Friday, September 17, 2004

*Response to letter in ST Forum*

A response to Mr Siow...*sigh*...why do I even have to make these arguments??!!!

Dear Sir,

I read to Mr Siow Jia Rui’s letter, “Right of assembly doesn’t translate into having power to produce an effect,” with some dismay because he confuses assemblies with unruly mobs and civil disobedience as civil disorder when nothing could be further from the truth.

His key argument seems to center around examples of ineffectual demonstrations. Beyond that however, he takes up two issues, which are predicated upon the demonstrations. Firstly, he argues that there are counter productive. Secondly, he argues on the need for the rule the law to curb abuses of political power in the context of Singapore’s multi-racial, ethnic and religious society.

Firstly, I think it would be facile to counter one argument with another but needless to say, peaceful civil disobedience has been the major reason for the push in civil liberties. Historically in the United States, there was the Women’s Suffrage movement as well as the Black Civil Rights Movement, best exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr’s approach and in contrast to the terrorist like tactics of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. In South Africa, it was a major reason together with support of the International Community that led to the fall of the Apartheid Regime. Today and much closer to home, the massive march in Hong Kong forced the Legico to withdraw the highly controversial anti-subversion bill that threatened the very fundamental existence of Hong Kong’s young democracy and their Capitalist way of life. It also curbed the excess of political power and interference by Beijing in their Constitution, when the CCP threatened to go back on their promise of “One Country, Two Systems” during negotiations for the Hand-over. In Philippines, People’s Power I and II took down two unpopular and corrupt Presidents i.e. Marcos and Estrada. And to take him on his points, there was anti-Kerry demonstrations as well during the Democratic Convention and his ratings went up. It is due to an effect called the Post-Convention Boost and not simply the ineffectiveness of the demonstrations as Mr Siow wrongly suggests.

Thus, one needs to go beyond a mere listing of examples and attempt an analysis of what the right to assemble and demonstrate is. Needless to say, any form of action can lead to a backlash and a loss in support for the course of action and the cause. However, that does not automatically translate into the action in and of itself being bad. Obviously, the right to assemble and demonstrate can be abused but so can the Law and the Government and we do not see calls to disband them because they do fulfill a higher function. We have already seen how such a course of action can be a force of good. But furthermore, the right to assemble and protest is more important than the actual action itself because it provides for citizens another form of check and balance, beyond that of the intermittent ballot box, which is necessary for the running of the modern state. In general, no rights exist in a vacuum and if a demonstration becomes unruly, then the state has every right, within reasonable limits of methods, to impose order. Or as J.S. Mills eloquently puts it, “The right to move my fist, ends at your nose.”

On the secondly issue, the conflation of checks and balances and the situation in Singapore, I think it is awfully paternalistic of Mr Siow to suggest that the ever more highly educated and literate members of Singapore society are incapable of thinking rationally and not abusing their rights. What is the point of economic development if society and politics do not develop but lie stagnant alongside with it? It is simply incredulous to suggest on the one hand that the excess of political power must be curbed and yet deny citizens the ability to do so by massing and registering their displeasure outside of elections. The rule of law will not be fatally undermined; if undermined at all it is, by citizens’ right to assemble! Furthermore, it is simplistic to argue that our system of government cannot accept or handle any form of ‘Western’ notions of democracy, pluralistic politics and freedom of the press. What SM Goh merely and rightly warns against is the unthinking application of them!

Singapore is our home. And as citizens, we must take responsibility for it. We cannot abdicate our social responsibilities to the government. We must not keep running to it every time there is a problem. To have A Progressive Society, is ultimately up to us.


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