Citizens of Singapore, Hear Your Rights!

Posted by Melvin Tan under Public Forums on 23 June 2001

The report of the forum on "Citizenship Education: You Have the Right!" held at the Young Womens' Christian Association (YWCA) building on Friday, 22 June 2001.

"Citizenship Education: You Have the Right!" was the theme of this forum. The first public event since the "Save JBJ" political rally at Yio Chu Kang, Think Centre is at it again, this time calling upon Singaporeans to educate themselves concerning their individual rights to create a vibrant political society.

This was also the first time a forum organised by Think Centre had more of its members. 3 out of 4 panelists were from the Centre itself, signifying that it has after two years successfully institutionalised and groomed its own pool of leaders in political activism.

The slate of speakers included Executive Director Sinapan Samydorai who was also chairperson, Senior Director James Gomez, Deputy Communications Tan Kong Soon and Steve Chia of National Solidarity Party (NSP), each of whom shared their own experience within their respective fields of work. Apart from Samydorai, the speakers were all National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates and had at one time served office in NUS Students' Union (NUSSU).

The strength of the audience was at a comfortable 20, including media personnel. It was largely a young crowd. Other members of the "Think Team" were also present to provide logistics support.

Tan Kong Soon
Deputy Communications, Think Centre

Kong Soon has organised many forums during his NUS days, but his most distinguished feat was his involvement in setting up a Speakers' Corner in the University grounds. Before he put forth the idea, he said, the NUS administration office was not encouraging in tone. In addition, his peers added to the gloom, telling him not to "waste his time".

Not long after, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced that a Speakers' Corner would be established in Singapore at Hong Lim Park. And while this stunned critics in NUS, Tan reopened talks with the administration office and pushed through the Speakers' Corner idea.

He said the lack of creativity in Singapore was apparently behind the weak political culture, and after the government discovered this, they now tried to do a reverse. Whether it was too late on the government's part, Kong Soon challenged the audience to form their own conclusions.

One of the things he noted was the disintegration of 3-tier generation families. Thus, today's younger generation does not have many exchanges with their old generation. The grandparents could have passed on many values to them, as they lived in the times of the 50's and 60's where there existed a vibrant political society. Instead parents are today discouraging their children from "embroiling" themselves in politics, not realising that this was removing the sense of national responsibility in them which was important to Singapore.

Using his own situation as a classic example, he said that his mother vehemently objected to his involvement with Think Centre at first, and it was only after sometime before she was comfortable as long as her son did not "overstep the boundaries". In short, Kong Soon said that the entire nation had a distance to go in learning to accommodate alternative views.

James Gomez
Senior Director, Think Centre

The Senior Director needs no introduction. Often finding himself the lone person to speak up since school days and adding with a comical touch that he faced detention thereafter as often, the "controversy-prone" political activist was skeptical that "Citizenship Education" was the way to a vibrant and progressive society. In his recent drink-driving case, which was published in every paper in Singapore, he never knew his rights while being handcuffed. All he was told threateningly was to adhere to certain regulations while in court.

He related his story in 1996 when he was part of a civil-society initiative named "The Working Committee" (TWC), and discovered that many avenues of civil society were often attempting to keep apart the role of "civil society" and "political society". To try and find some methodology and direction for TWC, it launched a conference initiative and brainstormed possible speakers in the likes of Claire Chiang and Dr Kelvin Tan. After Gomez raised the name Dr Chee Soon Juan as a possible panelist, members of TWC showed self-censorship and found all sorts of excuses to reject the proposal, even challenging Gomez to form his own private function. This was when he realised that the problem in Singapore was extremely acute.

Gomez said it is impossible to attain total consensus, but he believed that in the context of Singapore politics, groups should try to co-exist. Since that episode, he has taken the "W" out of TWC and formed TC (Think Centre) with David Foo (the Centre's U.S. Correspondent), whom he met when both were members of PAP.

