Cartoonist’s arrest – not just about alleged sedition

By Andrew Loh

The news is all over the Internet now – cartoonist Leslie Chew, 37, of Demon-cratic Singapore, arrested for alleged sedition. Since the news broke late on Tuesday night, the number of “likes” on his Facebook page has jumped by about almost 2,000.

Apparently, officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were waiting for Leslie at his parents’ house on Friday evening, around 10.30pm. Leslie had just returned from an overseas trip. When I spoke to him on Tuesday afternoon, he told me that initially there were just 3 officers, but the number grew to about 10 or more as they started to look through his things in the house. Eventually, they confiscated his handphone, hard disk, laptop, and asked him to surrender his passport.

He was then brought to the police station at Cantonment complex. There, he stayed for the night – in a lock-up, on a hard floor with just a blanket – until about noon the next day. That was when the “interview” took place. Leslie said there was only one investigation officer who spoke to him. The officer, one ASP Alvin Phua, pointed to two cartoons in particular, which are the subject of the investigation and his arrest.

The first one had to do with a possible contempt of court charge. The second one is, perhaps, the allegedly seditious one, having to do with how the government supposedly “suppressed” the Malay community here.

Leslie gave several statements to the police subsequently. He was then asked to call his friends to post bail for him, which was set at S$10,000, he said. He was released on Sunday night at 8.45pm.

Leslie has not been charged. He is required to report back to the police on 30 April.

The news of his arrest was kept from the public because virtually no one knew that he had been arrested. And after his release on Sunday night, Leslie was so tired he slept through the whole of Monday. He said the concrete floor in the jail cell didn’t allow him proper rest. On Monday evening, word got around that he had been arrested.

The news was reported by Yahoo on Tuesday evening and it quickly created an uproar online – with most condemning the authorities for the arrest, and others taking issue with the nature of Leslie’s cartoons itself.

Whether one agrees with his views expressed in his drawings, or with the way he expresses them, or not, what should concern Singaporeans is, firstly, why it took so long for news of such an arrest to be made known. Secondly, how does one inform anyone of one’s arrest? Thirdly, what are the rights, including access to a lawyer, which one has in such an event?

These are questions and issues which Singaporeans – and bloggers and online practitioners, in particular – should acquaint themselves with.

Besides these, there are also other concerns, such as the interpretation of the provisions of the Sedition Act, which has been used in several instances on bloggers and online commentators in recent years, and our defamation laws. What protection does the Constitution provide in terms of free speech and expression?

There may also be questions of the Attorney General’s use of his prosecutorial discretion, a subject which was put before the courts in 2012.

The recent spate of legal action by members of the Government is also disconcerting in themselves. It has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories of a government clamp-down campaign on the Internet.

Whatever it is, it shows a government (and society) trying to navigate the relatively new terrain of cyberspace. How it will turn out may depend on the answers to the questions raised above; and on how much self-restraint the government is willing to exercise, in recognition of citizens’ rights to free expression. The issue of one’s rights will increasingly become more pronounced as Singaporeans assert their desire to express themselves more freely, especially on social media; and the Government reacts in the most familiar ways it knows how.

In the meantime, those like Leslie will continue to push the boundaries, even at the risk of inadvertently running into trouble with the authorities who, for now, do not seem very amused with his cartoons – or at least two of them.

But in that process of testing the limits, perhaps more clarity will emerge on the various aspects and applications of our laws. This latest incident is thus not just about any alleged seditious behaviour. It is about more than that.

Cheering bigotry in the House

By Andrew Loh

When a hate speech is delivered in the august chambers of Parliament, you know something is not quite right.

Yet it did happen. In Singapore. In 2007, during the debate on the issue of Section 377A of the Penal Code. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to that debate recently. So did justice Quentin Loh. Let’s revisit that debate.

Law professor Thio Li Ann, then a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), made an admittedly passionate speech against repealing that section in our law books. Unfortunately, Thio did so by also taking “tasteless digs at homosexual sex”, as academic Dr Cherian George put it.

“Thio also did a disservice to the majority of God-fearing Singaporeans – we who would like to believe that our faiths are ultimately about compassion, not the hateful, hurtful cheap shots that Thio felt compelled to deliver on our behalf,” Dr George said. “How I wished a theology professor or other religious scholar would have stepped into the debate at that point, to show how it might be possible to express a faith-based objection to homosexuality – minus the hate speech.”

What disturbed this writer was not the hate-filled content of Prof Thio’s speech, vulgar and reprehensible as it was.

