by Teo Soh Lung
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman's speech in the recent Majulah lecture at NTU is interesting.
Why did he say that Singapore today “is a vastly different and more liberal place compared to what it used to be?....”
Last year, he shared the same view with pre-university students.
“There is more freedom now compared to a decade ago, “let alone when I was your age”. ... I was a dissident, a government critic. It was completely different then, compared to where it is now....” (TODAY 31 May 2016).
I wish DPM Tharman was right. Unfortunately, he was wide off the mark. His People's Action Party (PAP) government is about to wipe out another generation of bright, young and committed activists today unless the young continue to resist and are able to withstand constant police harassment and be jailed as had happened to Seelan Palay outside Parliament House.
Will young Singaporeans follow the example of the blacks in America in the 1960s or the students who toppled General Suharto in Indonesia in 1998?
DPM Tharman had personally witnessed how civil society died in the 1970s. Hundreds if not thousands who opposed or criticised the PAP were incarcerated and tortured under the ISA. Just listen to Chng Min Oh, a trade unionist and Oh Teng Aik, a Polytechnic student tell the torture and hardship they and their families endured in the 1970s.
Throughout the 1970s, there were arrests every year. Activism died. Opposition parties also died. Those who managed to escape arrest became political exiles, never to return to their country of birth. We have several well known exiles – the late Mr Francis Khoo Kah Siang, Dr Ang Swee Chai, Tan Wah Piow and Ho Juan Thai. See Tan Pin Pin's documentary "To Singapore With Love".
When Operation Coldstore (1963) and subsequent smaller (though no less horrendous) operations took place, one generation of idealistic young people was destroyed. Arrest under the ISA was relentless and treatment under the PAP was even worse than the days under British rule. Those who did not want to face long term imprisonment without trial escaped. Chan Sun Wing and the late Wong Soon Fong escaped. They could not return to Singapore and Wong died in Thailand.
In the 1980s, a new generation of activists appeared on the scene. They were largely inspired by Mr JB Jeyaretnam who won the Anson by election in 1981. They witnessed the injustice done to Jeyaretnam when he was sued and charged in court. They attempted to create a fairer society and protect oppressed migrant workers. But they were swiftly put down in 1987 in the so called “security operation” codenamed Operation Spectrum. That generation lost their voice for the next 20 years.
The PAP's longevity seems to be dependent on the ruthless use of the ISA. It followed closely the practice of the British which used the Emergency Regulations (the forerunner of the ISA) to control the population. Leaders and potential leaders were arrested and imprisoned under the regulations.
Under the British, John Eber (lawyer), Maggie Lim (doctor), teachers like Linda Chen and a large number of university and school students were arrested. (For a fuller list, refer to The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore, Commemorating 50 Years edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa). The reign of the British was called the reign of “White Terror”.
If the people of Singapore had expected white terror to disappear after partial and later full independence, they were sadly mistaken. Independence did not give them the freedom from fear of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without trial. The ISA was not only retained but made worse for the people. Indeed, the PAP must have realised that what the British practised was extremely effective in securing and maintaining power! And so began the practice of snuffing out civil society and opposition leaders as soon as they appear. “Nipped in the bud” was the PAP's motto.
From the 1950s till today, two generations of activists have been lost. Is the PAP government about to wipe out another generation of activists?
In the last eight or nine years, civil society re-emerged. Those arrested in 1987 and earlier started to document and speak up. The young wanted to know what happened in 1987 when they were teenagers. Their parents did not talk about the arrests with them. They held a protest in Hong Lim Park.
The government was quick to react. It may not have the stomach to use the ISA on this new generation of activists but they know that it is supreme in parliament and could enact any law they wish. Parliament could legalise illegal acts and define terms any way it likes. The Public Order Act was thus born in that same year - 2009. It stretches the definition of illegal assembly to one lone protester. This law signifies to Singaporeans that the PAP will not tolerate even one person standing out of line.