‘The only boundaries that we have for self-expression are only the ones we set for ourselves,' says artist and activist Seelan Palay.
‘The police asked me for a permit, warned me and told me to disperse. But I am only fasting, why should I need a permit? They said it was under some public entertainment licensing law, and I said I was not here to entertain anyone.’ (TODAY)
While Singaporeans were celebrating the arrival of New Year’s Day 2008, one other Singaporean was just beginning a five day fast in support for five Malaysians who had earlier been arrested and detained in Malaysia.
Artist and activist Seelan Palay camped himself outside the Malaysian High Commission building in Singapore from 31 December 2007 to 5 January 2008. He was calling for a fair trial for the so-called Hindraf 5.
I met Palay over lunch in a restaurant in Woodlands to try and get some insight into the man behind the public persona. During our conversation, we spoke about activism, the SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, and why he is also an animals’ rights volunteer.
A vegetarian for seven years, supporter for the Vegetarian Society of Singapore and Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES), Palay’s activism is borne out of a personal conviction and goal to, as he put it, address his personal life philosophy, rather than any lofty political agenda.
Although just 24 years old, he’s been an activist for seven years.
Below is the transcript of our conversation.
Why are you involved in activism?
I believe that humans are generally not born evil and with ill intention. The conditions that lead to them becoming bad or irresponsible with their bodies or their freedom or their minds are a mix of conditioning and experience. No child is generally evil too. No such thing.
I believe that humans should be free, to interact in an honest way and openly express how they feel and their ideas. [This is because] I feel that when they suppress these kinds of emotions and ideas that’s when it leads to an implosion. Other than your mental health being affected and your emotional health, as a being, as a [social] animal, you won’t be very happy or as happy as you can be.
When I get involved in these kinds of civil actions, I am just blessing that idea, that lifelong philosophy that I already have. I’m just being natural. They create laws to stop us from assembling and speaking but as [social] animals we can assemble and speak whenever we want. If we were in the forests of Papua New Guinea, we would be just a tribe and we would be able to assemble and speak whenever we want.
Any laws that are put in place are usually in accordance with the interest of a certain group of people. In the Singapore case, I think these laws restricting the freedom of speech and assembly are to propagate the interest of a certain group of people who wants to stay in power or a certain man and his family who want to stay in power. I’m just addressing the philosophy I have with all the actions that I do. In fact, I’m not trying to be a role model. I’m not trying to set an example and I’m most definitely not interested in leadership. That is why when people ask me why haven’t I joined a political party, and the Workers’ Party asked me before, I said no. The SDP never even asked me, which is good of them [because] they understand where I’m coming from.
Like I said, the goal is to address my life philosophy.
Do you see civil society as complementary to mainstream politics? Or do you see them as mutually exclusive or even contradictory?
To begin with, not many people come out and express themselves freely. So, for now, I’d say that Singapore is in a stage of infancy when it comes to activism and organizing and things to do with protesting, public civil action. This is a new infancy because we already had all that when people like the Barisan Socialis were trying to get [Singaporeans] together. All that died down after the PAP came into power and Lee Kuan Yew put them all in jail.
I personally don’t care if it’s complementary, contradictory or separate from [mainstream politics]. I just do what I think is a worthy cause and I let everything else just fall in place. I’m very fluid like that. People ask me what’s my plans and these kinds of things. My plan is to make art! I am an artist. Everything else is just me expressing myself.
If I align myself with the Anti-Death Penalty community it is because I care about the Anti-Death Penalty [cause]. If I’m with ACRES it’s because I care about animals. If I align myself with certain things the SDP does, it’s because I think the issues they are trying to bring up are important. They don’t treat me like I’m younger than them. They don’t treat me like an outsider. They just treat me as a friend. They are freedom-loving individuals like me. They’re very individualistic in that sense. None of them has that party agenda thing going on. And I like that. I like those kinds of people. I’ve friends in animal rights who are like that. I’ve friends who are vegetarians who are like that. I’ve friends who are artists who are like that. And these are politicians who are like that and that’s why I take them as my friends.
How much do you think being an artist has informed your activism? Do you feel restricted in some ways so much so that you have to fight for the freedom you seek?
No, I don’t think so. So far, with all my artwork, I don’t bother sending it to the MDA. I basically don’t care what the laws for art in Singapore are. The only boundaries that we have for self-expression are only the ones we set for ourselves. So I don’t set any [boundaries] for myself because I think that’s only going to restrict that creative process for me.
Don’t talk to me about ‘freedom comes with responsibility’ blah blah blah. I know myself. I know how to take care of what I do. I’m not going to say any racist thing or religious-damaging thing.