What was more disconcerting was how her comparison of “homosexual anal sex to ‘shoving a straw up your nose to drink’ was greeted with thunderous applause in Parliament.”

A letter to the Straits Times said, “She peppered her arguments with wit, drawing applause from the viewing gallery and getting many MPs thumping their seats.”

The reaction of the MPs, more than that of the public in the public gallery, must give pause to Singaporeans who would like to see civility and rational discussion and consideration of issues in the highest law-making institution in the land.

One wonders if our MPs are not homophobes – for how could one bring oneself to applaud such a speech?

Be that as it may, it sheds light on the possible (real) reason behind the government’s adamant insistence on retaining a law which many have so eloquently debunked as unconstitutional, nonsensical and a mockery of our legal system. Indeed, the government itself finds the act of consensual sex between two adult males to be harmless that it even promises not to enforce the law.

Which brings one to this – if one were to consider the main arguments of the government for retention of s377A, one is hard-pressed to find any logic behind any of the main reasons.

The main arguments can be distilled to one – that “society” is not ready to move on the matter. This has been the government’s position, reiterated in recent times by various ministers as well.

“I’m not ready to move, and I don’t think a major section of society is ready to move,” then Education Minister Lui Tuck Yew said in 2007.

“If the majority of our population is against homosexuality, then it’s not for the Government to say we are going to force something against the wishes of the people,” Law Minister K Shanmugam was reported to have said in 2009.

“Singapore society is not likely to come to a conclusion on gay rights, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signalled yesterday that the status quo will remain,” the TODAY newspaper reported in January 2013.

“Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it,” PM Lee said.

PM Lee’s argument is a ridiculous one. It implies that we should or could never ever remove any laws because all the laws currently in the books would have “always been there” too. But one would not want to be facetious, like advocating, effectively, governance by populism – which is what the ministers are implying, in fact. It is the very thing which the ruling People’s Action Party has always abhorred. Shall we then rule or govern by referendum, with government departments replaced by survey committees?

But let’s look at this oft-repeated reason offered as argument to retain the anti-homosexual law.

What is this “society” which is often cited? Who makes up this “society”? How do we determine what this “society” thinks?

Of course, no answers to these questions have been given by those who cite “society” as their reason for not moving on s377A. It is a rather mysterious entity invoked to support one’s desires at any one time – “society” somehow seemed ready to accept gambling and casinos, abortion, and even anal and oral sex between heterosexual couples, but this same “society” is invoked again to justify retaining an archaic, anachronistic law – and to criminalise the same anal sex between two homosexual male. [Incidentally, “society” also seems to accept lesbianism.]

The bottom line to all the arguments is that the Penal Code is a set of law which our society lives by, and one which we adhere to, to protect society and to punish those who flout the rules in it.

In short, it is to deal with criminal activities which “must entail harm to others that is recognisable and tangible. In other words, if an act does not harm others, then it should not be a crime,” as then-NMP Siew Kum Hong said, in 2007.

NUS Law Professor Michael Hor wrote in that same year,

“The Government has been strangely silent about the harm that section 377A is intended to prevent. Indeed, consistent statements over a number of years from the highest officials of the land lead any reasonable observer to think that the Government no longer believes, if indeed it did before, that the sort of activity contemplated by section 377A is harmful at all. If corroboration were required, it lies in the repeated assurances of the Government that section 377A will not be enforced – apparently because there is no harm to be prevented, no offender to be rehabilitated, no potential offender to be deterred, and no victim to be satisfied.”

So, what is it that we are criminalising? Thin air?

As for “society” not being ready to move on repeal, MP Hri Kumar said it well in Parliament in 2007:

“Further, while society may frown on homosexuality, that, by itself, does not justify criminalising it. A number of speakers, at least one of them, have highlighted the surveys in the Straits Times where the public was polled and 70% were said to frown on homosexuality. I can understand that. Seventy per cent frowned on it. But how many actually said that they were willing to criminalise it? That question was not even asked, and that is a serious question because that is the issue we face today.”

In February, PM Lee said we should “agree to disagree on gay rights.” If only it were a trivial matter of no consequence, like, let’s agree to disagree that durians are fragrant.

The fact that we had an NMP in Parliament spewing hate speech and fellow MPs reacting with “thunderous applause” and “thumping their seats” in approval tells you that agreeing to disagree is the least of it.

