Democracy and civil society in a nanny state

By Martyn See

When I started blogging and making political films in 2005, my intention was to disseminate information. To peel the scales off the eyes of my fellow Singaporeans to what Lee Kuan Yew and the People's Action Party (PAP) did to maintain their grip on power. To counter political apathy. To wipe the dirt off of words like human rights, social justice and democracy.

Today, such information are available on the internet: Operation Coldstore, Operation Spectrum, Chia Thye Poh, prison torture under Internal Security Act (ISA), subversion of rule of law etc. Books have been published, public talks held, films made.

And yet, the PAP has suffered none of the consequences of their authoritarian past (and present). The party and the system remains robust and monolithic.

On the other hand, civil society and opposition parties remain feeble, fragmented and financially strapped. Being a human rights activist in Singapore still carries a stigma and a potential knock on the door from the police.

Many Singaporeans cite FEAR as the key consideration for their unwillingness to engage in political action, but that is only half of the equation.

The other half is less obvious but more telling: Singaporeans simply DO NOT WANT change or reform badly enough to risk any inconveniences to their jobs, their families and their lives.

Chee Soon Juan is wrong. Democracy is not for everyone, and not everyone wants democracy. Some societies and cultures, such as the Arab nations, eventually fall back to a default authoritarian mode, despite the promises of Arab Spring uprisings.

After 57 years of uninterrupted one-party rule, I'm afraid Singapore has become such a country.

Singaporeans do not really want a two or multi-party government. They do not trust the opposition or any non-PAP entity to run the country. What they want is a less elitist, less arrogant, more responsive and more liberal PAP to fix their trains, their lifts, their homes and their jobs.

Yes, Singaporeans do want more opposition, but enough only to frighten the PAP to do better.

While some like myself have long resigned ourselves to the fact that the PAP is incapable of reforming itself, many others continue to implore, plead and petition, on bended knees, in the hope that it will change.

Even many of our civil society activists - defenders of human rights, migrant workers' rights, LGBT rights, free speech rights and so forth - take a position similar to what Braema Mathi of human rights group Maruah once said in a public forum, "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater." In other words, "We want democratic rights, but we also want the PAP to continue governing."

In fact, much of our civil society's values parallel that of the PAP's. And this includes self-imposed limits on political expression. Cross the red line into racial and religious speech and you'll find your prison term cheered on by the very people who were expected to defend you. Amos Yee, Ai Takagi, Yang Kaiheng and Zulfikar Mohammad have all been there.

The PAP is adept at window-dressing Singapore as a free and fair democracy, boasting of elections, Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs), Non-constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and a free speech zone in Hong Lim Park, but make no mistake, its nature as birthed by Lee Kuan Yew is that of an autocracy and an oligarchy, and it will always be, because the party knows no other way to govern. But the electorate has no major issue with this form of government, as long as their (basic) economic needs are met.

Ultimately, the PAP is not just economically, socially and institutionally entrenched in Singapore, its values are also psychologically entrenched in the minds of the vast majority of Singaporeans.

On this point, Chee Soon Juan is right after all, "Our biggest struggle is not against the PAP. It is against what the PAP has done to our minds."

If the central tenet of democracy is the empowering of its citizens to decide their future, then is it still democracy when citizens decide time and time again to relinquish their rights to the dictates of one ruling party?

How does one advocate for human rights and free speech in such a Nanny State? Is it even worth the effort?

The answer is yes.

And here I refer you to my recent Facebook note on my 12 tips for activists in Singapore.

Tip #12 says : Don't expect results and rewards. These things are out of your control. Do the work because it is the most conscionable thing to do.

Good luck.

This entry was posted in Civil Society.