-political issues are not separate from their everyday lives, or topics that only the supposedly older and wiser" politicians can address, but issues that they as Singaporean citizens have a direct and immediate stake in. Once the youth discover that they have the right to be active members of society instead of passive observers, they would have both the opportunity and drive to play a major role in Singapore's "Orchid Evolution", our transition towards a greater democracy.
One of the catchphrases of the 2011 General Election was "vote without fear" – a call for all Singaporeans to vote according to their heart, and not out of fear of retribution for making the "wrong" choice. During that period this catchphrase was everywhere: posted on Facebook walls, tweeted to followers, quoted over phone and coffee-table conversations. After the elections, though, the message appears to have been buried once more under the humdrum stresses and anxieties of everyday Singaporean life.
But this message should not be lost, and is vital in any movement towards democracy in any nation. In this essay I have already raised the numerous ways young Singaporeans can easily get involved in local politics, civil society and the media. The opportunities are there for the taking, if only the youth will rise to the challenge.
All they need is to be reminded of that election message: Vote without fear. Speak without fear. Live without fear.