The Sacrifice for Justice and Equality

This year has just seen the passing of another champion of human rights and victim of ISA in Singapore – lawyer Francis Khoo Kah Siang, who had lived the last 34 years of his life in exile before his demise last Sunday in London. Francis Khoo had fought for the causes of poor fishermen and factory workers, protested against the Vietnam War and participated in a campaign to save The Herald newspaper, before he was wanted by the ISD during the security operation against alleged ‘Euro-communists’ in February 1977, when at least 28 professionals and intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned.

He escaped from Singapore just two weeks after marrying Dr Ang Swee Chai, later to be known not only as a prominent surgeon but also founder of the British charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians, and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem; the book reflected her transformation from being a fundamentalist Christian “who hated Arabs and saw the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as terrorists”, to a sympathiser of the Palestinian people after witnessing the Sabra-Shatila Massacre in 1982. Francis Khoo was also involved in various international charities apart from being a supporter of freedom movements like the African National Congress and PLO.

His demise is another sad story this year following the death of former political detainee and lawyer Tan Jing Quee, who had legendarily contested in the 1963 election as Barisan Sosialis and lost to Rajaratnam in Kampong Glam by mere 220 votes, before he was arrested under ISA and detained till 1966. During his last years, he was researching, writing and editing books on Singapore’s leftist movements despite his failing eyesight, and saw the publication of The May 13 Generation just a month before succumbing to cancer. In a tribute to him in June, Francis Khoo described him as a ‘bridge’ between generations, territories and communities, one who was fluent in English, Mandarin and Malay and believed in the unity of the Malayan people with Singapore as an integral part.

Will their examples awaken Singaporeans to the cause of peace, justice and equality that they have sacrificed for? Will we see a new generation of Singaporeans who treasure some ideals beyond a utilitarian attitude towards life?

Taking this opportunity to repost a blog published elsewhere in September during the government’s reiteration on ISA being “relevant and necessary”…  

The New Obscene Normality – Who Needs Justice and Equality in Singapore

Enough is enough with the complaint about Singaporeans being apathetic and gutless. Now that the Malaysian Government is repealing the Internal Security Act and leaving Singapore behind in the dirt road of history where democracy is concerned, this arbitrary deprivation of human rights in the name of national security is just glaring in our face as an obstacle to progress.

It has been this dehumanising tool of terror that broke the lives and efforts of past activists and opposition leaders, and along with the state-controlled media as well as laws restricting freedom of assembly and expression, stifled the imagination of the people these past decades by drilling into their minds that there can be no alternative to the one-party system.

More than that, such conditioning has resulted in a dulling of both mind and spirit of the masses, which, like domesticated animals, have learnt to leave all processes in the food chain to the care of the government and acquired the instinct of recoiling from any word or action that may seem ‘confrontational’.

It is only with the influx of immigrants, as born and bred citizens of Singapore suddenly find themselves losing in the race of survival of the fittest (or survival of the cheapest), to what seems like invasive species disturbing the balance in our small pond of ecology here, that one starts to snarl with resentment now.

All along, the only protest everybody seems to know is that little cross on the ballot just once every five years to mark support for the opposition. GE2011 however finds Singaporeans learning to make some noise again like they have never done in an entire generation. With the recent presidential election, the crowds are booing in stadiums at any mention of PAP-endorsed candidate Dr Tony Tan. (There was even said to be booing at him as elected president during an international football game.)

But seriously, can we do better than that? All this negative energy, whatever is it for? Just because one doesn’t like his pompous spectacles and his plastic-looking hair? Or because the prestige he represents and the obligatory support of clan associations and chambers of commerce he enjoys seem as old-school as a feudalistic society?

Incidentally, Tony of all the four Tans happens to be the one who is most defensive of the ISA, but frankly, did that cause as much outrage as the story about special treatment of his sons during NS? The point here is not whether we can call Singaporeans to arms to emulate Malaysians in a Bersih movement, but is there a danger of people becoming a mob without any tactic except being anti-government or anti-elitism?

Are we going from apathetic to just resentful and indignant, because we have lost faith that our interests are being served? Are we voting for one candidate just because he may help to protect our CPF money, or another candidate just because he takes keen interest in certain problems of investment?

Are we celebrating Curry Day because we treasure the unique multiculturalism we have in Singapore, or just because we want to insist on a Singaporeans-first treatment to the exclusion of foreigners? Isn’t it too damn easy? We are happily eating to show our love for Singapore, when people in India are renouncing food in a hunger strike against corruption?

If alternative voices are to be heard in Singapore, the game surely has to be stepped up, for we are entering a new era today. One-third of Singaporeans may call it the new normal, while those less approving would think of it as an obscene normality. This is no time to feel shy about any exception to general principles, only the bold will triumph by talking one’s way out or by adamantly denying any irregularity.

It is not just how Home Affairs Ministry’s refuted the joint statement on 19 September by 16 ex-ISA detainees on being held for their political beliefs, how it insisted whatever social activism in 1980s was linked to the the Communist Party of Malaya. (Where is the independent body who can judge?) As the latest onslaught of WikiLeaks shows, reality can be more warped than fiction. You thought the Singapore government only looked into feasibility of nuclear energy last year? Well the deputy CEO of the Energy Market Authority Lawrence Wong (now minister-of-state for defence and education) was talking to the US Embassy about it with keen interest back in 2008! You thought the Singapore authorities just have a soft spot for bus drivers, doctors and beer promoters from China? Well the ruling party’s youth wing Young PAP has been nurturing close ties with China’s Communist Youth League for many years, seeking inspiration in a Beijing party school for its own political training!