What we should be more concerned with is the insidious homophobia which may already have wormed its way into the House among some of our Members of Parliament. For there is nothing else to call it, given that all other arguments and defence to criminalise the sexual activity of two consenting male adults make no sense whatsoever. Indeed, the government itself admits as much by its pledge of non-enforcement.

For no one who believes in the words and beliefs enshrined in our Pledge would find it conscionable to applaud bigotry, especially when one is also a representative of the people – the very people, or “society”, which one also cites to, in fact, justify that bigotry.

The defence of retaining section 377A thus has nothing to do with whether society is ready to set the law aside. If that were the reason, the issue would and could be easily settled with a national referendum. Nah, “society” is a red herring, a smokescreen, a passing-of-the-buck even, if you will. The real reason has, instead, everything to do with the personal attitudes of our individual MPs toward gay people and the gay community.

And how do we know what their attitudes are?

Just look at those who were cheering the bigotry expressed in Parliament in 2007.

That is what we should be concerned about more – that not a single MP spoke up against that kind of hate speech.

PH Exclusive: Tan Wah Piow – Exile with a cause

By Biddy Low

Who is Tan Wah Piow?

His is a name riddled with such fearful labels by our state’s government and media – exile, rioter; “Marxist Mastermind.” Yet as I sat with him in our video interview, I perceived none of the shadowy demeanour one might expect from a man of his reputation. Instead, he displayed a candour befitting of a free and fearless spirit.

In 1976, Wah Piow, then a young man of 24, escaped to the UK and sought asylum from what he believed was a precarious situation. He had just been released from prison after an 8-month long term. The charges of rioting and illegal assembly were the result of a “frame-up”, he claimed, a plan adopted by the government to make an example of him and subvert a growing interest in social causes among the student body at the university.

“We were supposed to be grateful for the economic success, not do the unthinkable,” he explains in our video interview below. The “unthinkable” in this case was criticizing the ruling party for its past wrongs and stepping in to help with social issues, such as workers’ disputes, something which he felt the union was not actively doing. It was because of his involvement with one of the disputes, which somehow turned violent, that led to his incarceration.

Upon his release, Wah Piow received a letter from the SAF drafting him into the army. This was “highly irregular “, he told us, and he decided that the best course of action was to leave for the UK, where he is safe from a state that has not taken kindly to his defiance. He continues to stay there now with his family, practicing law.

It seems however that he was gone but not forgotten. He was named the “ringleader” of a “Marxist Conspiracy” in 1987, ten years after he had left the country. Operation Spectrum saw the arrest of 22 men and women, some of whom were involved in social activism at the time. The papers then claimed that these men and women were following Wah Piow’s orders in a plan to wrest power from the ruling party and turn Singapore into a Marxist state. It is a claim which he denies and mocks. He was never a Marxist, he laughs. He was an architecture student who was involved in activism for a mere 3 months before he was arrested and made an example of.

All 22 men and women were released after a gruelling process which saw their reputation dragged through the mud by the local press, without them being accorded the right to an open trial to defend themselves.

We met up with the man recently in Malaysia, where he is launching two books, Smokescreens and Mirrors, an updated version of his autobiography “Let the People Judge” and “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”, a compilation of accounts by exiles of Singapore in which he contributed to.

Train announcements in English and Chinese only – SMRT explains

Below is the response from the SMRT to a query by publichouse.sg’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Loh, on why announcements on trains are in English and Chinese only. Some have observed this apparent anomaly and have questioned if the other official languages, namely Malay and Tamil, would also be used in such announcements.

Here is SMRT’s reply:

Dear Mr Loh

We refer to your feedback below.

We wish to explain that we had received public feedback and suggestions to announce station names in Mandarin. Following a review, we decided to adopt passengers’ recommendations as it is a service improvement that would benefit passengers who rely on announcements during their journey.

We had also considered the need for the announcement of station names to be in four languages. During our review, it was clear to us that most station names, when pronounced in English, sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil. Stations names in Mandarin, however, sound different. Take for instance, some examples are as follows:

  1. City Hall, 政府大厦 (Zheng Fu Da Sha)
  2. Somerset, 索美塞 (Suo Mei Sai)
  3. Redhill, 红山 (Hong Shan)
  4. Lakeside, 湖畔 (Hu Pan)
  5. Pioneer, 先驱 (Xian Qu)

In this regard, the announcement of station name in Mandarin will benefit passengers who rely on announcements during their journey.

Other improvements to in-train announcements are the clarity and conciseness of the announcements.

Thank you for writing in, and we wish you a pleasant week ahead.

