The right to protest: A response to Minister Shanmugam on youth activism and law-breaking

The right to protest: A response to Minister Shanmugam on youth activism and law-breaking

by Teo Soh Lung

I thank Minister K Shanmugam for his response to my post.

I am happy to apologise for wrongly assuming that he was in Singapore when the students presented their letters. Would he, when he is home, meet them?

I concede that as a minister, Mr Shanmugam has met more young people than me. But I think he has missed a group of young people who are deeply passionate about their cause/s and are prepared to break the law as the minister puts it.

But is “law-breaking” always wrong? This is where he and I do not agree.

In 1803, Prudence Crandall broke the Black Law when she admitted an African-American girl to her school. She was arrested and spent a night in jail. Rather than continue with Connecticut’s racial discrimination laws, she decided that if white girls won’t attend her school with black girls, she would educate black girls. Repeated trials for breaching the law, as well as backlash from the community, made it unsafe for her to manage her school. Ultimately, she was forced to leave the state. Years later, she was honoured as Connecticut’s State Heroine.

It took more than 200 years and thousands of people jailed before discriminatory laws were slowly repealed.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi, at the age of 61, broke the British salt laws because he didn’t agree that tax should be levied on such an essential item that affects the poor. He led a 385km march from his ashram to Dandi. Thousands joined him. It took them 24 days. At Dandi, he contravened the law by making his own salt. In the next two months, his followers continued to break the law. Nearly 60,000 people, including Gandhi himself, were arrested.

Today, Gandhi is respected by every activist for his non-violent resistance, which helped end British rule in India.

I fully understand the minister’s preference for orderly communications and dialogues behind closed doors. Write to REACH is one way to give feedback. I have tried writing to REACH as well as ministers. But I don’t even get an acknowledgement! If all his methods work and changes suggested by citizens are implemented, I think there would not be any attempt to publicise a cause by breaking the law. The problem is that these orderly processes don’t work. Many are disheartened and stop being civic-minded. It is Singapore’s loss that youthful idealism is killed before it can even flower. But for the government, it may be considered timely intervention.

Minister Shanmugam said that my advice to let the young people break the law “will inevitably lead to protests of a much more violent and intemperate nature that we see in some other countries”. I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion.

I don’t agree that walking to the Ministry of Home Affairs procession-like will cause chaos and disorder. In fact, the students dispersed peacefully after two of their representatives delivered their letters. What is there to investigate? Why waste the time of the police in having to interview 30 or 40 students?

Incidentally, my comment on the students is not restricted to them. If 1000 old or middle-aged people peacefully delivered 100 letters to his ministry, I would still maintain that the police should not take any action.

Violence is not an inevitable consequence of a protest. Peaceful, non-violent protests are the norms today. If any protest turns violent, it is usually sparked by outsiders or enforcement agencies. So I urge the minister to be more relax and have confidence in the people. We too love Singapore and will not turn it into a burning city.

Minister Shanmugam accused me and a few others of repeating “old tired tropes”. I don’t think this is fair. Activists know that change cannot be achieved in a day. It is thus necessary to repeat old tropes as the government too keeps repeating its old tropes that it does listen to the people!

Over the decades, many laws and amendments to existing laws which curtailed freedom of speech and expression have been passed. The one-person unlawful assembly or procession law is extremely oppressive. I have been consistent in criticising this law ever since its enactment and each time some young people get arrested and jailed. It is an old trope but this ridiculous law remains on our statute books. So how can I not repeat old tropes!

Today, we have many laws that authorise the executive to make orders restricting the rights of individuals. POFMA for example permits the ministers or their subordinates to issue correction notices. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act also allows ministers to issue restraining orders. This is wrong.

Judicial powers should rest with our judiciary. Our Constitution guarantees the separation of powers. While it is convenient for ministers to issue orders and notices, it erodes the power of our courts.

When Singapore achieved independence, oppressive colonial laws should have been repealed. Instead, new laws that were even more oppressive were and are being added.

Minister Shanmugam referred me to Janan Ganesh’s article in FT. I thought the minister once said that he is not bothered by the opinion of foreign journalists? Why does he need Ganesh to endorse Singapore’s achievements? Anyway, I read the article. I find it too convoluted and I wonder if his description of Singapore as a “libertarian nanny state” is really a compliment!

As for the Citizens’ Well-Being Chart, I am impressed with the 0.12 per 100,000 murder rate in Singapore compared to 6.38 in United States and 1.17 in UK.

While the minister may want to take credit for his strict laws and efficient law enforcement agencies, I am incline to think that people here, including the 1.5m migrant workers are law-abiding, nice, gentle, peaceful and helpful. Perhaps the comparison should have been made about money-laundering and white collar crimes rather than murder as we are a small and extremely rich city state which measures success by material wealth.

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