The Politics of Free Speech (With Some Constraints, of Course)

Posted by Lingam Ponnampalam under Breaking News on 27 November 1999

Get up and do something about it! With these words, Mr Viswa Sadasivan captured the thrust of a forum on Active Citizenship and Politics in Singapore yesterday.

The theme of the forum was: Exploring Political Expression and Action. It is part of a series of seminars, forums and workshops organised by Think Centre to address issues facing us as we enter the new millennium.

Fifty people gathered at the Regional Language Centre to hear three speakers give their views on how people can stake their claim in the country and get involved politically. They also identified the obstacles that may stand in their way.

Mr Sadasivan who is the Chairman for a discussion group with the Feedback Unit, Ministry of Community Development, said that getting involved usually means taking direct action by joining working committees and political parties.

"But it can also mean contributing ideas and opinions" he said.

From his experience with the Feedback Unit, he finds that our leaders do pay attention to what you have to say.

He recounted how a paper the group submitted made its way to the highest levels of government.

But that has not made him partisan in any sense. "I am not a card-carrying member of the PAP or of any political party for that matter, but I must say I am very proud of my association with the Feedback Unit," he said.

Another speaker, Dr Kevin Tan, president of The Round Table, a non-partisan political discussion group, made the point that political participation was a citizen's basic right.

He noted that over the years there has been a clear division - who is in and who is out of politics, an "us-and-them mentality".

You're either a private citizen or you're a politician. And when those who belong in the first group comment on policy and government, they are always challenged to step forward and become politicians.

"Why must citizens become politicians in order to comment on politics?" he asked. "Shouldn't they have the right to comment and make proposals? Political participation isn't just a right. It's a responsibility."

The final speaker, Workers Party's Mr Low Thia Khiang, MP for Hougang said that expressing political views and taking action has long been taboo in Singapore.

But this is challenging as more people want to comment on policies affecting them without entering politics.

He noted that the people's involvement is still largely in the areas of social welfare and development where they help implement government initiatives and policies - exercising civic responsibilities.

"But we should move to become a civil society," he added, where "people should play an active role in discussing and analysing the impact of policies and should be able to speak freely and critically without fear."

Some other highlights…

CIVIL SOCIETY Not to be confused with civic society where the people engage in social welfare and development and promote government initiatives. A Civil society is where citizens can influence and exert pressure on government for changes in policies, where people can exercise their rights without fear and debate issues affecting them.

CLIMATE OF FEAR There is a reluctance to speak us for fear of consequences. Mechanisms like the Internal Security Act hinder free speech. The solution is to engage in more forums and debates, to show people that it is possible to be critical and still survive. Right now many people use fear as an excuse to avoid getting involved.

GROUND RULES FOR DEBATE There is no such thing as unbridled freedom. There have to be ground rules. Don't insult race or religion, don't exploit sensitivities. Then the debate can progress.

THE DIVIDE Government is not the sole representative of governance. This role is shared with the people, all people, as individuals or groups. This is the people sector and they must feel free to speak in the language about things they are comfortable with. Civil society must penetrate to the heartlanders.

THE CONSTITUTION Does the constitution hinder the development of a civil society. No, the constitution has in it the provisions for a civil society and it guarantees rights. But the problem lies in the reading of the constitution. The rights have not been championed for a long time and we must look into this and call for the implementation of these rights.

CONSTRAINTS OF LIFESTYLE Many complain that the rat-race and demands of family leave them with little time or energy for political participation. Could this infrastructure have been put in place to keep us out of politics? Ultimately, it is a question of one's values that determine one's priorities. Those interested will make time, those who aren't will use it as an excuse. But no one should be forced into civil society or made to feel less of a citizen than another. At the end we will get the society we deserve.

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