Returning to "Citizenship Education", Gomez felt it was more important to focus on "Citizenship Action". At the risk of creating another possible controversy, he asserted that the role of an opposition was important. He was looking into the possibility of at least one GRC for the opposition, and examined his personal role to advance this cause. Concluding his speech, he said "to have human rights, you need power and simply talking is not going to work". Which means of course, none other than - action.

Steve Chia
Secretary-general, National Solidarity Party

Chia began by saying he was honoured for being given him a second opportunity to speak at a Think Centre forum. Chia was a speaker at the Centre's first Politics 21 forum entitled "Youth, Politics and Civil Society".

Before the forum, Chia read up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), something he had never done. He discovered there were indeed many abuses in Singapore, and under PAP for so many years, some rights have been trampled upon.

Quoting a few Articles from the UDHR, he said many of PAP's actions were not in accordance to the UDHR. For example, they believed some humans were more equal than others were, even mooting the idea of some with two rights (votes) and some with one right. The recent e-voting policy conditioned overseas Singaporeans to fulfill a two-year residency requirement while government scholars and civil servants were exempted. Politicians were subjected to arbitrary arrest or harassment. Chia singled out Chia Thye Poh as someone who was detained before he himself was born till the time he graduated from University.

The only Article he felt PAP adhered to was Article 12, which stipulated "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon him, his honor and reputation". However, he said it applied to PAP politicians only, while opposition politicians had their privacy intruded upon and "skeletons" searched for in their closets.

Taking examples from political leaders round the world like Suharto and Saddam Hussein, he rounded up with a familiar phrase, "Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely". He said the future under PAP cannot be guaranteed and Singaporeans must safeguard it by strong opposition.

Sinapan Samydorai
Executive Director, Think Centre

Samydorai, the expert of human rights, smoothly applied wide concepts of basic human rights into Singaporeans' daily lives. The former Programme Co-ordinator of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said that respect for human rights was the core of everything, as it will eventually lead to the respect of rule of law and care for fellow human beings, regardless of gender and class.

Citing the example of the role he plays as head of the household, he does not practise slapping his children for talking on the dining table or if they reiterated their own arguments, although his own father would have done so. Samydorai himself felt it was an easy but not sustainable way. Instead he engages his children, however young, on issues to get them to think.

Samydorai put forth a few essential questions to engage the participants. Firstly, there were some repressive laws in Singapore but is it necessary for any government to use them to govern effectively? Secondly why were human rights not an educational curriculum in Singapore schools?

The system in Singapore and the resistance against a paradigm shift, he said, was also contributing to the "men lead, women follow" belief among Asian families. Nowadays, it was common to have men playing house-husband roles while the wife earns the bread. It showed that tradition cannot be used to carry out ill practices as exacted by many Asian governments. The quickest way to destroy the young was to push through an authoritarian style of governance.

In addition, Samydorai stated that economic growth was important; nevertheless it was not ample to ensure equity and social progress. Singaporeans often went for short-term gains, neglecting society's well-being and instilled with fear by "fear-mongers" around. He added he was proud of the fact that the "Think Team" was made up of volunteers and did not earn a single cent for their work and commitments to Think Centre, exhibiting a certain level of hope for Singapore. There was slight applause in the room (slight because participants felt they could do no better?).

In this retrospect, he questioned why PAP came up with Singapore 21 and "Active Citizenship" when they were unwilling to share power even with civil society actors. When Think Centre organised the "Save JBJ" rally, they were told to apply for so many permits. Fortunately the Centre's Public Affairs, Jacob George, took care of it. The police was not to put on a menacing front against citizens. Instead both the police and the citizenry had their own roles and responsibilities. He felt that it was time to rid all the bad habits of the Singapore society and system.

