I DID A double take when I read Mr Elgin Toh's column. The significance of SDP's attempt at remaking its image in which he wrote that the SDP stopped its acts of civil disobedience, or more popularly and correctly called non-violent action or NVA, because the “approach simply did not work”.
I'd like to think that Mr Toh had not kept up with history rather than been frugal with the truth.
But before I explain why, let me run this preface. The NVA which we conducted occurred in the earlier half of the last decade, a time when civil society was almost non-existent and social media had not been born. (Heck, the fax machine was still in use.) It was a time when SPH was king and the opposition was at the mercy of the bureaucrats at Caldecott Hill.
In addition, with the PAP employing tactics like suing the opposition, amending the constitution, and threatening voters, contesting for votes was a little like spitting in the wind, only more hazardous. We must have provided the ruling clique endless amusement once every four or five years.
The unpalatable truth is that without freedom of speech and assembly, elections are hollow. Just ask Mr Kim Jong-un. The Supreme Leader held one in 2014 and romped home with all of the votes.
But desperate as the situation was back then, we were not helpless. We had a potent weapon – our spirit.
And so on 29 December 1998, I picked up a portable speaker and made my way to Raffles Place where I spoke to a lunchtime crowd. I talked about HDB prices, the cost of living, CPF savings, COEs – amazing how little things have changed.
Before I ended my speech, I made an appointment with the audience to do the same the following week. A couple of days later, I read on the teletext (millenials may want to Google what this is) that the police would take “firm action” if I reappeared at the square.
On 5 January 1999, I showed up again with a bigger speaker and spoke to an even bigger crowd. (Aside: I learnt later that before I arrived, someone was singing “All we saying, is give Chee a chance” to John Lennon's All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. Also, a group of workers told me they had come all the way from Tampines to attend the speech.)
I was, of course, charged and convicted for speaking without a permit for both occasions.
This started a little flurry of discussion in the press; of course, with the mandatory condemnation of my act. But a couple of comments asked why, indeed, could Singapore not countenance greater freedom of speech.
A few weeks later, I read in the New York Times a piece written by Mr William Safire. Mr Safire had interviewed Mr Lee Kuan Yew when the two met in Davos, Switzerland during the World Economic Forum. The Times' columnist wrote:
"[Lee Kuan Yew] brought up the example of Chee Soon Juan, 36, a neuropsychologist who dared to run for Parliament. After being fired from his job and losing his home, Dr. Chee was arrested for breaching the Public Entertainment Act by trying to make a speech."
Mr Safire related in the piece how Mr Lee had, as the fallout from the police action continued, promised to set up a venue where Singaporeans could gather and speak:
"Joseph Nye, head of Harvard's Kennedy School, suggested that Singapore set aside a place like London's old Hyde Park Corner, where people gathered to hear speakers sound off freely. Lee promises: 'We'll probably do it.' "
A year later, the Speakers' Corner was established at Hong Lim Park.
It's hard to conclude from the above episode, as Mr Elgin Toh did, that the action that I undertook “did not work”.
Unlike Hyde Park, however, the Hong Lim version came with so many restrictions that rendered the free speech venue quite devoid of meaning or purpose.
When Mr J B Jeyaretnam and a handful of activists held a protest there calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act, the police called the organisers up after the gathering and warned them for chanting slogans and raising their fists.
Not only were slogans and gesticulation banned, music and the use of voice-enhancement gadgets were also forbidden. In addition, speakers had to register themselves at the adjacent police post.
As far as we were concerned, the place was a human rights joke. Observers quipped that the venue would be more aptly called Speakers' Cornered.
We determined that we would continue our protests to force further concessions from the government regarding the right of Singaporeans to speak. The NVA campaign, therefore, continued for several more years.
In 2008, the government surprised many, agreeably so, when it relaxed the rules to allow demonstrations at the park. Asked if it did this out of necessity, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Senior Minister, conceded:
"Necessity, in a way. Because to be relevant as a government, you must know the aspirations of a people. We can control you, oppress you. But we'd lose you, you’ll move elsewhere. So we have to move with the times."*
With the development, we re-assessed the situation and agreed that we had achieved what we set to do. To be sure, Singaporeans' rights to peaceful assembly is still a long way off – our right to free speech should not, and may not, be restricted to a tiny patch of grass in the middle of the island. But like Rome, freedom of speech is not built in a day. It takes civil society, whose number then was beginning to grow, to continue the struggle for our fundamental freedoms.
Social media also started to come alive at around that time. This made communicating with our the electorate radically more effective. It is no coincidence that the rise in the SDP's popularity took place alongside the explosion of Internet platforms like Facebook and Youtube.
We decided that it was time for the SDP to revert to the more conventional role of Parliamentary elections.
Again, back to Mr Toh's conclusion. Given what happened, is it reasonable to say that our non-violent initiatives were futile? To paraphrase George Orwell, sometimes it is better to create history than learn from it.
I've provided this narrative repeatedly in my books as well as spoken about it in this interview (watch video at about the 31:00 mark) during the last general election. Yet, the establishment continues the zombie-esque rendition that nothing good ever came out of our action.
More unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, is that the state media continue to disparage political activism and, more specifically, NVA. They refuse to educate Singaporeans of the progress humankind has made through the use of civil disobedience – most notably a la Mohandas Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King, Jr in the US, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Kim Dae Jung in Korea and Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia.
It should be painfully clear by now that what is legal is not always right and what is illegal is not always wrong.
I have often made – and will continue to make – the link between our political rights and economic interests. Without the former, we cannot protect the latter. The dismal situation of the retention of our CPF savings, the high HDB prices, income inequality, the influx of foreigners, etc, are a direct result of our inability to check the PAP.
Political rights must never be traded for wealth. We sup with the devil when we do so, and we all know how that story ends.
*Good govt needn’t fear demos: SM, Straits Times, 28 August 2008.
This post first appeared on CheeSoonJuan.com.