Freedom to Peaceful Assembly is a Universal Human Right
I wish to make two corrections to Ms Frances letter.
In 2003, a few Singaporeans protested outside the American embassy pre anti-iraqi war but they were immediately taken away by the police and given a stern warning.
With regards to the NKF saga, part of the protest which involved the 4 protestors outside the CPF building did mentioned NKF on their t-shirts.
As such, it would be erroneous for Ms Frances to claim that there were no protests against the Iraqi war or NKF.
I would also like to clarify a few points made by the writer.
In a country like Singapore, we need more public protests and not less as what Ms Frances believes.
Freedom to Peaceful Assembly and Free Speech is enshrined in our constitution though the government has made various changes and restrictions to these rights over the years.
Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Singapore is a signatory of, also claims that they are basic rights that cannot be taken away from citizens.
These are not just yardsticks of other countries. They are “universal” freedoms accepted worldwide; and practiced upon from Europe to America and even China.
To imply that Singaporeans should not publicly demonstrate because we are a unique country is not only misleading but demeaning to our integrity as human beings.
The real issue henceforth lies with the government on whether they will allow Singaporeans to protest publicly and if Singaporeans will take the initiative to demand for these basic civil rights.
In her letter, Frances also portrays demonstrations as “militant” and ‘irrational”. This is again misleading as peaceful rallies are not necessarily either of those.
While I agree that the three issues surrounding the NKF scandal, Melyvn Tan’s draft dodging and building of casino have been controversial, they still do not address the real political issues facing Singapore; mainly of the country becoming a democracy.
The original commentary, of which was my feedback to the letter, A Nation Speaking Out, is reproduced as below.
Tuesday • December 20, 2005
FRANCES ONG HOCK LIN
Peaceful rallies seized almost every capital city in the world in February 2003, staged in protest of the approaching Iraqi war. Yet Singapore remained a sanctuary of silence.
We are not a nation used to holding rallies; we are not allowed to hold a public assembly without a permit. Because of this, we have been accused of becoming a nation with no political soul.
Has this image of Singapore altered, as the year 2005 draws to a close? I believe that this year was a watershed year for us as Singaporeans.
We have long been labelled as apolitical, our youth accused of being apathetic. Yet, three events this year illustrate otherwise. Although holding mass rallies and emotionally-charged demonstrations is not in our culture, we have our own unique ways of showing how we feel about issues close to our hearts.
The first issue is the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) saga. Never in recent years did our collective voice shout louder for justice and transparency. Yet not a single demonstration was held.
We voted by withdrawing support for NKF. And in the end, overwhelming public sentiment led to the resignation of the board.
The second issue was the case of pianist Melvyn Tan. The issue of National Service and draft-dodging was debated with unprecedented openness and in the end, Mr Tan cancelled his performance because of the unexpected backlash.
All views on the casino debate were heard over a year, with Singaporeans divided for and against the opening it.
When the decision was made to open not one but two casinos within the integrated resorts, those against the casinos were disappointed, but they accepted the decision with grace.
What implications can we draw about the maturity of Singaporeans, as we collectively reached the big 4-0? Did we stop being the child that requires a host of laws, campaigns and fines to regulate our conduct? Have we reached a stage where issues can be debated objectively and rationally?
We have at least begun the process. These three issues demonstrated that there are people out there who care enough to pen their views and thoughts, letting their opinions be publicly scrutinised and their views be challenged.
Even the potentially explosive racial issue was handled with a surprising amount of level-headedness. Yes, some bloggers made the erroneous assumption that blogging is a private affair and thus, were more careless with what they wrote.
But others took the effort to correct their flawed views about race, while many reassured Singaporeans that these views did not represent the general opinion. All these arguments were reported in the newspapers rationally, so that prejudices and bigotry could be tackled.
For too long, we have used other people's yardstick to measure the level of openness in Singapore. I say it is time to hold our heads up and show the world there can be more than one manner of free expression. Freedom comes with responsibility and accountability. When we voice a viewpoint, we must be ready to stand by it and, to stand corrected.
What about the lack of support for the four protesters who stood in a row for almost an hour outside the CPF building in August? They were protesting for more transparency and accountability in the governance of Singapore — issues close to the heart of every Singaporean especially after the NKF saga.
But the days of union militancy, industrial action and sit-down protests are over. Singaporeans have grown to be rational and less willing to engage in politically-motivated action. I believe our society is beginning to evolve more like the ancient Athenian city-state, where debates were held in the open arena.
There is hope for Singapore, judging by the quality of letters to the newspapers. We have begun to question and examine many issues — from the quality of education in "elite" schools, to transport services and maids' rights.
As long as we continue to allow Singaporeans to explore, express and examine their views rationally through the written channel, there will be no need to hold emotionally-charged and potentially explosive rallies.
The writer is an educator and mother.
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