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Drawing by Jeremy Hiah.

Public prosecutor VS Seelan Palay

by Teo Soh Lung

Does it surprise the government that 20 years after the world’s longest serving political prisoner and member of parliament, Dr Chia Thye Poh was freed from all obnoxious restrictions, a young Singaporean Artist, Seelan Palay, remembers him and performed an intriguing artwork at Hong Lim Park, National Gallery (formerly City Hall, the seat of government) and finally Parliament House?

Does it shock the government that this young artist was prepared to go to jail for his belief in the freedom of artistic expression and claim his constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly outside Hong Lim Park, a park that is an embarrassing imitation of London’s famous Hyde Park?

Perhaps the government is neither surprised not shocked. Perhaps it doesn’t care believing itself to be indestructible. After all, its entire energy and resources in recent years have been geared towards how it can further control the people who are getting more and more restless as the gap between the super rich and poor widens. Legislating new laws that tighten control of the people has occupied a large part of their time. It has always worked in the past and they believe it will work for the present and the future.

In 2009, parliament enacted the Public Order Act to further restrict free speech, assembly and expression. In 2016, it enacted the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act which further restricts free speech and expression. In between many laws have been amended to restrict freedom of the people.

Since 2009, the government has been busy reminding people that they have very little rights. In the past few years, many individuals have been hauled to the police station to be interrogated. They even had their computers and mobile phones seized. And some have been brought before the court for petty matters, unthinkable in other developed countries. But the young people continue to do what they think is best for the country.

The time has perhaps arrived for the authorities to execute more severe measures against those in the forefront of civil society. The intensive interrogation of several young and active citizens by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have clearly failed to stop the activities of the young. Even the refusal to register the online media “New Naratif” has not dampened the spirit of the young.

The Internal Security Act (ISA) may not be fashionable today. Something less draconian may work. Giving police warnings have not worked. Perhaps charging them in court and sending them to jail would instill more fear and they would stop thinking!

The young may lack the organising skill of past generations of activists but their courage and creativity are certainly commendable. The urgency to once again shock and terrorise Singaporeans has now arrived. And so we see the appearance in court of Jolovan Wham and Seelan Palay, two key figures in activism, in the past few days.

Is artist Seelan Palay the proverbial chicken to be slaughtered in order to teach the monkey? He was sentenced to pay a fine of $2500 or in default to serve a jail term of 2 weeks. He rightfully chose to go to jail.

Seelan Palay will now face travel inconvenience. He will always have to declare that he has a criminal record when he travels abroad.

IS THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT TREATMENT OF THE PEOPLE WORSE THAN THAT OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER?

During the days of our colonial master, an unlawful assembly must comprise of 5 or more people whose intention was to commit an unlawful act. In 2009, our parliament decided that since they have overwhelming power to make laws, including absurd laws, one person too would constitute an unlawful assembly and an unlawful procession. The burden of proving the unlawful nature of the assembly or procession however, still remain with the prosecution. Hence the need to prove that the act complained of was a demonstration of sorts. In this regard, Seelan Palay’s art performance had nothing to do with any demonstration. At best, it was entertainment without an entertainment licence. But he was nevertheless convicted.

Would the conviction of Seelan Palay now instil fear on all budding artists and young activists?

FEAR, THE GREATEST OBSTACLE TO FREEDOM

Singaporeans have often been told that they are living in fear. We do not act without approval from the government. We always ask if a permit is required from the authorities for our actions. We are not a natural, spontaneous people. Even our foreign friends take pity on us. They would not encourage us to do things which in their country was taken as their natural right.

In many ways, we are an abnormal people, always looking for approval from our government. We are like very young children, always seeking approval from their parents.

But must fear be felt by the people alone? Is there a possibility that government officials too feel fear, a deep fear of the people which often amounts to distrust of the people? If the common view that we are fearful of our government and we are powerless is right, why would the government enact so many laws to restrict our movement, our thoughts and our expression?

WHAT HAS SEELAN PALAY’S CONVICTION ACHIEVED?

In choosing to go to jail rather than pay the fine, Artist Seelan Palay has aroused the curiosity of the young and provided food for thought to those of us who were once upon a time active young people with fire in our bellies. The latter group includes Dr Chia Thye Poh who has disappeared from our midst for a very long time.

I question if by our doing nothing when our young people face trouble, we are helping the government to further tighten up their living space. Young people like Seelan has so much respect and admiration for Dr Chia. And yet Dr Chia has not said a word.

Seelan Palay has definitely brought awareness to the young. They are not only aware that a peaceful, artistic, solo performance can send a person to jail but also the dark side of Singapore’s history. Seelan Palay had wondered if he had done justice to his 32 years of freedom when he performed “32 Years: Interrogation of a Mirror”.

Seelan Palay’s trial followed on the heels of the persecution of another young Singaporean, Dr P J Thum. Dr Thum had raised awareness of the dark side of Singapore’s history at the Select Committee hearing on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. He had claimed that the arrests, torture and long term imprisonment under “Operation Coldstore” was a political rather than a security decision.

Many of those arrested and imprisoned for decades were founders of the PAP but their enormous contributions which led to the rise of the party were never acknowledged. Even after the death of some of the founders, their contributions have been ignored. Dr P J Thum has resurrected the dark past. It is something the PAP leaders will never forgive him and they will be very rough with him unless circumstances change – either the fear of the people is translated into courage and positive action or the PAP leadership realise that the fear they feel for the people is baseless and a reconciliation between the ruler and the ruled must take place for the good of Singapore's future.

Young Singaporeans are today witnessing violence committed against their generation. I believe the initial shock will be translated into curiosity about our past history, awakening and finally action.

As for those of us who have been traumatised by the government, I hope that we too will have an awakening. We owe the younger generation an explanation as to why they have lost all their constitutional rights today. It is time to refill our stomachs with fire and take action. There is not much time left to remedy the wrongs that have taken place in the past. We have a responsibility to the young and to the future of Singapore.