Active Citizenship and Politics in Singapore: Exploring Political Expression and Action

Posted by Dinesh Naidu & Anbarasu Balrasan under Public Forums on 26 November 1999

On Friday, 26th November 1999, Think Centre organised a forum on 'Active Citizenship and Political Participation in Singapore' at the RELC International Hotel. It was the second forum in the "Politics 21" series. The first was held at the same venue on 1st October 1999 entitled "From Student Politics to Real Politics". The presence of a diverse audience of over 70 people testified to the interest of the participants and the draw of the series.

James Gomez, Executive Director, Think Centre, set the informal tone of the session by speaking casually with the audience while waiting for more people to arrive. He circulated, as part of a 'learning exercise', the pink public entertainment licence he had successfully applied for - and the list of conditions that came attached to it. Audience members fingered it as if it was a strange curiosity.

Shortly before the forum was due to start, events took a slightly Kafkaesque turn when one a person from the audience began to inform anyone around him who would listen of his plight of political oppression. Phua Choon Seng, a private tutor, claimed that he was followed everyday and harassed by the Internal Security Department. He said he was seen as a threat by the authorities since he regularly met with local opposition politicians to give them political advice. Many members of the audience, including Mr Low Thia Khiang whom he claimed to meet routinely, smiled indulgently at him, but a few challenged him or asked him questions.

Notwithstanding this detour, the forum proper began at 7.10pm with a short opening address by James. He noted that the culture of self-censorship and risk aversion in Singapore was prevalent. Setting up Think Centre was his way of dealing with this problem by expanding the scope for the study and discussion of political issues in Singapore and the region. James also described the problems faced by the forum organisers in applying for a public entertainment licence and not too recently during his book launch. He said presently the value the public entertainment act is applied out of synch with the vision of Singapore 21 and power of the Internet. He announced that Think Centre will be conducting a feasibility study of how best to review the Public Entertainment Act and to make its implementation relevant for present times. Such a study could then be channelled to the Licensing Division.

Viswa Sadasivan Chairman, Political Matters / International Relations Discussion Group, Feedback Unit Ministry of Community Development

Viswa Sadasivan was the first panellist to speak. Of the three panellists, he was ostensibly the speaker most closely associated with the government. Yet Viswa spoke with refreshing candour of his own scepticism as well as hope based on his personal experiences at the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and the Feedback Unit.

Viswa acknowledged that while there were several valid avenues for active citizenship, official channels such as the Feedback Unit were also viable avenues for citizen participation. However, in order for the existing system to work, citizens needed to give it a fair chance. They also had to posses a degree of patience in any effort to effect changes. Courage was the third quality he identified as necessary for citizens to participate actively and meaningfully in political life. Viswa said that his own trust, patience and courage had not been betrayed - he was still a free man and his attempts to work within the system had shown some promising signs.

At the same time, Viswa spoke of maintaining some scepticism even while giving the system a chance, saying that if the system failed citizens after they had made a fair effort to make it work, then the system would loose credibility, and rightly so. He also cautioned against berating some people as armchair critics. He said we should not expect everyone to become a political activist, arguing that simply talking also constituted a form of political participation and should not be regarded as insignificant.

Kevin Tan President, The Roundtable Assoc. Prof., Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore

Constitutional law expert Kevin Tan was the second speaker of the evening. He began his address by reciting the national Pledge and explaining how our democratic system and fundamental personal liberties were enshrined in the constitution. Yet, due to various structural and historical problems, our possession of these liberties had been diluted over the years.

Kevin argued that, as citizens, we have every right to participate in the nation's political life. He decried the tendency of the political leadership to argue that political activity be restricted to politicians alone. Kevin also noted that there were problems in the way we interpreted the constitutional guarantee of personal liberties. The onus should be on the authorities to provide a reasonable justification for the suspension of these liberties. He cited the problem of the public entertainment licence applications being rejected without any reason give, or societies refused registration, again with no explanation give.

