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The dirtiest words in the PAP vocabulary

The reason unfailingly given by the PAP government for any ruling that seems to put yet another curb on civic liberties is that there would otherwise be ‘disruption’. For instance, the Public Order act, passed in April in 2009, gives the police powers to compel a person to move on from a designated spot, and to refrain from returning to it for 24 hours, to avoid disruptions to the public. The ruling to impose a 24-hour ‘cooling off’ period just before polling day has exactly the same purpose—to prevent people from becoming too emotional and unruly, thus creating a disturbance to the public. Even when a rule has been relaxed to allow for greater freedom of expression, such as at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, there are conditions to ensure that there is no disorderly conduct.

Disruption, disturbance, disorder. These are possibly the dirtiest words in the PAP vocabulary, because they stand for exactly the opposite of the order, harmony and cohesion considered necessary for the stability of a society. To prove the harmfulness of these D situations, the government freely cites examples from countries where a self-serving opposition, unruly media and raucous political dissidents create havoc, causing investors to flee. Indeed, the noisy demagogue stirring up crowd emotion does not exist in Singapore, except once every five years—during the general elections—and even then is barely tolerated.

As a political observer and commentator, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate and put up a stout defence of these 3 Ds in a statement that will sound shocking for its subversion of the very credo that Singaporeans have espoused under 4 decades of PAP rule. Then (in a return of seemliness) I will qualify my statement with a careful step-by-step explanation.

The statement: The PAP should not only tolerate disruption, disturbance and disorder, but for their own survival, encourage it.

The statement amplified and explained:

In every free society, there will be disruptive elements, that is, people who think differently, are skeptical by temperament, are impatient for change, generally distrust those in power, and want to express themselves aggressively and vociferously. They are usually only a very tiny minority of the population, but they are, have been and will always be a reality in society. They are endemic to the human landscape. To try to get rid of them is as unrealistic—and futile—as trying to get rid of the rogue, mutant genes in the DNA.

Moreover, despite their unlikable nature, they are part of the citizenry, and for that reason alone, should be tolerated. Indeed, it would be unconscionable for a society like Singapore that prides itself on beinginclusive to make life for this particular group of citizens so difficult that they would have to flee and live elsewhere.

But what if they cause so much disruption that they are a threat to the society? Surely they cannot be allowed to harm, for instance, the tenuous race relationships in this multi-ethnic nation? Surely the diseased part should be excised, to save the whole organism? The truth is that while Singapore in the early years might not have withstood these disruptive forces, the Singapore today is mature enough and developed enough in its capacities to deal with any dissident threat. For instance, the surveillance capacities to monitor the movements of extreme elements and the punitive machinery for dealing with them are surely by now well in place. There could never arise an uncontrollable situation where political dissidents (we are not talking about terrorists or hostile foreign elements here) are about to destroy the society. Hence, there should be no anxiety about allowing the people full freedom of expression, assembly and association.

The PAP government has often argued that a pre-emptive approach is necessary to prevent such dangerous forces from appearing at all. But this nip-in-the-bud approach means punishing people for potential rather than proven mischief. It does even more—instill fear in would-be critics, thus preventing the bud from appearing at all. It smacks of an extreme form of authoritarianism that surely goes against the new millennial spirit of change and opening up.

Singapore is permanently plugged into the free world of practising democracies where virtually all member countries accept that disruption is the price to be paid for adopting a political system which, despite its flaws, is arguably the best that society has so far devised. To get rid of disruption is to go against the prevailing consensus and invite dismay, disapproval and criticism. It cannot be a very pleasant thing, in international surveys on press freedom and civic liberties, to regularly get a low ranking from one’s fellow democratic practitioners.

To make an even stronger case for disruption, it can be seen as a positive force that will eventually contribute towards the well-being of the society.For only disruption can bring out into the open the discontents and disaffections of the people, and lead to social and political changes that otherwise might never take place.

Disruption is necessary for the political education of the people. Indeed, for young Singaporeans today, increasingly made more discerning, sophisticated and articulate through wide media exposure, the noise and brouhaha of public debate would be far more instructive than a centrally planned, government-approved programme in political education for the schools. Recently, a minister suggested that schools should provide a course in political studies with the purpose of instilling political awareness; the skeptical response was that such a course would likely be perceived as controlled, top-down dissemination, thus losing all credibility.

In the final analysis, a democracy is kept alive more by the awareness of the people, who will always be around, generation after generation, than by the efficiency of the political leaders who won’t. (Even the PAP’s rigorous practice of self-renewal cannot go on indefinitely). And it is precisely the freedom to be disruptive that will ensure the continuance of that most fundamental of democratic premises—that the system of checks and balances belongs to the people, and to the people alone. The PAP says reassuringly to Singaporeans, ‘Leave everything to us. We know how to check ourselves, balance things.’ It may be so now with a competent, trustworthy government, but twenty years, thirty years down the road, the scenario may change drastically. And the future electorate will not have been prepared for the change, being too long habituated to a quiescent compliance.

It is clear that the PAP government is relaxing—or wants to be seen as relaxing—the rules and regulations that have irked Singaporeans, in a general opening up of the society. The Prime Minister himself in a recent speech emphasized that ‘updating the political system’ is one of three urgent important tasks for the near future, the other two being restructurimg the economy and addressing the population shortfall. It is the first time that political change has been given top priority. But it is doubtful whether the PAP can bring itself to overcome its intense, almost pathological, dislike of the disruption that invariably comes with a true opening up. To continue with the biological analogy, this pathology is now part of the PAP’s DNA.

Catherine Lim

The Online Citizen thanks Ms Lim for giving us permission to re-publish the above article which first appeared on her website: catherinelim.sg.

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Headline picture from rexcurry.net.