By Lynn Lee
Today on Facebook, I read about the crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers in China, about the corruption scandal in Malaysia, about the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, about the Greek debt crisis, about cardboard aunties and uncles. I signed a petition and shared a few posts. I also received a private message about a bake sale organised by some wonderful people in Singapore – they’d raised more than $1,700 for an NGO sheltering Rohingya refugees in Aceh.
Technology connects us and the world feels a little smaller. The earthquake in Nepal became more real, more urgent for those who were not there because of the photos and footage that were instantly transmitted through the Internet. Pictures of the devastation compelled many to act. When we were making our documentaries on the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, a key resource was a Reddit thread updating developments as they happened – it was managed by a Hong Konger living in the United States and supported by volunteers from all over the world. They were thousands of miles away, and yet the idea of a pro-democracy movement excited them so much, they felt they had to contribute.
This constant flow of information, this sense that we are all somehow linked – that something that happens to a person on one side of the world is relevant to people on another – is a powerful thing. Communities form around ideas and values rather than location and nationality. Free speech advocates don’t feel they need to be from the same country as a blogger facing bankruptcy for allegedly defaming a politician, before they offer help. Neither do child rights activists think they should shut up simply because a teenager institutionalised over a YouTube video isn’t one of their own.
Perhaps solidarity as a concept was a little harder to grasp when the Internet wasn’t so much a part of our daily lives. But surely, there is no excuse now? Go online and we are inundated, every single day, with calls to action. Should Singaporeans not support Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s courage simply because she is Pakistani and we are not? Should we not be concerned that the seafood we consume might be caught by fishermen tricked into slavery? Should we only look inwards, and only care about what happens within our own borders and nowhere else?
Surely not. There is nothing wrong with showing solidarity for people who are not from your own country. Which is why it is strange that someone as clever as Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan should slam Singaporean “activists” (why the inverted commas, Mr Kausikan?) critical of ASEAN or “foreign groups” that might have given support to Roy Ngerng or spoken up for Amos Yee.
I was in Hong Kong when some 60 activists from 15 civil society organisations protested outside the Singapore Consulate. The crowd was made up of a diverse group of people – teachers, students, politicians, labour activists and even members belonging to a union for foreign workers. Many had read about Yee’s detention online, and had taken time off their weekend to join the demonstration. Singaporean politician Goh Meng Seng spoke and was careful to emphasize that he did not agree with the video that got Yee in trouble. He said he was protesting the state’s treatment of a teenager. Despite his nuanced speech, he’s since become the target of online attacks from some outraged Singaporeans – as if speaking at a protest in Hong Kong made him a traitor.
The very idea that ‘outsiders’ cannot criticise a country, and citizens from that country cannot agree with the same ‘outsiders’, is ludicrous. Anywhere else in the world, the arrest, trial, detention, shackling, tying down, and institutionalising of a young person over a rude YouTube video must surely trigger alarm. Is it so surprising that some people from other countries were outraged, or that international organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations spoke up?
Equally puzzling was Senior Counsel Davinder Singh’s accusation that CPF blogger Roy Ngerng used foreign organisations to “pressure” the Singapore courts. Ngerng, who has been found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had, during the hearing to assess damages, submitted letters of support from NGOs from Switzerland and the Philippines. He also told the court he had received a contribution of £5,000 for his legal fees, from a UK-based organisation. The judge’s response to Singh’s insinuations was that he did not feel any pressure from external parties.
So why did a Senior Counsel, Singapore’s mainstream media and Ambassador Kausikan make such a big deal of the fact that Ngerng had some help from abroad? Google “Roy Ngerng” and 245,000 results pop up in 0.37 seconds. It’s not every day a Prime Minister sues a citizen for defamation. Of course plenty of people around the world are interested. Of course some of these people are going to offer Ngerng support.
But what if more sinister motives are at play? What if, as Ambassador Kausikan implies, “major powers” are trying to “import their competition for influence into our domestic space” via “collaborators”? In the absence of real evidence, the onus should naturally be on those making such allegations to prove their case.
The Ambassador’s suggestions on how best to counter “foreign attempts at domestic interference” are worth noting. He believes we should have a better understanding of our own history, although “there is no substitute for an alert and efficient Internal Security Department”.
Yes, let us all understand Singapore’s history a bit better. Let’s have a thorough accounting of why the ISD felt it necessary to launch Operation Spectrum. Then, as now, there were allegations of unsavoury ‘collaborations’. Today, those who were arrested and detained without trial say there was no “Marxist Conspiracy”. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has himself expressed doubt that such a plot existed. Despite headlines in Singapore’s newspapers claiming otherwise in 1987, it now appears the so-called conspirators were merely helping aggrieved workers and the downtrodden.
This kind of solidarity is apparently a little hard for some powerful people and their supporters to understand. Perhaps they see no reason why an uninvolved party should stand up for another person. When this happens, they are incapable of thinking beyond collaborators and conspiracies.
Still, the Ambassador is arguably justified in being so cautious. Perhaps it is possible that some foreign powers might try to influence domestic politics via local grievances. The best innoculation against such attempts is for our government and leaders to not create conditions under which this kind of influence is even remotely possible.
Don’t want to cause global outrage by charging a child over a YouTube video? Don’t charge a child over a YouTube video. Don’t want to be accused of silencing your critics through defamation suits? Tear your critics’ arguments apart through open debate instead. Don’t want to mistake foreign displays of solidarity for something more sinister? Don’t give outsiders reason to believe your citizens need help.
It’s that simple, really.