Another problem with the local political culture that Kevin identified was the tendency to dichotomise all players in the political arena as either friend or foe, inside or outside, politician or non-politician, etc…. This was an unhealthy practice that discouraged active citizens from contributing to political life.

Kevin then suggested that non-governmental groups such as The Roundtable helped to demonstrate the existence of legitimate space for ordinary citizens to play a political role. He further argued that it was the responsibility of persons who were better informed of events in Singapore and elsewhere and who had the education and ability to provide some leadership in actively creating more political space and a more conducive climate for political participation in Singapore.

Low Thia Khiang Member of Parliament, Hougang Assistant Secretary-General, Workers' Party

The final speaker of the evening was Low Thia Khiang of the Worker's Party. He argued that the government recognised the increasing sophistication of Singaporeans and their desire for greater political participation. As such, the authorities sought to use more subtle methods to guide and direct civil society in a way that did not threaten its political interests. The PAP believed it was the only force in Singapore that was able to govern society effectively. As such, it was willing to use various means to maintain its hold on power.

He cautioned civil society against co-option by the government, which tended to try and control potentially opposing forces by enveloping them within its fold. Another challenge to civil society was the traditional culture of Singaporeans, which did not foster a climate of critical thinking and independent action. He said that while he supported families, the promotion of family values could be used to try and subsume the individual, thereby suppressing more independent action and participation through various pressures, norms and responsibilities.

Other obstacles facing civil society included the perpetuation of a culture of fear in Singapore. Many people fear a threat to their livelihood if they stand up and speak out, and this leads to self-censorship. The various mechanisms that the government maintained to enforce its control of political life, including the Internal Security Act, provided further disincentives to active citizens. There were also many other subtle ways of controlling the ability of civil society groups to organise activities and interact with the public.

While he acknowledged that participation in official channels and even apathetic non-participation were valid options for some Singaporeans to choose, he argued for the need to go beyond merely providing feedback. The problem with feedback was that, ultimately, decision making power and responsibility seemed to lie exclusively with the government. People need to be able to go beyond contributing opinions to actively canvass for change through peaceful and legitimate means such as lobbying, signing petitions and organising non-violent demonstrations. He also argued that a society that could not act independently and which was always waiting for instruction from the authorities could not be a vibrant and creative one.

Question and Answer Session

After the panel speakers had delivered their respective addresses, the forum was opened to the floor for the customary question and answer session. The exchange was lively, robust and punctuated with some anecdotal political satire. Viswa, openly invited the 'invisible ISD' members and wished they reported back favourably to their superiors. In the session, clarifications were made regarding the notions of civil society and the parts citizens had to play. Ideas were tossed around regarding the ways an individual should engage in the political landscape, and some interesting recommendations were put forward to make active citizenship a distinct part of Singapore's national identity.

S21 and Active Citizenship an Illusion?

The first question put up by Mr. Mohd. Fauzi, a graduate student of politics, was that the concept of active citizenship was a government mechanism that seemed to show itself as responding to civil society but in reality ensured the government ruled the boundaries of comments and ideas in the public space. In response, Viswa agreed that the task of shackling away our cynicism of government aided programmes was difficult especially when seen in the light of our own specific history. However, he claimed that like all plans they must be tried and unless the public puts to test these ideas then we will not have matured as a society. The challenge, according to Viswa, was to be positive and make the best use of active citizenship to help the government in the governance of our society.

OB Markers Revisited

Tan Chong Kee founder of Sintercom, commented that there were still some OB markers installed by the ruling regime to stifle political participation at an individual level. He asked whether it was necessary to join a political party to comment on public issues.

Viswa, argued that, if the fundamental aspect of active citizenship is to be believed than citizens can make comments on political issues without necessarily joining a political party. He contended that OB markers were installed to reduce dissent from the public but claimed that no one should be barred from speaking his/her mind. He claimed that there were multiple paths to influencing public policy and political parties were just one of the many.