Political civil activism is just me being me in another place, another setting.
Do you see human rights taking precedence over everything else including economic development, as far as governance is concerned? Do you think that governments should put human rights above everything else?
Yes, why not? The very fact that you have an economy is because you have humans working there. Even if you run a slaughterhouse, you still need humans to kill the pigs and transport them and buy them to make a business for that. So, a nation’s economy is basically run by humans and if you don’t respect the humans who are in there and keep them happy, even from an economic perspective, not that I care about it, a happy worker will be a good worker. So yes, I would say it should take precedence.
Singapore is not known for promoting human rights. What do you think is missing that we need to put in place?
First of all, I think there needs to be more in our history textbooks than what I studied. There has to be more about the ‘other side’, especially people like Lim Chin Siong and so on, who were doing other things. There should even be everything about the ISA and Zahari and everything. They should all be in there. But which part of education? History.
Students in school will then grow up with two sides of history, and not [just] one side.
And we could have a more independent media. I do not know if it’s just me but the TODAY newspaper is more to my liking. I don’t know if anyone agrees but I think TODAY has been [fairer] and are [publishing] more interesting things. What’s more, you don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to pay for better information!
My thoughts lie in education, the media, information. Lets not talk about human rights workshop and all that because people do not even have enough information. When they have enough information they can make a judgement. When you don’t have information and are fed someone else’s judgements, that’s absurd to me. The first step is therefore to have more information.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when he took over as PM in 2004, he made a big speech during his inauguration, and in his first National Day Rally speech, he urged people to speak up and that the government was going to open up space, including political space. Do you think he has done that and what do you think he should do or can do further as far as allowing activists more space? Or do you see that it’s impossible for him to do anything about it?
I’m not going to talk about him but let me talk about the governing body in general. I don’t know much about him and I don’t hear much about his personal viewpoints and stuff. So I don’t want to say things about him. I don’t know him. I don’t know my prime minister!
Recently there was a comment or something by Wong Kan Seng who said that the government will look at opening up Speakers Corner for protests and demonstrations. For him to even say that, I believe, is solely because Dr Chee and activists and some other people, including the two or three girls who protested outside the US embassy against the Iraq war, are all pushing for something. They want to demonstrate their opinions. If they weren’t doing these the past few years, I don’t think he would have made such a comment. It is a direct result of what they’re doing.
Perhaps that’s what [the government] can do now – open up Speakers Corner for demonstration. That could be the first step they can take. You have said it, now why don’t you prove it? But that brings up other questions: Does that mean we can have placards? Does that mean we can have banners? Does that mean we can punch our fists in the air? Does that mean we can use amplification? Yes or no? We don’t have all these answers.
What do you think is holding the government back from allowing all these? What do you think they’re most afraid of?
Well, for one, if the content of these demonstrations and the information that [they] relay, the emotions that will be stirred, are not legitimate and have not the capability to change people’s mindsets or at least open them up to another view of how to look at Singapore.. if these were not important, why should they quell it? Why should they send so many police officers to quell a simple demonstration done with a piece of cardboard and a piece of paper? Why are they afraid of this? I would ask the question back at them: Why are you afraid? I think you’re afraid because you think it is legitimate.
The government is afraid that there will be riots and chaos and destruction of property, like in the 60s.
How many people have been demonstrating in Malaysia, over the decades? How many people have been demonstrating in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, Indonesia? But especially I’d like to cite Malaysia. They also have this party since independence and have done equally absurd things [as Singapore] but in a different way. I’d like to ask back: How do you know for sure what these [demonstrations] will amount to? Has a single demonstration which we local activists and some politicians have been engaged in led to any mishaps? So far, no.
And even if one day one incident happens either because the demonstration was sabotaged by somebody from the outside, or somebody inside didn’t keep check of his emotions, or the authority sabotaged it, even if one such incident happens, does that change your entire philosophical view that freedom of speech and assembly actually helps a nation express its views and opinions to the people that are supposed to be serving it? That’s a question people have to ask themselves then. I’ve asked myself the question and I know the answer.
In terms of activism past and present, how do you see it? Is there an improvement, an expansion? As an activist yourself, how important do you think the Internet is in this?
As for improvement, I personally feel there are more younger people in their 20s and 30s who are coming forward, being public with their opinions. People are getting fed-up. People are getting fed-up because they can see the first page of the Straits Times showing a picture of a protest in Manila or Kuala Lumpur and the second page will show somebody going to jail for trying to exercise freedom of speech and assembly. That’s why people are getting pissed off. [Demonstrations] are happening all over the world, every single day! It’s almost like performance art. It’s just people being themselves, being human.