Yours sincerely

Lynette Sng

Customer Relations

Corporate Marketing and Communications

SMRT Corporation Ltd

Baying for a pound of flesh – and more

By Andrew Loh

Can you take the life of someone, anyone, based on dubious arguments alone? It seems you can, from what our ministers said in Parliament recently on the changes to the mandatory death penalty.

The amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), which Parliament approved, mean that drug traffickers can now be given the alternative sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum 15 strokes of the cane, instead of the death penalty.

This sentence, however, is subject to two stringent conditions, as DPM Teo Chee Hean explained in Parliament in July:

“First, the trafficker must have only played the role of courier, and must not have been involved in any other activity related to the supply or distribution of drugs. Second, discretion will only apply if having satisfied this first requirement, either the trafficker has cooperated with the Central Narcotics Bureau in a substantive way, or he has a mental disability which substantially impairs his appreciation of the gravity of the act.”

These stipulations by themselves raise many questions, some of which have been asked by MPs and which are left unanswered. For example, NMP Lawrence Lien raised an important point about punishment:

“This ‘substantive assistance’ standard is too high, which was also mentioned by Mr Edwin Tong, and has a worryingly strong utilitarian element of collecting better intelligence, and using the threat of death as a bargaining chip. Simply put, whether a person gets a chance to live or not hinges on how useful the offender is to the state in achieving certain ends. I believe the life and death of an offender should not be decided based solely on their utility to the state. Hence, I urge that this subsection be removed.”

One could say that Mr Lien’s point can be taken further to mean that one could be put to death not because of the actual crime one has committed, but because one is unable to provide “substantive assistance” to the authorities.

In other words, you will die not because you trafficked drugs. You will die because you are useless to the State.

The Workers’ Party MP, Sylvia Lim, said:

“The Explanatory Note to the Bill expressly clarifies that information which does not enhance the effective enforcement of the Act ‘will not suffice’. According to this wording, a low-level courier who knows nothing about the drug network will go to the gallows, while another courier who has more information (and is presumably closer to the higher echelons) can escape death. This would be a perverse outcome…

These are unanswered questions which we must deal with. Unfortunately, we seem to have glossed over such problematic issues conveniently by offering the deterrent argument once again. And this is the main argument the Government has presented many times – that the mandatory death penalty is a deterrent to drug traffickers.

“The mandatory death penalty strengthens this deterrent message,” DPM Teo said in Parliament. He then cited the decrease in the number of kidnappings and firearms offences to substantiate his deterrent argument. Strangely, though, the DPM did not provide statistics on the number of drug trafficking activities over the years since the introduction of the mandatory death penalty in 1975. Instead, DPM Teo said “the war is ongoing.”

Even so, it is highly dubious to cite numbers so simplistically to argue in favour of putting someone to death. And especially so when such statistics seem to be used selectively – why cite them for some crimes (kidnappings, firearms offences) and not others (drug trafficking)?

At the end of the day, the fact remains that the deterrent argument is a dubious one. At best, it is speculative. And it being speculative is not a good enough justification for taking someone’s life. Period.

The ministers and several MPs too seemed to have placed much weight on the role of the traffickers. Indeed, their arguments seem to be so entirely weighted against the drug mules that they may have lost sight of an important point – that drug addicts and drug abusers too share the blame and responsibility for the consequences of drug abuse.

In short, no one can force powder up your nose or shoot them into your veins.

As former NMP Calvin Cheng wrote in his letter to the Straits Times forum page:

“The victims in drug offences are unique in the sense that, unlike in many other crimes, the ‘victim’ is responsible for some degree of culpability and consent. As such, trafficking does not warrant capital punishment.”

He also wrote:

“In drug offences, however, the victim makes a decision to abuse drugs – if this were not the case, there would not be efforts to counsel or rehabilitate the victim of drug abuse.

“The families wrecked by drug abusers should as much blame the abuser as the stranger who sold the victim the drug.”

Lastly, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said, referring to victims of drug use:

“We hardly ever hear tears shed in public for these 200,000 who die. But we shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row. Compassion is important, but context is also important.”

Minister Tan Chuan Jin said, on his Facebook page:

“No one cheers for the death penalty nor the mandatory nature of it. I don’t. Nor any of my colleagues.”

“We often shed tears for the trafficker. And debate passionately the humanity of our laws. We often do not shed tears for those who lose their lives to drugs. We often forget the families destroyed by drugs.”

“The crime is trafficking. Let us not forget who the victims are.”