Thia Khiang was uncompromising in his attack on the OB markers. He claimed that it was a 'scare tactic' used by the government to stop public discussions on policy issues. He also argued that the government was very successful in creating the 'climate of fear' and that it now faced great difficulty in trying to reverse the situation. But he hoped that the public would use this opportunity to test the sincerity of the government. He said that change has to come from the people.

Kevin responded by claiming that all Singaporeans enjoyed the fundamental right to speech albeit certain condition. Focusing on the question from the constitutional angle, Kevin pointed out that there are no conditions stating that one should join political parties to articulate our views on politics. Therefore, the idea of OB markers is manufactured to construct a platform favourable to the ruling regime. In this sense, OB markers are a political tactic and runs against the fundamental liberties of free speech.

No Unbridled Freedom

Geoff Dow, an Australian postgraduate student, asked whether Singapore was ready for an Australian type political framework where extreme views of Pauline Hanson were tolerated in the name of freedom of speech.

All the three panel speakers resoundingly answered that Singapore was not ready to accept such a framework because it had a different history, political culture and temperament. Kevin summed up by saying that no society could have unbridled freedom and freedom of speech will have to be tempered by the different specific political cultures. However, all three hoped that our own political culture would progress further and that there will come in time in the future certain taboo issues could be discussed in the public forum.

Bicameral Parliament

To a question on the role of NMPs and civil society, Kevin Tan proposed having an upper house in parliament to protect and promote our constitutional rights. He claims that it would be a useful enterprise because it would keep any government in check with regards to constitutional matters, which he believes is the cornerstone of active citizenship. He claims that at present we do not have a sound mechanism to address the abuses of our fundamental liberties and cites the elected presidency as a problematic institution that will have problems protecting constitutional rights. Kevin's idea is quite novel and it is worthwhile to explore this idea further.

Managing Political Risks

A participant working as a broker raised the next issue. He claimed that it is about time Singaporeans took risks in the political scenario and asked the panel why they thought Singaporeans were still being politically 'conservative'. An example of this conservatism was seen when he claimed that upon contemplating joining the opposition, his mother wished that he rather be bankrupted by the stock exchange than the People's Action Party.

Thia Khiang felt that it was important for individuals to take risks in the political scene. He acknowledges the tremendous pressures related to making a political stand in Singapore citing his own personal example of joining the Workers Party. However, he claimed that the need to serve society and to stand up for what you believe in out weighed all other risks.

Viswa, in similar vein, argued that unless one took personal risks than one would never realise the potential outcomes of political engagement. As for himself, joining the Feedback Unit itself was a risk but a risk worthwhile pursuing primarily because at least now he can claim that he tried to make change.

Kevin argued that risk management in the political scenario is the better approach. He claimed that one had to look at the political climate and study the various matrices of political issues before making the jump. However, he claims that even though our constitution protects our political participation there are serious impediments in engaging the general polity due to our own self-censorship.

James felt compelled to comment on this issue as a reference was made to his book, Self Censorship: Singapore's Shame. He argued that unless certain elite groups were prepared to provide alternatives to government policies and campaign for change no number of forums would have the exacting change to active citizenship. In a nutshell, James proposed more action on the parts of all Singaporeans instead of just 'talking' about it. The inertia from action is the prison cell he said we had to escape from.


Daniel Chew, Chairman, Socratic Circle drew the session to a close after a fruitful 3-hour session. The various participants had demonstrated the considerable variety of viable options available to citizens who wish to participate more actively in politics. Each speaker had acknowledged the validity of other avenues, but had also made strong arguments for their particular vision of civil society and active citizenship in Singapore. What they shared, however, was a call to Singaporeans, to stop hiding behind fear of reprimand and other excuses for avoiding the political arena. Citizens who had ideas about the type of society that they wanted should step forward and participate, in an appropriate way, in more public discussions and activities. There was a consensus that recent calls by the government for active citizens should be greeted with a degree of optimism and not complete cynicism. This should be seen as a significant opportunity to open up political debate and activity to more Singaporeans.

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