Recently, there have been two encouraging indicators of the potency of civil activism. The first is the case of Mr Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian man who had been convicted in Singapore for drug trafficking in the year 2008 and originally sentenced to death.
In 2013, after years of vigorous and tireless campaigning by anti-mandatory death penalty activists, the law was amended to allow for drug mules who were not ringleaders and who had cooperated substantially with the authorities to be granted an exemption from the death penalty. The same year in September, Mr Yong received a Certificate of Cooperation from the Public Prosecutor, and his life was finally spared in November, when Justice Choo Han Teck returned a verdict that reversed Yong’s death sentence.
This successful effort came about as a result of years of thankless, back-breaking work in which activists campaigned strongly against the mandatory death penalty regime, which gives no leeway to judges to exercise their discretion in sentencing such cases.
For their toil and sacrifice, these activist have been accused of many things, not least of which is that they were giving people like Mr Yong false hope. But the efforts of these activists were finally rewarded, and they saved a life.
These activists gave real hope to real individuals who deserved another chance at life, and there is absolutely nothing trivial or flippant at all about rescuing a person from being killed in our names. How many of us can boast that we have ever saved the life of a man?
Another encouraging indicator of the potency of civil activism is the recent government ruling to set the entry-level pay for cleaners at S$1,000 monthly — about 20 percent higher than today’s median basic wage for cleaners. There are also plans to include the security sector in this industry-specific minimum wage framework.
Although the government still shies away from implementing a full-fledged minimum wage policy across all industries, this tentative step taken to protect the basic rights and dignity of cleaners and security personnel is again testimony to the effectiveness of civil activism.
For years, just like in the anti-mandatory death penalty case, activists have put forth well-researched, well-reasoned, economically sound arguments for a minimum wage. But the government paid no heed, content with protecting the bottom lines of corporations at the expense of the rights and dignity of menial and low-skilled workers.
That the government is slowly reversing its hardline stance forbidding all workers the right to a minimum wage is a sign that it has finally succumbed to the pressure of sheer reason and natural justice.
Natural justice dictates that it is wrong for human beings to exploit or victimize each other in the name of the free market economy. The lack of a minimum wage is the sign of a corporatist state gone haywire and businesses riding roughshod over the poor and weak. It is the sign of a heartless and compassionless society that values material gain over human dignity and rights.
Today, while we are not where we want to be yet, we can see the government is slowly being forced to take necessary measures to right certain injustices.
The government is being forced if not by the sheer power of logic and reason, then by the immense discontent of the electorate whose willingness to return to power a regime that so consistently takes away their right to a free and dignified life must wear thin with each passing day.
Our civil activists have done us proud. They have saved a life and given hope to the lower-income segment of society. Such is the power and potency of civil activism.