First, contrary to what Mr Shanmugam said – that “we shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row” – in fact the lives and stories of those on death row in Singapore are shunned by the mainstream media here. So, how is it possible for the public to “shed a lot of tears for everyone on death row” when no one knows about them, their families, their stories? Even their executions are not announced. The truth is that those on death row die quiet deaths, away from the knowledge of the public.

Second, Minister Tan is right in saying that we should not forget who the victims are. However, he seemed to suggest that the victims here are only the abusers and their families.

The truth, again, is that the victims are on both sides – the abusers and the mules.

Perhaps if our mainstream media – and our ministers and MPs – delve more into the lives of the drug mules, and help the wider public understand the problem better, we will have a more balanced view of the issue.

What is disturbing is that our parliamentarians seem to have a very skewed perspective at the moment, even stereotypical ones – and at the same time signing off on legislations which empower them to snuff out lives, based on flimsy and unsubstantiated arguments.

And I would like to ask too: why do we require those sentenced to life in prison to also be caned? Why are we so bloodthirsty for our pound of flesh? Are we looking for justice, or for revenge?

“Society should move towards more humane ways of restorative justice,” Mr Lien said, “especially where there is possibility of reforming and rehabilitating the offender.”

Sadly, his seemed to be the lone voice which spoke some sense.

Healthcare is not a commodity, SDP offers alternative

In a time of rising healthcare costs, insufficient hospital beds and an ageing population, Singapore’s healthcare system must adapt to meet these challenges.

The question is, how much change is needed? Does the 3M system – Medisave, Medishield and Medifund – provide enough of a safety net for Singaporeans? With our government healthcare expenditure (GHE) being a third of total healthcare expenditure (THE), the lowest in the developed world, is it possible or necessary to increase government healthcare spending?

Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party says the “fundamental premise of the current system is wrong.”

“Healthcare is not a commodity that you buy and sell in the market,” he tells publichouse.sg. “You’re talking about a situation whereby people, the poor, cannot afford healthcare, many of them stay away from getting treatment, or they delay it, and the consequences can sometimes be literally life and death situations.”

His party has marshalled a panel of doctors to help craft a healthcare policy radically different from the one currently in place in Singapore. Many of these doctors have, in their day to day practice, encountered patients who struggle to pay for medical treatment and who even refuse treatment because they know it will devastate them financially.

The SDP’s National Healthcare Plan ultimately seeks to keep the costs of healthcare low, reversing the trend of rising healthcare costs and profit-driven healthcare provision. The SDP’s proposal is driven by the belief that no one should be refused healthcare on the basis of being unable to pay for it.. Something that so heavily determines our lives should be made available to us as unconditionally as possible.

The publichouse.sg team has created a short video report, which includes an interview with Dr Chee, about the proposal which the SDP and the group of doctors have drawn up. They propose tightening regulation of the private healthcare sector in order to keep costs down, to cut the defence budget and increase its healthcare spending to 70% of the national total healthcare expenditure, to scrap the 3M system and introduce a single-payer scheme managed solely by the government. The goal of these changes is to reduce healthcare costs for everyone and create a more people rather than profit centric system.

Dr Wong Wee Nam, one of the doctors involved in crafting the SDP’s plan, wrote to Health Minister, Gan Kim Yong, in August, to have a dialogue with the SDP on the healthcare system in Singapore.

“Though it has been claimed that our healthcare system provides every Singaporean with good quality and affordable care, we do not think it is good enough,” Dr Wong wrote in his letter to the minister. “We certainly would like to know more about your ministry’s Health Vision 2020 so that together, we could come out with a better plan for our people.” (See here.)

The minister has yet to respond to the invitation.

The executive summary of the SDP’s National Healthcare Plan can be found here.

We intend for this 10-minute video to be a catalyst for us to think about what healthcare policies we want for ourselves, and to spur debate about the pros and cons of different healthcare systems.

Watch the video below and do share your thoughts.

You can also write to us at: webmaster@publichouse.sg.

Fear of associating with the SDP?

By Andrew Loh

For the longest time, associating oneself with an opposition party in Singapore would instantaneously throw up that dreaded feeling – fear. Let alone stepping up and joining and being a member of one. It was the result of years – decades – of fear-mongering by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), led for some 30 years by strongman, Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee’s “hatchet” politics, no doubt, contributed a large part to this aversion towards all things opposition. But times have changed somewhat – and Lee himself is no longer worshipped by the masses, especially the younger set, as the demi-god which some still make him out to be.

