Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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Of concessions and tokenism, worrying trends in policy making

Breaking News: Malaysiakini reports that Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has won the Permatang Pauh by-election with a majority of 16,210 votes. He garnered 26,646 votes while Arif Shah Omar Shah got 10,436. Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, won the seat with a 13,388 majority at the March 8 general elections. Malaysiakini.com is down at the moment due to “extremely high traffic”. You can read Reuters and the Sydney Morning Herald’s reports. “Malaysian govt concedes by-election defeat to Anwar” – Channel NewsAsia.

John Ang / Guest Writer

Singapore is once again stuck doing strange things in order to both “stick to her guns” and “move with the times”.

The Government’s position is that they will gradually open up and liberalise Singapore and so far, they have kept their word. But realistically, it is a no-brainer. It is in their own best interest to do it, lest two things occur. Either the populace chafes under archaic laws until they’re ready to boot the current political party out and replace it with a new one, or the Government manages to keep the populace under its boot heel, but turns Singapore into a likeness of some Middle Eastern countries: great for business, but not as a place to live and express yourself.

Having established that there is nothing much to cheer over the recent liberalisation of our laws, I’ll move on to the speed of these changes, and I believe that the Government is starting a worrying trend in that it only waits until laws are hopelessly obsolete (i.e., everybody is breaking them and making a mockery of the rule of law) before starting the machinery to make amendments.

The ban on political videos comes to mind, and I shall elaborate on it later. Sometimes, the laws aren’t even changed, and the general population simply has to take the Government’s word in trust that “we will keep this [obsolete] law for conservatism’s sake, but it shall not be proactively enforced.” It is made to seem like our government is liberal in spirit, but not in the laws that it creates.

Dredging up some history, the saga in repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between mutually-consenting adult men, started off in fact with a comprehensive review of the Singapore Penal Code in order to “better [protect] the more vulnerable in society and to take into account technological advancements and crime trends“. Yet after vigorous public debate, the Government decided to keep it verbatim for conservative reasons, but stated they wouldn’t proactively enforce it.

In a lesser-known area, this liberal in spirit but not in word of law trend seems to repeat itself, this time with regards to drug trafficking and the death penalty (Yawning Bread). In that article by Alex Au, the prosecution allegedly arbitrarily changed the amount of heroin smuggled from 18.4 grams to 14.99 grams, just 0.01g below the threshold for the mandatory death penalty, allowing the traffickers to escape the gallows. The facts and motivations around this case are not set in concrete as it was not widely reported, but it looks to me that as the world is moving towards abolishment of capital punishment, Singapore is once again stuck doing strange things in order to both “stick to her guns” and “move with the times”.

In his recent National Day rally, PM Lee declared that laws concerning political videos would be liberalised, and that outdoor demonstrations would be given a place at the Speakers’ Corner (and to make the touch even lighter, the National Parks Board (NParks) would be managing it). In view of the previous positions held by both of PM Lee’s predecessors, this is tantamount to the slaughter of not one, but two sacred cows. In this light, it is a giant leap forward (to unabashedly splice Armstrong and Mao together), since the thought of this happening even a year ago shared equal measure with the thought of putting a Singaporean on the moon. That’s the giant leap for mankind part.

Yet this liberalisation is a mere concession on the Government’s part, since it already has an explosion of homemade political videos and small, peaceful demonstrations kicking around in its backyard, and it would be unthinkable to set the police on the man simply uploading a video of an opposition rally, or arresting people holding candlelight vigils.

But if we take this round of liberalisation as a victory and grow comfortable walking hand-in-hand with the Government down the path of being liberal in spirit but not in our laws, we could end up losing more freedom than we’ve actually gained. Perhaps in the future, police would conceivably actually arrest people holding candlelight vigils because they did it in a location other than the Speakers’ Corner. That’s the Great Leap Forward bit: done with good intentions, but ending as an absolute disaster.

We may meet them halfway, but we cannot stop: we must keep on pushing for more. We must keep pushing for laws to be brought more in line with the way we want our society to work, not how we can compromise. We must keep calling for the changes in our laws to take place before, not after, half the population of the island can viably be classified as criminals. We must.


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