Question and Answer Session

Yaw Shin Leong, a director of Think Centre started the ball rolling to ask Chia how NSP would apply the UDHR to his party manifesto. Chia replied that principles of the UDHR were indeed relevant in Singapore. The hegemony of PAP facilitates their trampling upon human rights and getting away with it. In contrast, NSP practises a lot of democracy within the party, and what they seek to achieve is to enter PAP's territory and distill some power away from them. But for this to happen, they will need the mandate of citizens.

Seated among the audience, a middle-aged man who re-newed his membership for another year with Think Centre recently, lauded the Centre for doing a good job and welcomed Gomez's entry into the political fray. However, he felt if Gomez should join a party, the Centre should not rush into politics and stand for elections. Gomez said while he founded Think Centre, the Centre's direction laid with Samydorai and his colleagues in Think Centre. But he sensed from his own observations that they were not interested to turn the Centre into a political party, and believed the Centre will remain where it is - a political NGO - for years to come.

Ian De Cotta and Ng Boon Yian of MediaCorp's Today asked Gomez to elaborate on his possibility of standing for elections. Gomez replied that there are many considerations. Firstly, as a former PAP member, he had learnt that his membership may not have lapsed although he didn't pay his subscriptions for a long time. In addition, he was a member of The Roundtable and one of the advisers to the Singapore MediaWatch Community. Even before putting himself up as a candidate, he said, there is already so much paperwork. It was not as easy as many people thought and there are other complex factors which need to be considered. The only silver lining, he said, was that his mother had given the green light which drew laughter and applause from the audience!

Anbarasu Balrasan, the Centre's web Editor-in-Chief, directed two questions at Chia - firstly, how democratic the newly-formed Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) led by Chiam See Tong was in comparison to NSP whom Chia earlier said was "democratic". He had heard SDA was not so democratic after all. Secondly, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and Workers' Party (WP) were very important in the opposition and he asked why they were not part of SDA. Chia replied that SDA was formulated on the basis of many arguments, questions and consensus-building to find a common understanding. As for Balrasan's second question, he said he was interested in the idea of SDP and WP joining SDA, but the decision laid with SDA leaders - SDA Chairman Chiam and Singapore-Malay National Organisation (PKMS) President who was the SDA Secretary-general.

Huang Seow Kwang of Workers' Party (WP) commented that when he was asked what the opposition was doing for Singapore, he replied that opposition "did not come from the moon". They are Singaporeans who were born in Singapore and what kind of opposition in Singapore depended on what kind of Singaporeans Singapore had. This seemed to me an echo of Low Thia Khiang's remarks at the WP AGM last month.

A lady in the audience said Think Centre should find ways to reach out to more people. Samydorai replied that the small turnout may be attributed to the short time frame and added that the Centre will plan about 2 months ahead for future forums.

Another member of the audience suggested Think Centre should look into forming a working relationship with student organisations in Singapore Universities. Samydorai felt it was a good proposal. However, Tan replied that it was not Think Centre who did not want to tie-up with them. He raised a controversial incident in NUS where members of two political societies (both which he was a member of) called upon it to remove their web links to Think Centre's web site after it carried the April Fool's joke, showing how intolerant Singaporeans were of deeper politics.

Conclusion

The content expounded in this forum by the speakers was in totality the best among Think Centre's forums so far, exceeding even the Politics 21 series. Discussion on Citizenship rights envelops definite broad perspectives and even broader perceptions that connect to the man-on-the-street. Many aspects and angles manifested to be analysed and ameliorated by both panelists and members of the audience.

All I can say, in my capacity as a participant of this forum, is - if there is another forum by Think Centre anytime soon, Singaporeans ought to attend and see for themselves! Do not just listen to me. And to those who fall under the Politics of Categorisation, i.e. civil society groups are either with "PAP" or "opposition", this forum is neither the usual PAP-whacking (at least not in the normal context) nor anything else. Instead the forum extrapolated and explored, layer by layer, many of Singapore's problems by use of real cases and real life examples.


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