10 May 2006

Sylvia Lim to be NCMP

It has been reported that the Central Executive Committee of the Workers' Party has elected Sylvia Lim to hold the post of Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. There were 9 votes for, 1 vote against and 2 abstentions. It is notable that the WP has generally a stand against the NCMP provision, arguing that it is merely a token effort on the Government's part to legitimise its dominance in Parliament. The WP has rejected the offer of an NCMP seat twice, in 1984 and 1988. In 1991, Dr Lee Siew Choh took up the offer of becoming NCMP, and in 1997, the post was held by J.B. Jeyaretnam.

The following article on Sylvia Lim has been taken from Singaporeans For Democracy.

Sylvia Lim, a law lecturer, shares her thoughts and experience on joining the opposition. She contends that, "The real service is rendered not by the critic who stands aloof from the contest, but by the man who enters it and bears his part!!"

You should have seen the horrified faces of some of my friends when I told them that I had joined the Workers' Party. "You better start sorting out your assets"; "Any skeletons they can dig up?" "Are your income tax returns in order?"

I am not by nature a political animal but I do believe that having opposition political parties and opposition Members of Parliament is important for Singapore. I suppose the natural instinct of lawyers is to value diversity of opinion and to question propositions. We believe that a hearing will achieve better results if there are two views fully canvassed by opponents who are equally resourced; when sometimes a court hearing proceeds only with one party's views aired, the law requires that party to be fully frank and to disclose all points even if detrimental to its case, so that the court will make a decision which is, at least, somewhat informed.

During my life-time, one Party has dominated Parliament. Passing laws and amendments to the Constitution is quite easily done. The Constitution is a fundamental document; one of its key roles is to define the limits of State power over the people. Amendments to the Constitution should be carefully scrutinised and in some countries such as Switzerland, the Constitution can only be amended by a referendum where the people have to vote. Compare that with the situation here. Since 1984 when I first encountered the Constitution in university, this document has grown about three-fold in thickness due to numerous amendments. One advantage arising out of this is that if one looks at the history of some of the amendments under The Government and The Legislature, one has a good idea of when our Presidential and General Elections were held!

Many of our laws are widely drafted so as to give much administrative discretion to our civil servants in their implementation. This is dangerous for us. I recall a Parliamentary debate in 1995 over a law which would make it an offence for a person to appear nude either in a public place or even in a private place if exposed to public view. It was suggested in Parliament that the law should be drafted to include words showing that only a person who deliberately exposed himself would be punished. The government refused to make the amendments, saying that the good sense and discretion of the police and prosecuting authorities would ensure that persons who were exposed inadvertently would not be prosecuted. Question: can you trust good sense and discretion in the face of wide powers? True enough, 2 years later, I was engaged to defend a man who was charged under this law even though, according to the prosecution's own version, he was exposed by someone else. It was frustrating - and thankfully the presiding judge apparently remembered the Parliamentary debates and acquitted my client. But he need not have undergone the trauma of being arrested, charged and tried, and of risking his reputation, not to mention having to pay some legal fees which were not reimbursed by the State! Moral of the story - rely on good laws for your rights rather than rely on good people to make up for bad laws!

A respected friend recently told me, "The good thing about the PAP is that it is inclusionary in its policy making". He was probably thinking about the multitudes of Committees and sub-committees going about economic review and remaking Singapore, in which he was involved. I wondered aloud if we were happy living in a system where the ruling party in practice determines when and what we can discuss, and from whom they are willing to hear.

Immediately after the 1997 General Elections, I was in court when I heard from some lawyers that Mr JB Jeyaretnam, veteran opposition politician, had been issued with about 8 writs of summons by 11 Plaintiffs over a statement made at an election rally concerning his then fellow candidate Mr Tang Liang Hong's police reports. These suits made me write to him and I came to know him on a cordial level. During my occasional visit to his office, I saw the spectacle of literally piles of applications and affidavits coming in from various big-name law firms, while he and his lone faithful secretary valiantly attempted to respond to them. Due to some other defamation cases, Mr Jeyaretnam now sells his book almost daily in a crusade to get himself out of bankruptcy, at the age of 77. And dare anyone make a documentary about that?

The scarier question about Singapore to me, however, is not about the government but about our people.

After the last General Election 2001, a friend of mine lamented that Singaporeans were so obedient that the people even followed the government's endorsement or otherwise of opposition candidates. Hence, he said, Steve Chia of the Singapore Democratic Alliance was the highest loser with 34% votes, as he was praised by our Prime Minister for "speaking like a PAP candidate"; whereas Dr Poh Lee-guan of our Party got 26%. Could this analysis be right - that the people go by what PM says is good opposition?

