Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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Teo Soh Lung: Cracking down on dissent

by Teo Soh Lung

It was some years ago that Dr Thum Ping Tjin (PJ Thum) told me that he could not understand how I could live as a sort of “marked person” (this phrase is mine). I said I just live normally as we only live once and disregard the remarks of the government, though I must say that I get worked up when some childish People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs try to score brownie points by making irrelevant comments about me.

I felt really sad listening to PJ Thum in this interview. It was recorded after he was interrogated by the police at the Clementi Police Station for the second time concerning a satirical and creative video called “Discretion” which was aired some time before the last general election. This investigation is, I suspect a continuation of the harassment he had faced and will have to face for as long as he lives in Singapore.

I don’t understand why the police is spending so much time investigating the case. It is a petty matter, as petty as the postings I made on Cooling Off Day of GE 2015 and for which I paid a price beyond my imagination. I never thought that the Cooling Off Day “offence” was an “arrestable offence” (meaning the police can seize my properties) until I was shown the law in the interrogation room. The police had demanded that I hand over my mobile phone or be sent to the lock up. What followed that demand was then turned into “violence” when I was escorted to the police car and driven to my home where another team of plain clothes police officers who introduced themselves as the “forensic team” was waiting for me.

At my flat, they seized my computers and mobile phone.

Reading the post by PJ Thum, I am compelled to write this note.

Singapore is a first world democratic country. I do not think a first world government treats its citizens in the way Singapore does. What crime did P J Thum commit? He did not steal or cause personal injuries to anyone.

PJ Thum’s troubles started with his research paper on the role the communists played in the history of Singapore. His conclusion that they were no longer a force in the 1950s did not please the government. Instead of instructing a team of researchers to rebut that finding, it decided to use other methods to tame him.

I recall that when the POFMA Bill was sent for review by a parliamentary select committee, I was not impressed. My own experience at the Select Committee for the Amendment to the Legal Profession Act has left an indelible impression of what such hearings are all about. It was to me, a time for government officials to ridicule and belittle earnest and honest citizens.

When the committee called for representations from the public, the young activists were all excited and hopeful that at last the government was going to listen to their views. Function 8 decided that it should not dampen their spirit but to go along with them. We submitted a paper and indicated that we would be prepared to be examined by the committee if called upon to do so. We were not summoned.

I attended the first day of the hearing but left for Malaysia the next day. I did not expect any drama to be unfurled. But when I received news that P J Thum was grilled for 6.5 hours by Minister Shanmugam, I was shocked. What was happening?

The select committee hearing was a total farce, a replay of the select committee hearing of the Legal Profession Amendment Act in 1986 when PM Lee Kuan Yew took his revenge on some members of the profession. I was one of his targets. He failed to demolish “his enemies”. Similarly, Minister Shanmugam failed to demolish PJ Thum.

I recall that after the select committee hearing, I was advised by senior lawyers “to lie low”. I did but that did not help. What followed was the mass arrests in 1987 when 22 so called Marxists were arrested and detained under the ISA. Three of the 22 were students of the polytechnic who issued a statement in support of the so called “Marxists”. They were just kids of 17 or 18 years of age.

Watching the televised hearing after my return to Singapore, I knew that P J Thum and the activists who gave gave testimonies were targeted by the government and have become enemies of the state. History has a tendency to repeat itself.

Today we see multiple criminal and civil actions being taken against those who appeared before the POFMA select committee – P J Thum, Kirsten Han, Terry Xu, Jolovan Wham, Han Hui Hui etc. They and their friends have been hauled up before police stations to be interrogated for hours and days. Their electronic devices have been seized. Luckily the ISA is no longer a favourite tool of oppression. It is today reserved for so called “terrorists”, just to remind the public that it is an indispensable law as Singapore is under constant threat of being attacked by citizens and foreigners. Incidentally, the government has its unique and secret way of defining who is a “terrorist”. If P J Thum etc had lived in the 1970s and 1980s, they would have been thrown into prison under the ISA.

I am depressed that in this day and age, the PAP government is still practising its old tactic of harassing people who love Singapore but who do not agree with its policies. Why harass them? Why deprive them of employment and their contributions to our country. Why ruin their lives? Why misuse and abuse our police force?

Leaders must be humble and listen to the people. When there is disagreement, thrash it out. Do not use our police force to eradicate dissent. The police are employed to take care of the people and solve real crimes. As several of the police officers who interrogated me told me, they do not enjoy investigating activists. They prefer to solve murders and real crimes.

t is time our leaders grow up and treasure people who do not share their views and policies. There is no guarantee that they will always be in power. We won’t know if in another ten or fifteen years they may have to leave their posts. But perhaps, this is the fear they have for cracking down on dissent.


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