Dear Prime Minister,
Your people meet with dismay the news that Leslie Chew has been charged with contempt of court for his political cartoons. At this moment, as the news spreads across the island, we citizens are acutely aware that there is little we could do to call you to a gentler response.
The people of our country, yours and mine, are worried for our future. As our young families struggle to meet the costs of their homes and their children’s education; as our best and brightest lose their jobs and their hope in our country and flee abroad; as our middle-aged approach their retirement with trepidation, and as more and more of our aged are reduced to begging or selling tissue paper to survive, we call out to your government with the means at our disposal. But you respond neither with compassion nor with respect but with the manacles of the law.
Many years ago, your father began the process of pruning our civic space. He took the televisions and newspapers under government control so that only the best of the news might be published. He restrained the universities and polytechnics so that awkward subjects might not be examined and students might be quelled. He deployed the Internal Security Act and tortured his opponents. And every so often he sued and bankrupted the politicians so as to remind us of the danger of speaking in our own behalf and that of our neighbours and friends.
Those methods, so decried in civilised societies, and thankfully, long consigned to their history books, caused us to become frightened and silent. We did not know how to tell you when things were going wrong and we did not know how to make you listen to the appeals from the ground, from loyal citizens who remained at least thankful that they had a home, schools, clinics, parks and public transport. We learnt not to ask for too much. We learnt the dangers of asking for too much. Human rights, we were reminded, were not the Asian way. Trust, in honourable gentlemen, was our way.
But the internet is giving us a voice again. And as the problems of our island have become more dire, as people lose their jobs and despair of the future, as more than half of our young plan to leave the country should any opportunity arise, so our calls to you become more urgent.
You must notice that we try many means to speak to you. We write, we share insights and we discuss new and better ways to govern our country. And Leslie Chew and others have employed cartoons and humour to call your attention to what is unsettling to us. We use the internet not to revolt but to cry out to you from the ground, to ask you to remember the people upon whom your power rests, and to make their lives better.
But you have remained resolutely deaf to us. You have carried on with business as usual. You, and your colleagues in government, have treated us, who have asked only that you listen, as disruptive, as criminals and subversives. We are not criminals and subversives. We are citizens and neighbours who have asked you to look again at your policies, to visit the problems of your people on the ground so that you can hear our calls for a better country.
Leslie Chew’s cartoons were not intended to scandalise the judiciary. They were not intended to bring the administration of justice into contempt. He tried to show you, through cartoons, his particular skill, that your citizens are beginning to lose their faith in your administration and with it, their hope.
Your father chose the Internal Security Act and the defamation law to take his opponents down. You, in these latter years, have resorted to your Attorney General to silence your citizens. As Alex Au carried on his insightful blogging on matters of deep political ramification, you threatened him with suit. When Lynn Lee raised a matter of serious concern regarding the conduct of your police, you threatened her. When Han Hui Hui brought an issue with important implications, you threw the iron glove of the law at her. And today, you have used your Attorney to yet again try to silence a citizen whose only crime has been to ask your government to look again at the administration of justice because our hope in it is diminishing.
But you have missed the point, Prime Minister. Your father once told us that we cannot change the government at will and perhaps you have also come to believe it. You have forgotten that, in the final analysis, you govern by our consent, not in spite of it. You have missed the point. The criticisms that have been directed at your government these last several years since the General Elections have not been made by malcontents; troublemakers as your father liked to call them. They have been made by honest, decent Singaporeans who have nowhere else to go, and more to the point, do not wish to go anywhere.
You see, we love our country, Prime Minister. It is a country like no other in the world. We revel in our history and our diverse cultures, we delight in our safety and security, we enjoy our art and music. We want our country to flourish. We want to ensure that when things go wrong, that we all speak out to make them right again. You have missed the point.
As you settle into bed tonight, your family safe around you, I ask you to reflect on what you have done today. A nation that warrants so much criticism is no longer a nation that is as secure and as delightful as we would like it to be. But more importantly, a nation whose citizens are silenced in the very act of sharing its guardianship, is unsafe. You have missed the point, Prime Minister. By sending your Attorney to grind Leslie Chew through the mill of our legal system, you have today made us slightly more insecure that we would have been had you, at the very least, acknowledged his concerns. By tightening the screws on our already trammelled civic space, you have not strengthened our nation’s affairs but you have weakened them. Tomorrow when you wake up, and all your citizens begin a new day, we will do so in the knowledge that you have not made our country stronger, more resilient, you have made it weaker. Because you missed the point.
Leslie Chew did not speak up to challenge your right to govern or to question the probity of your courts. He spoke up to enhance them.But you missed the point. And in so doing, the popular mandate that you call upon to govern us has been vitiated and your people’s confidence in you become a little more fatigued.
It is a sad night for us, your people. I do not know whether it is a sad night for you and your colleagues.
I write this open letter to you not as a member of a political party, and therefore, your political adversary, but as a humble citizen. When my father was a student at the University of Malaya, he supported your father’s party in the 1959 General Elections because he saw in him and his colleagues a great zeal to take the destiny of our country into the hands of his people. Over the years, as our family’s fortunes, and those of thousands across the island, improved, he knew that his faith in your father was not misplaced. But tonight, as the million households of your nation go to sleep, I am not certain, as I once was, that that faith in our country continues.
Eventually, Leslie Chew will pay the penalty for his impudence. And you and your colleagues may yet win this battle royale to tame and subdue the internet. And if you do, you will buy time. But only time. Sadly, our children and grandchildren will at last pay more dearly because a mute nation eventually fails.
*This letter is reproduced with kind permission from the original note written by Vincent Wijeysingha.