Together with my Party mates, I have been selling The Hammer at various locations in Singapore. As expected, public reactions to us have been mixed, but noticeably many of the younger generation (say those below 21) seemed totally unaware and / or unconcerned about political or even national affairs. Some probably do not recognise our Party logo, and I suspect that some may perhaps not recognise the PAP's either! In contrast, the older generation, particularly those in or near retirement years, seemed very interested to read what we had to say. Probably the recent decades of one-party rule have de-sensitised many younger Singaporeans to the importance of the political process.

Perhaps this is a symptom of a greater evil - have you noticed that Singaporeans communicate less in general with the person next to them? In his book, A Fortune Teller Told Me (1998, Flamingo), the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani who worked in Asia for 25 years compares Singapore in 1990s with Singapore in 1971. In a chapter "An Air-Conditioned Island", he noticed a contrast from before - when he went into a lift, nobody spoke! I guess it is true - we are not as friendly as in the past! Urban living has probably contributed to this. Another upshot of urban living appears to be the reliance on public authorities to solve problems. I mean, how many calls do people make to the police to tell their neighbour to reduce their noise levels? Why can't we speak to our neighbour ourselves and let our officers in blue attend to more serious matters?

Have we also become "soft"? While cooling down after jogging at East Coast Park one evening, I spotted a Nepalese gathering of about 10 families having a barbecue. It started to rain and the locals including me instinctively headed for shelter; the Nepalese continued what they were doing - the men were dancing to the Spice Girls, the women fed the babies while the older children took the piping hot meat in their bare hands and ate. Amazing, I thought; no wonder the Nepalese get to guard the Prime Minister's residence!

Paranoia about speaking on political matters or to being sympathetic to the opposition is pernicious and pervasive. I was myself encumbered by this to varying degrees at different times. In 1991, I had the luxury of voting in the General Election in Ulu Pandan constituency. At that time, I was on the brink of entering the police service. Paranoid about the serial numbers on the voting slip and that I would not get the post I applied for, and for no other reason, I voted for the PAP. Thinking back now, it seems so stupid. After all, who was I - an insignificant cog whose vote was unlikely to be of such interest to the PAP anyway. If a professional like me could be this paranoid, what of the rest? Or, should the question be the other way - are we going to rely on the professionals in our country to take the "risks"?

Since that time, my desire to help the opposition cause has been slowly taking root. The last straw was after the last General Election 2001 and the 75% votes for the PAP. I decided it was time for me to do my part - no point wishing for a strong and credible opposition if one is not prepared to do anything. I met the "street-fighter" Mr Low Thia Khiang on 13 November 2001 and got myself "enrolled". The first evening when I made my way to the Party office for a meeting, my heart was beating like crazy and I kept looking around to see if anyone was following me!! That fear has now largely passed. It gets easier each time and what is important is taking that first step to put away our self-inflicted fears.

Teddy Roosevelt, the great former President of the United States, wrote the following stirring words in American Ideals about 1897:

"It is not the man who sits by his fireside reading his evening paper, and saying how bad our politics and politicians are, who will ever do anything to save us; it is the man who goes out into the rough hurly-burly of the caucus, the primary, and the political meeting, and there faces his fellows on equal terms. The real service is rendered not by the critic who stands aloof from the contest, but by the man who enters it and bears his part…."

Of course, the above needs modification in the Singapore context!

"It is not the man who sits in his home or office reading the New Paper or Wan Bao and complaining about the government or a weak opposition who will ever do anything to save us; it is the man who goes into the face-off of opposition politics, the surveillance, the ever-changing electoral boundaries, the Constitution and Parliamentary Elections Act, Internal Security Act, Political Donations Act, Films Act, Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, and there faces the Ruling Party on unequal terms. The real service is rendered not by the critic who stands aloof from the contest, but by the man who enters it and bears his part!!"




feeblechicken said...

I have been following the elections in the US and so far all I can say is that next to Low Thia Kiang speeches, I was very impressed with Sylvia Lim. I feel proud that we have a woman of her calibre standing up to a male dominated world of politics. I think if she becomes NCMP, it might help her get more public exposure until the next election?

Anonymous said...

you would perhaps do good to finally quote the final source (everybody is interested in this, aren't they?), instead of, or in addition to, the attribution to sfdonline.org. SFD Online, apparently fails to do this as well, so in the interest of journalistic integrity, let me help you:

If you had did some research (very easily on google), you would have found this: http://www.wp.org.sg/news/hammer_online/03_stand_up_singapore.htm

Anonymous said...

Sylvia Lim rocks!
I'm going to attend the next Parliamentary sitting and see her in the flesh!

Anonymous said...

I agree this deserves some cheers. We'll have the next five years to see what she can actually do in the capacity of a NCMP though.

- Impassioned Singaporean