“Political education” among Singaporeans crucial in building a functioning democracy: New Naratif chief editor Kirsten Han

It is important to imbibe Singaporeans, especially the youth, with political education in order to have a functioning democratic society, said Kirsten Han, editor-in-chief of Southeast Asian journalism platform New Naratif.

Speaking on the second day of the inaugural FORSEA Conference and Democracy Fest at White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday (17 Feb), Ms Han observed that Singapore society appears to be “rife” with “self-censorship” that has largely gone “unrecognised” among Singaporeans themselves, on all levels “from the civil service to the press”.

“Yesterday, at the Malaysian Journalists’ Association booth, someone was wearing a shirt that says: Respect Media’s Existence or Expect Resistance” … In Singapore, that T-shirt would say: Respect Media’s Existence or Expect Resistance. Or Not. That’s Okay As Well,” she joked, inviting laughter from the audience.

“We have senior journalists in Singapore who – a video was leaked last year – who go to a forum and say, ‘We are not the Fourth Estate, we are not the watchdog of the government, we are not interested in being the watchdog of the government’ … So that is very much the dominant narrative now,” added Ms Han.

Recalling her conversations with local university students in Singapore, she said: “I have spoken to university students who would tell me that the government has never abused its power, and they trust that the government will not abuse their power. And then, five minutes later, when I say something, they will say, ‘You can’t say that – they will take you away’ …

“And they don’t recognise that this is a contradiction that they are walking around with. So it is very difficult to have conversations about abuse of power with generations of people who have no knowledge of abuse of power in their own country and context.

“It’s not even to the point of mobilisation on the streets, because you cannot get anybody onto the streets … Even activists themselves are afraid to go on the streets.

“It is about political education to inform people that certain things that we take for granted or are told is fact in Singapore is not fact. Singaporeans were not born apathetic … Certain things have happened to us as a people that has led us to this point, and it really requires a lot of effort to get Singaporeans to be more acquainted with our own history, and to hear a lot more about situations where things are just not right.”

Ms Han was responding to a query by moderator Pavin Chachavalpongpun – who is the associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University – regarding ways to “break through” the “self-censorship” that appears to plague Singapore’s society.

Consequently, Ms Han maintained that it is very important for Singaporeans to be politically aware, and to stand “in solidarity to push back” against the curtailment of certain rights as citizens in any form, “whether it is in the more overt form of the jailing of journalists and activists” or in subtler ways.

She noted that Singaporeans are “more shaken by” signs of possible “incompetence of the government” than human rights issues such as the death penalty, as observed in the outrage seen in issues from frequent train breakdowns to the increasing toll of deaths during National Service training of late.

Ms Han also suggested that the Republic’s economic progress is often mistaken as a reflection of a “mature democracy” by other nations in Southeast Asia.

“Singapore is very good at the kind of “drip, drip, water torture” sort of erosion of democracy” by law, “rather than anything that you can see in the media”, Ms Han posited, as seen in the escalating “clamp down” in Singapore’s civil society in recent years.

“That is generally not reflected in what people know of Singapore,” said Ms Han.

“I hear even from human rights activists in Southeast Asia that, ‘Oh wow, we wish we could learn from Singapore,’ and I feel like just saying, ‘You know, please find out what it is you’re learning before you want to learn from Singapore, because I guarantee that Cambodia and Burmese [Myanmar] governments are not learning about efficient bureaucracy … They are learning about some other things as well,” she quipped.

Citing the case of artist Seelan Palay, who received a two-week jail sentence in Oct last year after being found guilty of conducting a procession without a permit under the Public Order Act (POA), Ms Han said: “If you look in the dictionary, it’s actually physically not possible to be in a one-person procession … But in Singapore, we have managed to subvert [the] English language to use [the] law to criminalise one-person illegal assemblies”.

Similarly, she said, social worker Jolovan Wham is currently awaiting sentencing under the same Act for organising an indoor video conference featuring Hong Kong civil rights activist Joshua Wong of the Umbrella Movement via Skype five years ago.

“It is really, again, a rule by law situation,” said Ms Han.

Singapore’s Parliament capacity to pass “multiple laws” in a short span of time “without amendment” due to a “supermajority” system adds to the gravity of the crackdown on dissent, she argued, citing the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act which was passed in March last year as an example.

The Act was preceded by the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, which was introduced for its First Reading in February the same year.

While she noted that “the Government might not use it this way”, the legislation, “in its most extreme form”, permits “the use lethal weapons on protestors in a large sitting”.

“It’s very difficult to keep track of how rights have been given away,” said Ms Han.

The introduction of anti-fake news legislation and laws to “counter foreign interference to prevent funding to ‘politically involved’ individuals and organisations”, especially on the heels of a strongly predicted General Election this year, also appears to be a part of the “clamp down” on critical voices, she observed.

Ms Han challenged the notion that a “politically involved” individual is something to be viewed negatively in the eyes of the current government.

“What is a ‘politically involved’ individual? … In my point of view, everybody should be a politically involved individual. Why do we talk about this as if it’s dangerous?”

Another cause for concern regarding the state of democracy in Singapore, Ms Han observed, is Singapore’s apparent eagerness to adopt China’s surveillance methods.

“Our Home Affairs Minister [K Shanmugam], who is also our Law Minister, has openly said that China has a model with their CCTV networks that Singapore needs to emulate,” she noted.

“We are looking into facial recognition cameras on lamp posts, thermal cameras to catch smokers, satellite cameras to charge road tows based on distance travel … A lot of centralisation of data is happening, and in the past few weeks we have seen that the centralisation of data does not appear to be accompanied by efficient security measures,” added Ms Han, in reference to the HIV registry leak scandal affecting the particulars of over 14,000 people.

Ms Han was a part of a panel discussion titled “Critical Overview of Democracy and Human Rights in Southeast Asia”, alongside founder and director of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who argued that “regular elections are not a guarantee of a working democracy”, given the existence of an “illiberal democracy” wherein freedom of the press is curtailed severely in spite of elections during Najib Razak’s era, and Professor and Elected Faulty Regent of the Center of International Studies at the University of the Philippines Ramon Guillermo, who had delivered an exposition of the political situation under Rodrigo Duterte’s government in the Philippines, in which educational institutions are targeted and teachers profiled for suspected communist activities.