I think yes, the Internet here in Singapore has been helping a lot in the sense that, because the media has been rated, and I don’t need to even use the word ‘controlled’, one hundred and forty something by Reporters Without Borders, so obviously the Internet will serve as a tool for citizen journalism. Like I have my own blog, Singapore Indian Voice, and sites like yours, The Online Citizen, Sgpolitics and so on. So that’s where Singaporeans who are frustrated or curious or are skeptical of the government and its practice can go and voice out and read things and share. That’s become an interesting space. And with videos it’s become even more interesting because now you see moving images and sound.
For example, in 1997, when they introduced the Films Act because of the SDP’s political film, I thought to myself: Why did they introduce the Film Acts? Did the SDP have the money to get that film shown in the cinemas? There were only video cassettes at that time, video tapes, VHS tapes. How were they going to distribute it? If they’d just let it go, it would have just [gone] to some of their supporters such as myself.
So, most probably the government knows that films are captivating. It’s easier to get your message across in a more interesting way than an article which not everyone wants to read. But yea, upon hearing this or reading this, the government will make it a point to come after broadcasting and let them do that. Come and show me how authoritarian you really are.
As for the film One Nation Under Lee, has there been any further development? The police said they were investigating it. Did they call you up for an interview?
No, nothing at all. None.
Your 400 frowns campaign, the police confiscated your computer. Have they returned it to you?
Yes, they did – after 8 months. Soon after that it kind of broke down and I’m not using it anymore.
How do you think you can encourage more Singaporean to take part, what with political apathy and all. Can Singaporeans be encouraged to come forward and if so, how would you do it?
I’ll just quote a song from this political artist that I know. The lyrics to the song is: ‘Human liberation, animal liberation, earth liberation, it all begins with education.’ That’s what I think is most important. We just have to get alternative information and more information out for people to access freely without fear. So that’s the first thing.
I’m not on a campaign to convert people to come in and join us. If they’ve reached the point of self-realisation where they feel… they’re just going to do it, fine. Do that. Some of the people I saw who went for the vigils for Dr Chee and Ms Chee, they came because they were fed up. So they did their own reading before they decided to [join in]. The only way to have less apathy is to have more information. So, we don’t have to be apathetic and not have an opinion. You can finally look at both sides and that which is in-between, and decide whether you want to be here or there. That’s all I’m asking for. If you really believe in right-wing kind of propaganda, then tell me you are. Show me your conviction.
That’s the thing I wish Singaporeans would do – decide. Don’t tell me you don’t have an opinion. Don’t constantly bicker and complain to me about CPF or things like that and that’s what is bothering you so much and when I ask you about it, about your political views, you tell me no, I don’t have any.
So, it’s about putting information out there and letting people make their own choices.
Yes. Malaysia is getting there because there are some newspapers which are doing good work and they have activists who can really get on the ground and do things fast and well. So in Singapore we just have to increase the [availability] of information.
What’s your opinion about this ASEAN Human Rights mechanism that they’re working on? Do you think for Singapore it will help bring awareness to human rights issues to the public or do you think the governments will water the document down so much so that it will become a useless set of document?
I hope that the Singapore government will not spoil the initiative for the rest of the region. Certain things such as women’s rights, children’s rights which are also very important, will probably benefit from this but as for civil and political rights, freedom of speech and assembly, because they have a higher chance of being contradictory to the view of the government, I don’t know whether this will cause them to have less benefit from such a mechanism [or body].
Is your commitment a long term one, for the rest of your life?
If I leave working for the cause of human rights or civil and political rights, it will most probably be because I have decided to put more time into [animal rights] or that the animal rights’ cause is in more need. I may devote more time to that but still keep updated about politics. That might be the only reason [why I’d leave].
Right now, I think ACRES has come a long way. [They’ve established] Singapore’s first wildlife rescue centre. A lot of the exotic animals, they don’t come from Singapore but they are [trafficked] through Singapore. A lot of them die in the process. They were also just reported on the front page of the Straits Times. [But if they need me] I will go and help out.
You were a member of SG Human Rights. Recently they announced that the group is disbanding. It gave you a platform for your activism. And as a group, it garnered more publicity for your activities than you would if you were an individual. Do you see the closure of SG Human Rights as a handicap or obstacle for your cause or activism now?
No, I don’t see it as an obstacle. SG Human Rights did a lot of important work for its short existence. Most of my years in activism have not been under any banner at all, at least not for civil or political rights. The nine of us who got together, we’re ok. We’re still friends and we can still do our things together.
But that doesn’t mean a banner cannot be beneficial or that we are ruling out that possibility in the future. Maybe something else will pop up. We’re all spontaneous.
