On Sunday, 21 June, Singapore Democratic Party celebrated its 35th anniversary at Holiday Day Inn Singapore Atrium and invited a few speakers from civil society to talk about their experiences with the party and their thoughts about it.
One of the speakers who was invited is Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of Local Non-government Organisation, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (H.O.M.E).
Below is the full text of Jolovan’s speech:
I will start my presentation by reading some well known quotes about SDP, especially Dr Chee Soon Juan:
“What we are preventing is duds getting into Parliament and government. Any person of quality, we welcome him but we don’t want duds. We don’t want Chee Soon Juan, or J.B. Jeyaretnam. They’re not going to build the country.” (Lee KuanYew)
“[Chee Soon Juan’s] a liar, a cheat, and altogether an unscrupulous man. I could also add that I’ve had several of my own doctors who are familiar with such conduct…tell me that he is near-psychopath.” (Lee Kuan Yew)
“[Chee Soon Juan’s] a liar, he’s a cheat, he’s deceitful, he’s confrontational, it’s a destructive form of politics…” Lee hsien Loong
Anyone who is involved in human rights activism has to deal with the Singapore Democratic Party and its legacy. As the only political party who was actively taking a stand on civil and political rights, the SDP is an uncomfortable presence in the scene for many of us. In the book Building social space in Singapore: The Working Committee’s initiative in civil society activism , I was struck by how in one of the chapters, the issue of what to do with Chee Soon Juan sparked heated debate within members of The Working Committee. Should Chee Soon Juan be included in this forum that they wanted to organize? The discussants were afraid that their event would be ‘politicised’ if he got involved.
One of the forum respondents then suggested that if they wanted to be fair, they would have to invite someone from the PAP too. In my view this is a false equivalence because since the PAP is everywhere and dominates our political landscape, having them on a panel discussion doesn’t tilt the political balance at all.
But till this day, such fears and concerns continue to exist because of the false dichotomy that the PAP has created between activism and politics. Fears about funding cuts or incurring the annoyance of the government continue to affect NGOs, VWOs, and arts groups. The most prominent recent example is the Association of Muslim Professional’s removal of Nizam Ismail from its executive committee because the Information and Communications minister threatened to withdraw funding for AMP’s programme if he chose to participate in the Population White paper protest.
I didn’t have an interest in politics until I went into the National University of Singapore in the year 2000. I decided to major in social work because of my interest in issues such as animal rights, poverty and the disadvantaged. However, I became increasingly frustrated at the apolitical nature of my course of study. Most students and lecturers could not or refused to link social problems with its political structures and for me this was central if we wanted to talk about social problems. As I could not find like-minded people within my circle of friends in social work, I started to drift into political science circles and ended up attending small group discussions and forums organized by the NUS political association.
However, even among this group of people Dr Chee’s reputation was not good. One student told me that he was ‘dishonest’ and did not have ‘integrity’. I asked ‘how do you know that’ and she proceeded to recount this anecdote where he was invited to speak at a forum and how she felt his conduct and behavior at the forum was wrong. I took this with a pinch of salt; I wondered about the extent to which it was true. After all, this was one person’s subjective experience and I had not met the man before in my life.
However, such perceptions are widespread, which is no doubt cemented by negative portrayals of Dr Chee in mainstream media. There was no way in which one could escape this characterization of Dr Chee because even among those whom I thought were more critical and more politically aware seemed to hold such views. It was no longer about whether his political beliefs were correct but whether he was a good person, whether he was honest and whether he had integrity.
But the accusations were also more than that. It was also about his tactics and his strategy, which was often framed as actions which were confrontational, not constructive. I note that this criticism has affected SDP to the extent that it has branded itself as an opposition party that is constructive to counter the view it is an empty vassel making a lot of noise. The creation of this myth, of this notion that politics must be constructive and not confrontational is a PAP invention.
The PAP knows the power of civil disobedience, and this is why they are so afraid of it. Civil disobedience was what gave India its independence, it was what gave birth to the American civil rights movement, it was what led to the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, it was what won women the vote and workers their 8 hour work day. The list goes on.
So in reality the opposition to SDP and its so called confrontational approach is not that it is not constructive but simply the fact that the establishment fears this kind of activism. And this is why till now the police would never grant you a permit for holding a protest and a demonstration outside of Hong Lim park but somehow miraculously, groups like NTUC and Case Trust will get their permits should they wish to. Even until now, those who engage in various forms of protest are still viewed as confrontational, angry and therefore is less desirable to be associated with them.