His tactics of jailing his political opponents, suing them to bankruptcy, and – with the help of the media which he held a firm hand on – he decimated any remnants of dignity and integrity any of his opponents had in the eyes of the public. All these created a lasting climate of fear – even today.

But slowly, things are changing.

Events in the past 2 years, in particular, show that Singaporeans are no longer as fearful of associating themselves with the opposition as before. Two of these episodes involved the man whom Lee had once declared to be “kaput” (“finished”) in politics – Dr Chee Soon Juan, who was assailed (some say assaulted) with defamation suits, jail time, and virtually torn to shreds by the state-controlled mainstream media.

The first episode indicating that things are changing happened in February of 2011. Dr Chee, faced with a 20-week jail term if he could not pay a fine of S$20,000 after being convicted “on four counts of speaking in public without a permit”, went public to seek help. The SDP launched an online fundraising campaign to raise the amount.

The party urged Singaporeans to contribute to the fund “to keep Dr Chee out of prison so that he is available to lead the SDP during the upcoming GE.” The General Election, as it turned out, was called barely 3 months later.

“This is a historical development in that it is the first time that Singaporeans have rallied together to show such encouraging support for an opposition cause,” the party said in a statement after the target sum was reached.

In September 2012, Dr Chee made an offer to Lee and former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, of S$30,000 to settle an outstanding debt of S$500,000 which was the result of a defamation suit brought by the two PAP men against him. The reason, Chee says, is to be discharged from bankruptcy so that he can lead the SDP, as a candidate, in the next general elections, due by 2016.

Surprisingly, the two accepted Chee’s offer.

Chee, who had recently launched his book, Democratically Speaking, then went on a book-selling endeavour around the town areas to raise the money on 11 September. On 24 September, the SDP announced on its website: “Not only has the target been reached but it was achieved in record time – 10 days!”

“The outcome signals the intense desire of Singaporeans wanting to see the democratic movement in Singapore accelerate and they want to help clear Dr Chee’s bankruptcy,” the SDP said.

“I want to thank everyone who chipped in,” Chee said in his thank you note. “It was a stunning success and it was the effort of the people who showed that they wanted to write the story of Singapore’s Democracy.”

On 27 September, Chee – accompanied by party members and supporters – went to the Insolvency and Public Trustees’ Office (IPTO) to remit the $30,000 to settle his case with Lee and Goh.

“What seemed impossible is now reality,” Chee said after handing over the sum to the Official Assignee.

The success in raising a total of S$50,000 by the SDP is particularly instructive for observers of the political scene in Singapore. It is also worth noting that the first episode occurred before the general election of May 2011, which many described as a turning point for Singapore politics. Perhaps the change actually took place much earlier, within the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.

Perhaps too Lee and Goh realised that the tide has turned and that to reject Chee’s offer would do the PAP more damage than good. Better to be seen to be magnanimous than to be seen to be vindictive and unforgiving.

The politics of Singapore, as many Singaporeans have been calling for, must be gentlemanly.

Whatever the reasons the two PAP men may have had for accepting the offer, what is more important is the change in Singaporeans’ attitude towards the SDP and Dr Chee in particular. Certainly, the party still has some ways to go to reach out to the masses to have wide-spread support, especially with the mainstream media still stubbornly shunning reporting on SDP’s activities. But for a party which had been the target of much of the PAP’s (unbridled) wrath, the support it is seeing is momentous. Such support is not only in monetary terms but also in other ways as well. For example, the party also, for the first time, managed to gather a group of 8 practising doctors to devise an alternative National Healthcare Plan. And in recent times, its public events – such as the forum on Malay issues several weeks ago – saw standing-room only turn-outs.

Associating with the much-maligned party is no longer anathema, it would seem.

Indeed, the party is on the cusp of a new beginning, emerging, as it were, from the crucible of fire which few other parties have gone through. How it will move forward remains to be seen, of course. But one thing is for sure, contrary to what some might think, the SDP is not a spent force. Instead, it is – strangely enough – a breath of fresh air in an arena dominated by the unchanging PAP and the moderate Workers’ Party.

Singaporeans want to be a part of the decision-making process of their country. This much is clear. And if one thinks the idea of democracy resides only within the hearts and minds of the young, Chee’s recent encounter with an elderly lady at Raffles Place, where he was selling his book to raise the S$30,000, tells a different story.

