This month the SDP celebrates the 36th year of our founding. Anniversaries are good occasions to look back on the journey one has traveled if only to get a clearer picture of the road that still lies ahead.
It is old news that in the 1990s, trouble engulfed the party when its senior leaders had a falling out with Mr Chiam See Tong resulting in a split within our ranks. (Readers are invited to read about the episode and its questions here.)
The PAP, of course, wasted no time in capitalising on the division and did its damnedest to hang the blame on me. It still does. The negative reports (and whisper campaigns) were so intense that, at one point, many entertained the idea that I was an agent of sorts planted by the PAP to sow discord in the opposition camp.
All this took place during a time when the Internet was still in its infancy (the birth of social media was about another decade away). We were helpless in countering the lies that were spread about the SDP and me. It was a depressing period, to say the least.
We responded the only way we knew how which was to keep our sights firmly on laying out an alternative vision for Singapore. The result was Dare To Change, the first book I wrote in 1994 which the party adopted as its manifesto.
I subtitled it An Alternative Vision For Singapore as I wanted to push the idea that there was another way – a better, more hopeful and democratic way – of taking Singapore forward. In fact, I argued in the book that if we did not embark on political change, we were headed for some rather troubled times.
Such a message necessarily called for political reform as opposed to working within a system designed and operated by and for the PAP. This kind of talk attracted the especial wrath of those who wielded the power. This – and our fight for more political space which contributed to the establishment and subsequent loosening up of rules of the Speakers’ Corner – led to our being labelled by our foe (and, unfortunately, even some of our friends) as, at best, being out of touch with the public’s focus on bread-and-butter issues and, at worst, practising a destructive form of politics.
Again, all this occurred during the pre-social media years and to say that getting our side of the argument out was difficult is a colossal understatement. It was a dark period, but we were determined to persuade, not pander.
We clung on to our belief that fighting for democracy and our right to freedom of speech, first and foremost, was the right thing to do even though it meant us taking the road less traveled. Logic and experience told us that it was impossible to meaningfully engage the people on important national issues if we were politically bound and gagged; you cannot fight for your economic interests without political rights.
Fast forward to the turn of the decade and we see emerging circumstances that are beginning to prove us right. Decades of suppression of free and open debate has led to a government sclerotic in mind and impervious to change.
As a result, we see a morass of problems enveloping our society – moribund productivity, exodus of local talent, dependence on foreign talent, un-innovative culture, ailing rentier economy producing anaemic growth – threatening our future viability as a cohesive society and vibrant economy.
Worse, the proscription of public debate seems to have lulled the majority into thinking that our ways of the past will see us through the future. Independent and critical thinking – a quality indispensable in today’s world – is alien to our society.
In this regard, the most difficult part of the SDP’s work is still ahead. As arduous as our journey has been, we are only too aware that road ahead will be even more difficult.
But I am also happy to report that the party is stronger now than it has been at any point in our history. We’ve managed to attract capable Singaporeans into our fold which has enabled us to build on our vision by developing a range of detailed policy proposals that form the bedrock for an alternative model for Singapore’s future development and governance.
Organisation-wise, we have built up a team able to take up the challenge of change – a team forged from years of trials and adversity, and one which we are determined to grow.
It is, of course, superfluous to say that the future is fraught with pitfalls and traps. But as long as we remain humble and hungry, I have every confidence that, with the people’s growing support, the SDP will play a significant role in our nation’s future.
Make that our nation’s democratic future.