by Tan Wah Piow
Why did the meeting on the 30th August of four Singaporeans, and an exile with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian Prime Minister, rattled the ruling party in Singapore?
The background to the meeting was simple enough. The event was initiated by me, arranged by Hishamuddin Rais, a veteran Malaysian activist and writer, and approved by Dr Mahathir. We met, and talked for 80 minutes.
My intentions were four folds.
Firstly to present The Peoples’ Charter for Southeast Asia, a declaration of a new organisation called Forces for the Renewal of Southeast Asia (FORSEA). Of those present, only Hisham and I are members of the organisation.
Secondly, to invite Dr Mahathir as the keynote speaker for the inauguration conference of FORSEA.
Thirdly, to explore Dr Mahathir’s vision for the long term relationship between Malaysia and Singapore, and to examine how the current relationship could be further improved.
And lastly, to present a schematic proposal for the improvement of the Johor CIQ passenger crossings.
Since a meeting of this nature was unprecedented, I wanted to share the privilege with my younger compatriots. I invited historian Dr PJ Thum to attend, and extended the invite to other interested individuals. The format I devised provided the opportunity for each of my Singaporean guests to ask any question to Dr Mahathir. Dr Thum, journalist Kirsten Han, comic novelist Sonny Liew and social worker and activist Jolovan Wham attended in their personal capacity.
Hisham and I briefed the four Singaporeans before the meeting with Dr Mahathir about the format. Dr Mahathir had two aides in the room who took notes.I was present throughout the meeting, and also at the press conference that followed.
I addressed Dr Mahathir on behalf of FORSEA, and invited him to attend as the keynote speaker at our impending conference scheduled to take place in 2019. Contrary to what the Singapore Minister wanted the public to believe, none of the four Singaporeans including Dr PJ Thum invited Dr Mahathir to intervene in Singapore politics.
At the press conference that followed, I briefed the press about the FORSEA conference. The press conference was tape recorded by members of the Malaysian and Singaporean media, including Channel News Asia. It was made clear to the media that Dr Thum was not a party to the impending conference. He did not say anything at the press conference which could be interpreted as inviting Dr Mahathir to intervene in Singapore internal affairs. The newspaper headlines on the story informed readers of my invite to Dr Mahathir to speak at a conference about democracy in Southeast Asia.
The real question is why did the PAP Minister of Law who had no evidential basis to doubt Dr Thum’s or Kirsten Han’s patriotism, deemed fit to abuse his public office by launching a disingenuous attack on them, saying “But I think we should never go out and invite someone foreign, a foreign politician, to intervene in our domestic politics. I think that’s an absolute no no.”
Shanmugam’s “no, no” instigated vile attacks on PJ Thum, Kirsten Han and others on cyberspace. It is shameful for a Minister of Law not to withdraw those incendiary remarks when he was so notified by those affected. The PAP has deliberately resorted to manufacturing fake news, smoke and mirrors to create the new bogeymen of traitors in our midst, even to the extent of vilifying Malaysia, because their absolute political dominance was undermined by the sight of Singaporeans seeking dialogue with the Prime Minister of a neighbouring country.
Such audacity of the Singaporeans posed a challenge, and an existential threat to the politics of dominance of the PAP when most Singaporeans by the morning of 31st August had sight of the now iconic photograph of Dr Mahathir holding a Peoples’ Charter for Southeast Asia, with Hisham and Tan Wah Piow by his sides. There was also another photograph of Dr Mahathir with Dr Thum. The fact that Dr Mahathir had spent 80 minutes with the group also took the lightning out of Lee Hsien Loong’s PAP.
The group’s score of 80 minutes with Dr Mahathir versus Lee Hsien Loong’s 30 minutes in May with the newly minted Prime Minister would be remembered in history as a major humiliation to Lee Hsien Loong. This is because the 60-year old ruling party rested its political legitimacy on claims of competence and performance. In this zero-sum game, their loss on this occasion is easily understood.
For younger Singaporeans, the political significance of the photograph featuring Tan Wah Piow with the Malaysian Prime Minister might not be immediately obvious, but is certainly a “no, no” for Lee Hsien Loong and the entire PAP team. It was an embarrassing double whammy for the PAP because the architect behind this historically unprecedented event is Tan Wah Piow, a name the government had tried very hard to keep out of the pages of the mainstream newspapers since 1975.
I was, in 1974, President of the University of Singapore Students’ Union when they imprisoned me on a frame-up charged. A decade later, during the 1987 Operation Spectrum, the Singapore Government manufactured fake news on an industrial scale alleging that a group of intellectuals and social activists were part of an alleged Marxist Conspiracy ‘masterminded’ by Tan Wah Piow to turn Singapore into a Marxist State. The government had suffered a major credibility deficit over Operation Spectrum to this day as the survivors of that political crackdown are still actively campaigning for redress.
On 30th August 2018, 42 years after my exile, I unexpectedly returned as the main news item, with this high profile initiative to invite Dr Mahathir to a regional conference with Democracy as its theme. The propaganda of the PAP had constructed against me was based on lies, piling over previous lies, over the original lies of their founding father Lee Kuan Yew. On the 30th August 2018, this tower of lies against me was shaken to the ground, magically by one photograph, and 80 minutes with Dr Mahathir.
One can therefore imagine Lee Hsien Loong’s and his ministers’ dismay on the 31 August when their own state-controlled media inadvertently presented me in a positive light! “Activists invite Mahathir to conference on democracy” said the Straits Times. And in the Chinese paper “Tan Wah Piow and Hisham invite Mahathir to a conference on democracy”.
Presumably, the regime could have gritted their teeth and refrain from commenting if I did not invite the four Singaporeans to the meeting, and a roadside dinner after the event. The audacity of four young highly accomplished, high profile Singaporeans attending the Tan Wah Piow initiated meeting with Dr Mahathir amounted to an act of monumental defiance against the dominant party. Against the background of an earlier forum in Johor Bahru on the 18th August “Can Singapore do a Malaysia” when Dr Thum and I both spoke to an audience of Singaporeans, the PAP could see their weapon of fear crumbling before their eyes.
This is the crux of Shanmugam’s ‘no,no’. He had to put a stop to the rot that threatens to undermine the dominance of the ruling PAP. Defiance against the PAP is now treason against the State, as The State is PAP.
The new project fear of traitors in our midst is unleashed by turning the public against Dr Thum and Kirsten Han. Using fake news, and dog whistling tactics, aided and abetted by the PAP cyber troopers, the PAP have unleashed the latent bias some unthinking Singaporeans have had against Dr Mahathir and Malaysia.
When Singaporeans exercised their rights, exerted their individual sovereignty, and moved collectively as a group as in this situation, the dominant party has to reclaim ownership of their thoughts, if not their bodies.
The PAP are doing what they did in 1987. But 2018 is not 1987, thanks to social media and digital technology. If lessons are to be learned from history, this is the time to do so. We should not allow the PAP to once again destroy this latest generation of activists, as the regime did in 1963, 1974, and 1987.
This is the test of the political will of all right-minded Singaporeans, and all those in the opposition movement.