by Jolovan Wham
There are several comments online which suggest that those in the group who went to meet Dr Mahathir were being used by him. Sonny Liew also said that it was a bit naive for us to and meet him and not expect the backlash from the People’s Action Party to happen. It was pretty clear to me from the start that the Singapore government and the political establishment would not be happy with this meeting. But what I do on my seditious vacation is really none of their business. If they choose to throw a hissy fit, and let their imaginations run wild about acts of treason and betrayal, then they are showing themselves up for being their usual paranoid, authoritarian and petty selves.
What has not been addressed sufficiently so far is the “foreign interference” accusation when Dr Thum Ping Tjin urged Dr Mahathir to promote democracy and human rights in South East Asia. In response to Kirsten’s defence that Thum never referenced Singapore in that meeting, Minister K Shanmugam remarked “Kirsten Han then puts up a post saying that that is for South-east Asia and not Singapore. Where is Singapore if it is not in South-east Asia?”
Now, lobbying an overseas politician on political and civil rights in your country is nothing new. Activists all over the world do it. The most recent example that comes to mind is Hong Kong occupy activists lobbying politicians in the UK and US. International political pressure IS part of activism. Our stifling political and civic culture does not recognise this because we have been subject to one party rule for all our lives. Even if PJ had asked Mahathir to ‘bring democracy to Singapore’, instead of South East Asia, what’s wrong with that? One may question his choice of person to lobby but that is a purely strategic question, and has nothing to do with ‘foreign interference’ or subversion. Real interference is when a foreign government tries to rig election results, or breaks into your systems and tries to manipulate information and data.
Objecting to foreign intervention is a typical knee jerk reaction of authoritarian regimes. This was exactly what the Chinese Communist Party said about the activists in Hong Kong and what the Vietnamese government said about its own activists and prosecuted them for anti state propaganda. Foreigners intervene in all aspects of our lives, all the time. There’s enough xenophobia and abuse of migrants and refugees in this world already for us to be manipulated into thinking about being spooked by a phantom foreign bogeyman.
Seah Kian Peng and Shanmugam are whipping up false, narrow and dangerous nationalist sentiments with their comments about PJ not having Singapore’s interests at heart and implicating the rest of us in the process by questioning our association with him.
What they are really saying is that we don’t have PAP’s interests at heart because a more democratic South East Asia and Singapore would threaten their grip on power. If there’s anyone who is being divisive, it is Shanmugam and Seah for their irresponsible comments, and for unleashing a mob on PJ Thum and Kirsten Han.
Wham wrote, “When South Africa was under apartheid, South African activists and those from elsewhere urged international political leaders to uphold the rights of the victims of racial segregation. In ASEAN, activists from Myanmar urged foreign leaders to use their influence to install democracy in Myanmar and release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest when it was still ruled by the military junta.
What PJ has done is nothing more than an expression of solidarity in our shared struggle for greater freedom in ASEAN. As citizens and members of civil society, we should not be parochial but take a regional and international approach in our advocacy. The universality of human rights regardless of social class and national borders is the basic principle underlying such an approach.”