Rallying cry to Singaporeans
Asia Post April/May 2000
By Margaret John.
Co-ordinator Singapore and Malaysia
Amnesty International Canadian Section
SELF-CENSORSHIP: SINGAPORE'S SHAME by James Gomez now available on line at http://www.selectbooks.com.sg/
ALMOST any new book challenging Singapore's political status quo is guaranteed to be eagerly read. James Gomez's Self-Censorship:Singapore's Shame has the extra significance -- unlike other books written and published abroad -- of being written by a Singaporean living in Singapore. Surprisingly, moreover, it was published in Singapore and was on sale there, which has raised questions about Gomez's independence from the notably restrictive government. Further, Singapore's Shame is very different from many others in that it is less a call for government reform and more a rallying cry to Singaporeans to take the responsibility of effecting change themselves.
Gomez paints the familiar grim climate-of-fear picture of Singapore and asserts that it is one of the few southeast Asian countries least likely to see political reform. His reasoning is that Singaporeans have been cowed into censoring themselves -- and others -- in the face of almost complete control by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which has punished critics through detention without trial, defamation suits and tax evasion charges, and has portrayed them as fringe elements dangerous to the good life the PAP has provided. The result is a citizenry that will not risk raising politically sensitive issues. That silence Gomez calls Singapore's shame. Philip Jeyaretnam's excellent foreword reinforces that theme, urging Singaporeans to "Dream of the impossible, and contemplate new happenings."
Gomez is at his best in describing the crippling situation in which Singaporeans find themselves. He roundly dismisses the government's preference for consensus-building (as in the recent Singapore 21 consultations) rather than allow oppositional politics; its emphasis on and interpretation of Confucianism; and its argument that "Asian values" rather than universal human rights norms are better suited to Singapore. His several anecdotes are gems. For example, he relates that, during the course of his working on the book, the reaction was often "Are you allowed to do this?," then "Will it get you into trouble?," and finally "Will it be available in Singapore bookstores?" Such anecdotes speak volumes and stick in the reader's mind far more than the early rather academic chapters.
Gomez is right in stressing that Singapore could be vastly different if Singaporeans spoke up. Change, as we have seen in many countries in recent years, invariably comes from within, though with the support of the international community. Yet I cannot bring myself to castigate Singaporeans who remain silent or exist through cooperation with the current political system. Who wants to join the ranks of Chia Thye Poh, Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong, J.B. Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee Soon Juan? In my view, Singapore is more shamed by the repressive policies and practices of its government than by people too fearful to pursue alternatives.
The Agenda for Action chapter has interesting proposals, some of which also surfaced in the March 2000 Human Rights Forum in Singapore, organized by the Singapore Think Centre, with which Gomez is associated. In order to empower people, he calls for the coming together of like-minded people to share ideas, identify key issues and disseminate their information widely, for example through cyberspace. He recommends more inclusive discussions, bringing in views from Singaporeans abroad and through regional and international networking. He also suggests specific topics for possible discussion, such as an Election Watch group, a citizens' charter and a public complaints bureau -- all legitimate issues for discussion in an open society.
Human rights campaigners have at times been called idealists incapable of understanding the "real" world, and some readers will certainly question the practicality of Gomez's proposals. But in his conclusion he himself forestalls the doubters, answering those who will say there is no need for reform in Singapore, that discussion should go through a political party, or that change will come after Lee Kuan Yew. The main obstacle -- the government's own intransigeance in allowing opposition views to be aired -- he clearly regards can be overcome only, or mainly,if Singaporeans stop censoring themselves and others.
Some years ago, former prisoner of conscience and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel said, "One thing I will not concede: that it is meaningless to strive in a good cause." Singapore's Shame is one more worthy effort in a good cause. Nevertheless, two crucial questions will continue to be asked: how distant is Gomez from the government and what will be the response of the people of Singapore?