Face to face with Seelan Palay (Part Two)

In Part 2 of an hour-long interview with Seelan Palay, TOC asks about his relationship with the SDP, and what he thinks of public perception of his activism. You can read Part One here.

By Joshua Chiang

Seelan next to his art pieces at the recently-concluded Non-Dominant Discourse exhibition at Post Museum

People often associate you with the Singapore Democratic Party. Are you a full-fledged member of the SDP?

No I never was. Various political parties have asked me to join them, but I didn’t all these years simply because I don’t feel a need to yet, I think it’s great that other people join political parties, but I think where I am, I’m in the arts community and the activist community and I’m just doing my work there, and I try to help out people, I don’t feel a need to enter politics in that manner.

But there’s the sense that you identify more with them than other parties.

Of course I do. Because I found out about local politics through the Internet back then, when I was 18. I went to meet JB Jeyaretnam; I got his book and I asked him to sign it. I stood there and I asked him how I could help him. He kind of thought I was too young maybe. And it’s okay that he thinks that way.

After that, I went to meet SDP, and Dr Chee, and I read his books and everything. I like the ideas expressed in them. That’s why I identify more with them as compared to other political parties. Also because beyond politics they are also now my friends, and also my family friends.

You have heard of Dr Chee before you read his books. At that time there were already a lot of bad publicity about him. So what got you interested to check out his books?

I always believed in a free market of ideas. It’s the main thing that I advocate. The time I got to know about Dr Chee, I already knew that there’s not much of a free market of ideas in Singapore. It’s mostly government controlled or largely government induced/influenced. I kind of viewed Dr Chee and JBJ in the same light. I didn’t let any of the bad press affect my judgment of him. I told myself, if I’m going to judge him, I’m going to have to meet him and talk to him myself. I’m going to read his books first. I’m not going to read the Straits Times’ version of Dr Chee or the Newpaper’s version of Dr Chee.

So when you read his books, did it change any of your perspective?

It’s not about changing perspective. I was never influenced by the mainstream media’s impression of him. It was more like, when I read his books, I know the substance behind the man. And the kind of socio-political, and also economic ideas that he has. I find my own views to be very in line with his. And so I think his books were the things that made me understand him more.

They (the mainstream media) like to promote the idea that he’s just doing demonstrations, like to cause trouble. The thing is, from a young age, I didn’t find anything wrong with demonstrations. They’re fine. So when the media try to tell me that Dr Chee is bad because he does demonstrations, I didn’t see the connection. ‘Cos I would do that if it were me.

What do you think is the public perception of activists like you and Dr Chee?

Sometimes I ask long time friends of mine from school. They know what I do, and almost all of them support what I do. And I think that’s cause they know me as a person. They saw me growing up, they know my values from the start. So none of these mainstream media influenced their perception of me. And after that, as I got more into it, I asked them what their friends and families think of what I do. They all give me different kinds of answers.

There’s actually one quite racialist answer. I have an equal number of Chinese, Malay and Indian friends. But some of these Indian friends I have – the older uncles and some of these friends of my friends. They ask ‘why Seelan wants to get involved in all this? Dr Chee is a Chinese. Lee Kuan Yew is a Chinese. Let them whack each other and die lah. This fella, he’s an Indian , he’s a minority. Just ask him to cover his own backside, make his living and just get on with life.” This may seem quite controversial but this the hard truth. This is what some people say within the Indian community.

Some of the feedback I’ve received… the perception is that you guys are standing up for a cause. It’s a good thing. However at the same time, it puts them off somewhat – what they perceive as this negativity, this anger…

When my Burmese activists friends, all they do is speak up for Aung San Suu Kyi, against the brutal regime in Burma and they are kicked out of the country (Singapore) and they are thrown into countries like Cambodia because they can’t go back to Burma. And they’re left with zero, nothing in their lives. What do you want me to do? Not get angry? If everybody is going to keep quiet and not get angry or upset about these kinds of things… I did that demonstration outside MOM because I was totally disgusted with the way the Singapore Government is doing this to people that I know.

And there are also many people I’ve spoken to who said that they support the idea of demonstrations and they would participate in the ones we’ve organized if they didn’t fear or have to face so much persecution.

One trivial question. Malcolm X or Gandhi.

Gandhi. But I generally don’t look up to figures in that manner, in the sense that I just like reading what they write. There are so many other inspirational figures. So many in South East Asia that are even more inspirational than Gandhi in a sense ‘cos they’re so close to our history. And I feel that we should also look that these people.

But wasn’t Gandhi’s methods less confrontational, more ‘gentle’?

I think we have had gentle protests as well. I don’t know what degree of gentle is. Gandhi during his time was considered a radical as well. They thought his ideas were mad, that he was an angry man with nothing else to do but complain about everything. That’s what his contemporaries thought.

I just don’t look at Gandhi. I look at protests happening around the region. I’ve participated in protests around the region, and I don’t find anything wrong in holding a placard and saying “someone is really not respecting human rights.” I see an event, and I feel, as a human being, I’m going to make a placard, I will write what I want on it. Of course I’m not going to make it defamatory or racially or religiously insensitive. I’m just going to hold it, and I’m going to show that person. They can do whatever they want. They can arrest me they can ignore me. It’s okay. But to me as a human being I’m just expressing myself in that manner. And these people who don’t like it, disagree or feel uncomfortable, there’s nothing I can do. I’m not at your house showing it to you. You’re not the person I’m addressing. So if you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I’m still going to do it.