If anyone says that he wants to follow me, I will distance myself most from that person. I don’t want anyone to follow me. If you want to be together, then join me, arm to arm, left and right. Let us be on a level plain. No leaders, no followers. I don’t believe in that.
Who is your inspiration? Who is your hero?
No one. I think even when I began formulating my ideas about freedom of assembly and civil disobedience, things like that, I was reading books on various people, such as Mahatma Gandhi. Even then I didn’t look up to them, in a sense. I read the books and thought, well I am learning something from this. They’re human beings just like me. Anybody can do [what they did]. All you have to do is to be human and know what your ideas are. So, when I first got to know Dr Chee and when I started reading about what he had been doing, how we want to address these freedom of speech and assembly [issues], I decided to meet him and I spoke to him and I never looked up to him. Even now, in police investigations when they ask me who is Dr Chee to me, I tell them he’s my friend.
When we look up to someone, we think that there is a distance between us, that we are at a lower platform and they are on a higher platform, for whatever reasons. We are all on a level plain, we’re all human beings. When we sit at the same table, our feet are on the ground. Yours are not elevated in the air. All that is different is the mindset. So, all you have to do to get to that point where you think: This person is realizing, how do I get to that point? It’s just in the mind.
How much has your personal religious or spiritual beliefs informed or affected your activism? Acitivists, to a certain extent, because they are fighting for certain causes, they see some inherent unfairness in say some government policies, for example. Do you see activists as possessing a natural sense of fairness?
It might mostly come from being informed and having that fire in your chest and those ideas in your mind. Sometimes spirituality or religion [back them up]. Like, whatever they do to me, it’s ok. I have my religious beliefs, I’ve been through this [before], less fear. Especially in things like detention.
For myself, religion or spirituality does not [influence] anything that I do [as an activist].
So your involvement is more about having read up on the issues
I started seeing things around me, observing people’s behaviour. Like, Hinduism has a long history of vegetarianism. But that idea did not translate to me through religion. I had to find out about animal rights and then watch videos of animals being slaughtered and I knew at that moment that never again would I eat meat. So for me it’s been a very experienced-based thing.
Dr Chee is a very controversial figure, at least for the general public. You’ve been working with him, you probably know him better than most other people. What is your opinion of Dr Chee?
Well, if he’s the one who took the first step, that says something about his convictions already, doesn’t it?
People see him as a politican. And naturally, as a political figure, you have political considerations. Which means that you have to manoeuvre and have ulterior motives and such like. Do you see Dr Chee as a genuine person who’s fighting for certain rights for the people?
Some people think that people who are with him are brainwashed by him or his ideology or whatever. I don’t easily build this kind of bond with people. If one day, by some freak result, according to Lee Kuan Yew, and the army is called in, if by some freak results, he gets voted into power – or any party for that matter, even the Workers’ Party – if any party does the same thing as the PAP does, I will be at the front opposing them.
But for now, all the conversations that I’ve had with Dr Chee, casual and otherwise, have given me the feel that he’s a trustworthy friend. And we believe in certain things, we have similar beliefs in certain things.
People think that he has ulterior motives and all. Come on, it’s the Singapore Democratic Party. Even if Lee Kuan Yew closes the whole party down, nobody is ever going to think that even if he starts a human rights NGO tomorrow and have no political leaning at all and all he’s trying to do is to help poor people or something or since he’s a Christian and he starts some welfare thing or something, nobody is going to say that he [doesn’t have] ulterior motives. They’ll come up with something. They’ll say he’s trying to get the Christians population… like what they did with the Marxists in the 80s. They called them Catholic Marxists or [whatever]. They’ll come up with something.
For example, the Anti-Death Penalty vigil. Let me ask you: How much political mileage can he gain from that? Quite frankly, in Singapore, even those who are more politicized, will tell you that they agree with the death penalty. They think everybody deserves it.
So what political mileage is there [for Dr Chee]? I’ve had conversations with him and it may come out of some spiritual convictions and that’s about it.
So, if you want to talk about ulterior motives, anybody can have ulterior motives. But as a friend, I don’t buy into people’s opinions because I know him longer. I make my own judgement.
Dr Chee’s actions helped me realize the truth inside me and it helped me address the truth inside me. If Dr Chee and Gandhi [Ambalam] and the rest had not made these actions, people like me wouldn’t have come forward. We learned from his experience.
A list of Seelan Palay’s more recent activism:
400 Frowns Campaign (Link)
IMF leaflets (link)
Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (Link)
Save Shanmugam (Link)
Hindraf (5 day protest outside Malaysian High Commission) (Link)
Protest on World Press Freedom Day (Link)
SDP’s Tak Boleh Tahan protest (Link)