The Politics of Being Dominant and Dominating

By Nizam Ismail

I write this note not merely to explain the circumstances behind my departure from the Board of Directors of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) and stepping down as Chairman of the Board of Centre for Research on Malay and Islamic Affairs (RIMA).

More importantly, I am compelled to set out the approach taken by the State to suppress critical views.

This is troubling and goes entirely against the grain of reported statements by Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugratnam that the Ruling Party will be an open political party that “is dominant but not dominating”, but one that seeks to galvanize a diversity of views and ideas, including critical opinions.

The gist of the following account is set out in an Email that I had written to both AMP and RIMA Boards on 22 Apr 2013. The contents of this Email remain unchallenged.

I received a surprise phone call from Mr Azmoon Ahmad, Chairman AMP on 20 Apr 2013.  He informed me that he received separate phone calls from two Ministers to the effect that they were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2)  my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media.  Mr Azmoon had relayed a message that he said he received for me to “take it easy” and refrain from such activities.  Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP.  This puts AMP in a difficult situation.  Mr Azmoon also painted the alternative that if I were to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP.

I considered this carefully and decided to withdraw from both the AMP and RIMA Boards with effect from 22 Apr 2013.

I was appalled by the threats of withdrawal of funding from AMP being made on account of activities I have done in my personal capacity and not in my capacity as an AMP/RIMA director.

More fundamentally, the threat of withdrawal of funds (meant to benefit the Community through AMP’s programs) on account of what appears to be political reasons is deplorable.

I could not, as a matter of principle,  see myself functioning as an activist in AMP or RIMA’s Board in an imposed non-critical state, in return for continued funding of AMP’s programs.   This goes against the grain of any aspiration of thought leadership by AMP. In fact, this goes against the spirit of the founding of AMP.  AMP was set up as an independent platform in light of the perceived issues with Mendaki then. This certainly went against my own personal belief and conviction that made me serve AMP in various capacities since since 1998, in the belief and conviction that AMP, as a movement of professionals, would serve as the conscience of the Community.

I therefore could not associate myself in an organization that, time and time again, allows itself to be threatened with the withdrawal of funding in instances where its activities or proposals were perceived to be threatening.  For instance, State funding of AMP’s programs were cut in the wake of a proposal for a collective community leadership during AMP’s 2nd Convention in 2000.  Threats of funding cuts were also made in reaction to a proposal for an independent Community Forum made by AMP during its 3rd Convention in 2012, as that was seen as a threat to the State-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF)  – which ironically, was perceived to be set up as a reaction to the Collective Leadership proposal made earlier by AMP.

In the current instance, my participation in Hong Lim Park and the WP Youth event as a civil society activist had nothing to do with AMP and RIMA – inasmuch as there are other events where I speak in my personal capacity.  I had made it clear at these presentations that I spoke in my personal capacity.  It is perplexing to link these involvement with my position in AMP or RIMA.

I fear that the current situation entrenches an unhealthy precedent – that the Government continues to keep AMP in line through threats of withdrawal of funding. The intrusion into the personal involvement of directors of AMP in civil society is overbearing and contradicts any stated objective to welcome diversity and critical discourse.

The readiness to use the threat of withdrawal of funding when the State feels displeased or threatened also ignores this important fact –  that these funds are being used to fund programs which benefit thousands of beneficiaries – be they low-income families, youths at risks, students. The interests of these beneficiaries seem to be readily steamrolled.

As a parting shot to both Boards,  I reminded the AMP and RIMA Boards that  AMP exists for the Community.  It relies on Community funding and donation by persons who believe in the cause of AMP. And so, AMP has a moral duty to act as a conscience of the Community.  Even if it means that it has to be critical of policies.

I leave AMP with fond memories  – having presented at Convention 2000, being the founding President of Young AMP, chairing AMP and the 2012 Convention, and then chairing RIMA. And so it was with a heavy heart that I decided to withdraw from the Boards of AMP and RIMA, having put in 15 years worth of time and effort for AMP.

But it is a decision I must make, out of a broader and bigger principle that I must uphold.  I hold the conviction that Singaporeans must be allowed, and even encouraged to speak up on the many issues that are of grave concern to them. Singaporeans must reclaim the space in civil society and play a direct role in shaping the future of the Country.

I am reminded of this speech, made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself in 1960, at a University of Malaya in Singapore Students’ Union dinner:

“Indeed, if they are citizens, it is their duty, as respected members of our society, to express and canvass their views on what should or should not be done in the government of their country.  They are citizens who – at very high cost to the state  – have had their minds trained and sharpened in their various disciplines.  They should and ought to undertake the responsibility of leading and formulating opinion on the political issues of the country.”

So while I agree with DPM Tharman’s aspirations for the Ruling Party to welcome a diversity of views, including critical views, I fear that there is a chasm between aspiration and current practice.

I wonder how much of DPM Tharman’s views, which Singaporeans had found refreshing, actually resonated with his Cabinet colleagues and  the rest of the State machinery.


This letter first appeared in Nizam’s blog and was given to publish it here on TOC.