And at the same time I also organize forums, exhibitions, film screenings. I post articles on my Facebook, I write articles for TOC (The Online Citizen), for my blog, I also write articles for socio-political publications, and all of these are the other activities that make up what I do. How many demonstrations have I done compared to the advocacy work that I do everyday? Compared to the video editing I do everyday. Compared to the art process I do… I took three years to do this piece of artwork (a piece of collage work that was recently exhibited at Post Museum). People don’t see this side of me and I don’t blame them for not seeing that. They only see the demonstrations because those are the things that get the media attention. And it’s just what happened with Dr Chee Soon Juan. Like people don’t see how he interacts with his family. People don’t see what he has to do everyday. And they only know him based on what the media has showed them.

Do you think it’s the media’s influence, or it’s human nature to fear and reject what they do not understand?

I think both. You can’t say it’s only the media. It’s also because it doesn’t happen enough often so it’s this fear of the unknown, so they don’t know what to expect.

After doing activist work for eight years, are there any encouraging signs? What do you see happening right now.

I think the Internet has provided the kind of space to express themselves or let off steam. That’s the most positive thing. Many years ago, you might guess that there are so many people reading the forum, but thanks to Facebook you can sort of gauge how many people there actually are. The numbers of blogs have increased. The number of online activities that translate into offline action has also increased. Like for example the campaigns that TOC has taken up. The campaigns that other organizations have taken up. So it’s very dynamic… ever-growing. There are positive things that have happened. All is not lost.

So what about the people sitting behind their desks and typing, do you think this is the first step towards something, or is it more like – this is it?

I can’t say if this is it, but that depends on people’s conscience, the socio-political climate, Lee Kuan Yew’s existence. (laughs) I mean it’s a very real concern people have. And I would think that it’s more… It’s just positive. It’s good that people are writing online whether it’s anonymous or not, it’s good. I’d rather have that than eight years ago, I Google-searched for Singapore human rights, all I get is the Think Centre, now I’ve got so much other stuff to read. So many people’s opinions. It’s good, you know.

What about the quality of the content? On one hand you have your intellectual posts and on the other hand, ranting.

I appreciate both. The former, it makes you think. The second, makes you laugh. I just like it that people express themselves, because I always feel that a lot of times… when I go other countries, even amongst Asians, I always feel that Singaporeans express themselves less. It’s partly due to the climate and social conditioning. And I feel that if more people express themselves, then we have a free market of ideas, and more people stand up for what they believe in. That can only be good in my view. Especially if you are going into a knowledge-based economy, and that’s where we want to go, then having such an environment would be good.

But on top of the fear of repercussions, there’s also this aversion to messiness, which many feel may threaten the stability.

I hear that from some people. But I’m not the government, I’m not going to decide on how much freedom of speech you’re going to have. If you want freedom of speech in Singapore, you gonna have to decide how much you want and take it for yourself. And you’ve got to know the consequences when you go about it.

As for how the system will change… by the time you get a democratic society where we have freedom of expression, the entire economic system in Singapore might collapse, because of the CPF (Central Provident Fund) bubble exposing itself to be a sham, and everybody loses their CPF money, and HDB devalues, and the whole system might implode with the PAP in power and without freedom of expression. To me that’s even worse. That’ll be like back when Suharto (President of Indonesia) was in power. But if we have a free market of ideas and open debate, when there are real problems like that there can be different voices heard and proposals considered, and there can be a solution found, together, rather than dictated by one person who might be wrong all over again. What he calls himself… the ‘Forecaster’.

With regards to activism, what is the achievement you’re most proud of?

Seelan outside MOM building in Jan 2009 protesting against the expulsion of Burmese workers who took part in the 2007 protest

Personally I would think, the demonstration that me and my friend Kai Xiong did for the Burmese who were expelled, mainly because after that demonstration, it seemed that none of our other Burmese friends were expelled. I feel like that might be my greatest achievement because through that act of civil disobedience it seemed we could really stop such injustice.

This was after the Burmese demonstration at Orchard Road in 2007. (more about the demonstration here)

Yes. But you can’t say it was inspired by them. Cause their demonstration was completely different it was for democracy, asking ASEAN to stand up for Burma. Which was another thing, because they investigated a lot of them, they started expelling them, which is why we got so… we felt this great sense of injustice being committed. C’mon so many Burmese all over the world are speaking up for their country, and these people are stuck here – what do you want them to do? Sit down at home and just watch Channel Newsasia?

So your demonstration was in response to how they were unjustly treated.

And the high-handed manner which it was carried out.

‘Changes’ by Seelan Palay

Last question – What about your future?

My future. Of course, as an artist, what I consider to be my profession first and foremost – I just had another exhibition; I’ll do more. That’s really what I see in my life. I really want to develop my art process more, develop my output, and have more exhibitions. That’s what I really want to do. Other than that there’s freelance video-editing to help pay some bills… a lot of people they think that activism is the main thing is my life. But Art is the main thing in my life. Ever since I was ten years old I already knew I was an artist. I told my mother when I was ten years old, I said one day I was going to grow up to be an artist. Up till now I still believe that. And so on my blog I always put ‘artist’ then ‘activist’.  Art is still the most important thing in my life.

Why not just stick to being an artist?

When sometimes at a demonstration, anywhere in the world, there might be a taxi driver who participates… you could also ask him why not just stick to (being a) taxi driver. For me I would answer the same way. I’m an artist, I’ve a conscience, I feel some kind of social responsibility. If I feel something is wrong, I’ll speak up. That’s it.