And would you have guessed, the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim has children who are American citizens just like his wife? (His poor son, it is decided for him in a public statement that he will serve his NS in Singapore, guess he better work on his Malay as Foreign Language!) Yet another cable reveals the frustration of younger Straits Times journalists over press controls, being stifled by editors who have been groomed to follow the government line instead of encouraging more investigative and critical reporting, especially since ministers routinely call up editors regarding coverage. Not that any reader would be surprised – the newspaper has habitually been most investigative when it comes to voices of dissent, like an overt counterpart of the ISD effectively.

But an editor actually decides to come up with an apologist response without sounding apologetic, saying one would have gladly admitted journalism here is kept on a leash if anybody had asked. It’s a bit like, come on, let’s be adult about it, what’s wrong with a red light district in Singapore, the police is well aware of it and the prostitutes are in full cooperation with them, it’s those without approved license that we worry about, right? In fact, it looks like the police controls the business!

The most blatant appendage of the one-party system reared its ugly head when Aljunied MP Chen Show Mao from Worker’s Party had to be de-invited by organisers from a Hungry Ghost celebration event, due to pressure from CCC under People’s Association. PA soon practically admitted to being a party organ of PAP, by making a statement to assert its authority in appointing grassroots advisers, saying that opposition MPs cannot be expected to play this role in their own wards. Well anyone aware of the PAP-grassroots-advisor-turned-MP story in Potong Pasir ought to be wary of such patterns.

It is no secret that PA served to counter the influence of the Barisan Socialis party back in the 1960s. Some may consider the incident as trivial as the story of an NSP supporter being barred from using a CC toilet while wearing a ‘political’ T-shirt. But how can one afford to let go when every inch of public space has to be fought here, when whoever occupying the throne would never give so much leeway to others? The SDP has pointed out how abnormal it is for a democracy, that an opposition party is not even allowed to visit university campuses or talk to residents in open areas in housing estates.

To show that it is moving beyond gutter politics, the incumbent party really needs to do more than posing in gay-friendly pictures next to a celebrity like Kumar. (Come on, he is so drag, when he came out saying he is gay, everybody must be waiting for the real punchline. How about 377A, which can still be used as a weapon against citizens?) What the MPs can do instead when the Parliament convenes, is to make at least pretence of thinking aloud on the issue of ISA, just to demonstrate there is no groupthink and prove that all the salaries for Singapore’s limited talent pool are not going down the john. (Never mind for now the phenomenal income of the President of Singapore, the one who lost S$14 billion while in charge of the GIC and is now supposed to guard the national reserves.)

One can always make a beautiful speech about strengthening bonds between different ethnic communities as part of psychological defence. (How about a Halloween party for religious harmony? We may not agree on which God or deities to worship, but every culture should know of lost souls and aggrieved spirits!) Or how about better education and employment opportunities for the minorities?

Better still, upstage the opposition by adapting Workers’ Party suggestion for specific anti-terrorism laws. Why should we rely on such an outdated law to fight terrorism, if not to make up for lack of intelligence and lack of evidence? Are we trying to prove there is equality in Singapore by reserving power to detain anybody regardless of race, language or religion, regardless of Islamist terrorism, Chinese chauvinism or general leftist dissidence?

The final verdict on us Singaporeans, if one may judge by the less than adequate support for a party like SDP with its banner of justice during GE, is that we are more utilitarian than idealistic. That means as long as economic benefits here are tangible, most of us would not lose our sleep thinking how some people have to sacrifice years of freedom for their political beliefs (former opposition MP Chia Thye Poh suffered 23 years of detention and 9 years of house arrest, lest anyone has historical amnesia), or if the government decides to put away some people believed to have terrorist tendencies, as a form of preventive detention in the name of social stability.

The Universal Periodic Review process for Singapore at the UN Human Rights Council last Thursday probably sounds as alien to people here as an occurrence galaxies away. (UN’s call for an independent election body sounds heaven-sent for the democratic process here but is unheeded, again no surprise.)

Nevertheless, we tend to be irked by the lack of social justice or equality, when certain people seem to enjoy a better life just by nobility of birth or by ethnic or national origin. We may not buy an empty word like ‘meritocracy’ any longer, if it seems an indefinite and absurd stretching of what Aristotle formulated eons ago before Greece’s impending bankruptcy: ‘Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’.

With the high costs of living and little job security today, the free lifestyle that Singapore is keen on protecting from harm may seem as removed from the masses as the casinos and the F1 race (the Singapore government wouldn’t mind helping Sumatra put out forest fires, so that F1 spectators can enjoy a clear view of cars zooming by!).

News released this month on three men being detained for terrorism-related activities, along with the setting up of a new terrorism research centre (headed by one Rohan Gunaratna of Playboy interview fame: moderate Muslims “don’t have the willpower or the ability” to fight terrorism. “That’s why the West must work with moderate regimes and people.”), are apparently events timed in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of September 11.

But the resorting to ISA once again may be understood by the man in the street today as none other than an opportunist weapon to help the ruling class maintain the status quo, in a post-colonial society where only freedom of the privileged is safeguarded. It is a system of justice that is arguably totalitarian in reasoning, and how far citizens of Singapore should endure such unlimited power, will be a question to be tested as part of the political game.

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