“She came up to me and gave me S$5,” Chee said. “I could tell that she was a cleaning lady because of the outfit that she was wearing. She told me that she couldn’t afford the book but just wanted to help me discharge my bankruptcy. I told her that I couldn’t accept the gift as it was a lot of money for her. It was probably her three meals for the day. She turned to me and told me in Hokkien (a local dialect): ‘I too have a share in our country. You cannot deny me my share. I want to see you succeed. I want to see democracy in our country.'”

Perhaps Chee said it best himself when addressing some people’s perception that he had “learnt his lesson” and that he has “changed”:

“No, I haven’t changed. What has changed is your perception of me.”

In December, Chee will have spent 20 years in politics in Singapore.

Avoiding the fundamentals and going nowhere

By Andrew Loh

It is frustrating to see how the National Conversation initiative is turning out. Bertha Henson describes it as a conversation going nowhere and it feels like it is. From government ministers to our media facilitators, there seem to be u-turns and some dodgy shenanigans going on. In a word, the conversation is emerging as one which is less than honest.

At this point, I am not sure if it is on the part of the government or on some lower-downs who are trying too hard to, ironically, be inclusive.

The man tasked to facilitate this National Conversation, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, was reported to have said, “I don’t think we should start our Singapore conversation on the basis of looking for sacred cows to slay… I don’t think that would be a constructive exercise.”

That sets this NC apart from the previous Remaking Singapore one back in 2002 where sacred cows were explicitly said to be not sacred.

“There will be no sacred cows…there will have to be a systematic willingness to go through all policies and programmes we’re about to embark on,” the minister in charge in 2002, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said then.

It was a view echoed then by Minister Khaw Boon Wan as well.

There seems to be less a willingness to slaughter these cows now.

And then there is the media, particularly Channel Newsasia, which seem to have gone the extra mile in excluding some segments from the telecast dialogue with the prime minister. Bloggers who were initially invited to participate in the session were later uninvited. The reason? Oh, the prime minister had already spoken to some bloggers at the Istana about a week earlier. This is not quite true, actually. The 19 guests invited to the Istana were invited because they had posted comments on PM Lee’s Facebook page. That was what we were told by the admins of PM Lee’s Facebook page.

There was nothing mentioned about bloggers – although there were a few who were bloggers, myself included – but this was not the reason why we were invited, as far as what I was told.

And after Minister Heng himself said that the NC is not a partisan undertaking, when he explained why bloggers and opposition members were not included in the committee, we find that several People’s Action Party (PAP) members were among those in the dialogue with PM Lee on CNA. This itself coming on the back of a Facebook posting by NC committee member, Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Law, who alluded to critics as those who only “cow peh cow bu” (literally, “cry father, cry mother”). In local parlance, it is a derogatory and condescending remark.

If we want a serious conversation, such things must not happen and there must be honesty and transparency. Uninviting your guests is a thoroughly disrespectful thing to do. Period. And this sort of thing cannot but give rise to cynicism and distrust – the very two things which the government must want to avoid.

Trust, especially, is of utmost importance in such a national undertaking.

There must be good faith above all else.

I had called for exactly such a national dialogue in this article for Yahoo back in June. And when it was announced that the government would indeed be embarking on such an initiative, I was surprised (because I didn’t think it really would do so) and was quietly happy – that we would now be able to discuss and debate the real issues.

I also mentioned some areas which we should be talking about – such as in economic policies, media freedom and independence, space for civil society and civil liberties, political and artistic expression.

In short, the fundamentals.

After all, the aim of the NC is to decide where Singapore wants to be in 20 years, and what kind of society we want to be. Necessarily, thus, this would and must start from the foundations – the fundamentals – which would undergird all that we do as a society.

But so far, the NC seems to be focused on the mundane, the issues which we have already been talking about the last few years – public housing, education, birth rate, etc. Nothing wrong with these, except that they come at the total exclusion (for now) of the other issues – civil liberties, the rights of being Singaporean, our economic policies, freedom of expression, freedom of information, etc.

I would like to see, for example, a discussion on what perhaps we should have as inalienable rights which would be enshrined in unequivocal language in our Constitution – protected by an independent judiciary, along with a legal system which is fearless in advocating and protecting these rights.

A Singapore in 20 years, in my view, must be one where the Singaporean is an empowered species – his empowerment protected by the force of law, never to be taken away by any government or power.

That is a Singapore which is worth talking about.

For if we do not grant power back to the people, the people – us, Singaporeans – will forever have to bend over in begging and petitioning the government every now and then for what we want our society to be.

And the danger of this disempowerment is that we the people are at the mercy of faulty and discriminatory policies. These in turn lead to potentially catastrophic consequences for us all – resulting, for example, in depressed wages, crowded public transport, spiraling housing prices, all from one immigration policy which did not come to light until 2 million foreigners were already on our shores.