In 2007, I was invited by the Singapore Democratic Party to speak at a forum to commemorate human rights day. I actually felt quite honoured to be invited to that event because JBJ was one of the speakers that day. I also took it as an opportunity to raise awareness of migrant worker issues, something which I felt and still feel very passionately about. However, some people were unhappy that I shared the same stage as Dr Chee. Even though I rationalized and explained that it was just another opportunity to raise awareness, I was already guilty by association. The reactions towards Dr Chee were quite visceral “I cannot stand this man!” people would exclaim to me, even though they have never ever met or interacted with him in their life.
The disdain for confrontational politics partly explains why movements such as pink dot are successful. Pink dot is not a protest, it is a picnic. It is not a demonstration, it is dance party. It is seen as constructive, pleasant and oozes positive vibes. Don’t get me wrong. I love pink dot. I go for it every year and I think it has done a lot to raise awareness of LGBT issues in Singapore. Such awareness is necessary if we want change and Pink Dot’s formula is smart, strategic and successful.
When the EU decided to invite Thio Li Ann as a speaker in an event which was supposed to celebrate human rights, the activists who staged a protest, including myself, in front of her during her speech were labeled by some as being confrontational and unnecessarily strident. In Singapore, we are against the politics of confrontation because it gets drummed into our heads over and over again, not just by Singaporeans but also by fellow activists that such tactics will not advance our social goals. It is the same political culture which reminds us that Low Thia Kiang of the Worker’s party and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party are acceptable opposition politicians and Dr Chee Soon Juan will never be.
The SDP forces us to ask questions about the nature of activism in Singapore and how far we can push the boundaries of advocacy and social change. SDP was the first political party in our recent history to make the case that our economic well being is closely tied to our fundamental freedoms and our civil liberties. For the democratic development of Singapore, I would argue that not only is it necessary to support such tactics but we must continue to engage in it. A mature democracy cannot be achieved if we do not disobey laws which are unjust. This is because any country in which its citizens do not have equal rights and are discriminated against by society demands improvement. The fundamental purpose of politics and activism should be to protect human life, uphold basic human rights and very importantly to keep political power in check.
In the past two decades, Dr Chee and other party activists were the isolated mad dogs barking in the corner. He and fellow activists such as those involved in the tak boleh tahan protests and the protests in support of democratic reform in Burma showed us that politics and concern for social justice went beyond our country. Politics and activism is not parochial, and should never ever be parochial.
The SDP showed us by example what other activists around the world made a part of their practice: solidarity and collective action. Because no one dared to advocate for civil liberties, it was SDP that had to pay the political price for it. At a time when opposition parties kept to topics which were safe, what is often called ‘bread and butter’ issues, SDP continued to hammer away on issues such as the injustice of the ISA, the death penalty and the political prisoners of our authoritarian regime, issues which nobody really wanted to talk about. SDP was a trail blazer in this regard. Where civil society was not able, or did not dare to do, SDP filled up that space.
The political landscape has changed. Civil society activism has changed. Groups and individuals are more willing and likely to criticize government policies. There are more protests at Speaker’s Corner and people are starting their own fb pages and blogs to express their views. Socio-political sites such as the online citizen continue to be forerunners in this regard.
What gave SDP its supporters like me is its focus on human rights, civil liberties and leftist politics; but this is also what attracts many of its detractors: those who think that civil liberties are an abstract and wooly concept. The SDP was ahead of the political curve: the freedoms it used to aggressively champion is now being taken up by other individuals and groups. However, there is of course still a lot that needs to be done to further the cause of civil liberties in Singapore. But instead of standing at a distance, shouting and urging us to beckon, should SDP start from where the people are and walk with them, even if that means ‘compromising’ on some principles?
No matter how we answer this question, one thing is clear: for better or for worse, SDP has left an uncomfortable legacy for civil society. But I don’t mean uncomfortable in a bad way. The discomfort is what we need to force us to think about and debate the direction of civil society. The SDP was a trail blazer and its politics was ahead of its time for Singapore. The question is whether we as citizens and those in civil society are willing and able to pick up the baton it has left behind, and continue to push the boundaries to make Singapore the truly democratic country we want it to become.