But I am not naive. No political power will divest control willingly or do so magnanimously.

This is not to say that a national conversation is useless. Instead of criticising it, those of us who care should seize the agenda, put the issues we are concerned about on the table by blogging about it, emailing it to the government ministries and make them public on our blogs, speak to MPs (both opposition and ruling party), organise forums, create a movement.

In short, don’t let the government get away with a superficial, public relations exercise couched as a genuine conversation for change.

There are those of us who want to see genuine change because our country desperately needs it. The government must recognise this as well and be open – genuinely open – to talking about these and even accepting these.

Otherwise, the resulting sentiment, after this one-year of conversation, will be one where more unhappiness and cynicism would have emerged. And this will do no one any good at all.

I, for one, would like to see this NC initiative succeed, truth be told. Not because it will make any political party look good or bad, but because as a citizen of this country, I shudder to think of the consequences for my country if it continued to be led by one party which has shown to be less than capable in many areas in recent times.

But if the conversation is going to trudge meaninglessly along superficial discussions, then no one would want to be part of this – and the government will have to contend with something even bigger come 2016.

For the moment, the national conversation feels like it is indeed going nowhere. And this is not good.

I am against hate speech of all kinds: Sim Ann

The following is a reply from MP Sim Ann to Mrs Lina Chiam’s statement which we published here earlier.

I refer to the letter “Govt should change rhetoric on xenophobia” by Mrs Lina Chiam, NCMP of the Singapore People’s Party.

I believe Mrs Chiam is alluding to my article in the Straits Times, “Of Wrongful Pride and Prejudice”.

First, Mrs Chiam says I should have told readers what I thought of foreigners who use hate speech against Singaporeans. It is clear from my article that I am against hate speech of all kinds, regardless of target. This naturally includes hate speech directed at my fellow countrymen by foreigners.

Second, Mrs Chiam says that “the tenor of online voices is not all hate speech”. I quite agree. My point remains that hate speech is hate speech, and that we all have a choice as to whether to indulge in it. I think we should not. I trust Mrs Chiam will agree.

Sim Ann

Senior Parliamentary Secretary

Ministry of Education and Ministry of Law

MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC

Govt should change rhetoric on xenophobia: Lina Chiam

The following is a letter to publichouse.sg from Singapore People’s Party (SPP) Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Mrs Lina Chiam.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary Ms Sim Ann has spoken of online comments which ‘spew hate and prejudice against individuals or groups’. She urged that we ‘must take a clear stand against hate speech. Abuse of foreigners, or any human being, is not acceptable, whether it is verbal or physical, online or offline’. MP Mr Baey Yam Keng has also asked Singaporeans to reflect on our own actions.

The SPP agrees with Ms Sim that we must disavow hate speech. But there are two major problems with her argument.

Firstly, if she wants to frame her call in moral terms, she should have told us what she thought of foreigners who use hate speech against Singaporeans. But she did not. Earlier this year, the NUS student Sun Xu from China called Singaporeans ‘dogs’, which upsetted many of us. Singaporeans feel that our government is ever ready to lecture us, and yet the government is silent on the same actions from non-Singaporeans. This only fuels the belief that our government offers no sense of protection to Singaporeans.

Secondly, the tenor of online voices is not all hate speech. There are some truths that the government urgently needs to stop sweeping under the carpet. It is undeniable that the influx of foreigners created unrest in the social fabric of Singapore. Yet since last year’s general election, the government has taken every opportunity they have to reinforce their old idea that foreign workers are absolutely indispensible to the development of oureconomy.

The SPP prefers to address the larger issue with sound policy ideas, not by reprimanding Singaporeans misguidedly.

The crux of the matter is that we desperately need to grow our economy without over-reliance on cheap foreign labour. The distinguished former civil service chief Mr Ngiam Tong Dow has recently recommended that the government administer a $100 million fund to aid local entrepreneurs. This is an example of a fresh idea to grow our economy. Perhaps is it time to do a stock take on how much incentives were given to create jobs over the last 10 years – more specifically, how many local jobs were created among thereported job creation figures.

We fear that by playing up the xenophobia card, the government is inadvertently painting a worse image of Singapore and Singaporeans to the outside world than is in fact the case.

The government should change their style of rhetoric, if they are serious about having a national conversation with Singaporeans.

Mrs Lina Chiam, NCMP

Chairman, Singapore People’s Party