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Rules of engagement need negotiation

Sometimes, a word or two whispered in the right ear will do the trick. Sometimes, the whisper can be as simple as “What’s he doing in a place like that?’’ Depending on the status/standing of the whisperer, the person being whispered to would have to guess at what the whisperer truly meant. An innocuous question? Or one that has deeper meaning?

Seems that Mr Nizam Ismail, a now former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals, has been the subject of some whispering. He told The Straits Times that AMP had informed him over the weekend that two ministers had “expressed concern” about some critical views he had put forth online and his participation in the two events. He declined to name the ministers.

ST reported: He said he was presented with two options. One, if he did not “tone down” his activities, the Government would withdraw funding from AMP. Two, dissociate himself from AMP if he wanted to continue with civil society activities.
Of course, no one in the AMP or the G is going to admit to “political intervention’’ as Mr Nizam has described it. He quit, they said. The retort would be: Did he really have a choice?

Muslim Affairs Minister Yacob Ibrahim gave a roundabout response, or at least, that was how the ST report appeared:

Asked by reporters last night on the sidelines of a dialogue organised by government feedback unit Reach, Dr Yaacob said: “AMP is an important partner. In our discussions with AMP, we have never touched on their internal organisation, how they are being managed.”

(Okay, so he’s saying it doesn’t matter who is doing what in AMP, so long as the work gets done properly. Mr Nizam was head of AMP’s research arm and its former ex-chairman)

He also noted that the association has “written in its Constitution that whoever is involved in AMP must be non-partisan and we assume therefore not involved in politics”.

Some questions:
a. What’s non-partisan? A card-carrying member of a political party? By extension, this should disqualify AMP members who are members of the ruling parties too. Are there any? Mr Nizam has said he is not a member of any party, nor intending to be one.
b. What’s getting involved in politics? Seems Mr Nizam’s participation at the Population White Paper protest and a Workers’ Party forum counts. Would it help if he made it clear at those forums that he was speaking in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of his organisation? Not enough? Well, Mr Nizam is going for a hattrick; he’s down as a speaker for the May 1 rally at Hong Lim Park. Would he still be speaking? Nothing to prevent him now really….Or he could ask if he could speak at the NTUC-organised May Day rally!
c. If getting involved politics – broadly defined – means running afoul of the constitution of an organisation, then too many people will be disqualified and proscribed from speaking up. Or should they only do so at government-sanctioned events, like the Singapore Conversation series.
He said the Government was more concerned with the work they do as they receive public funds.
Dr Yaacob added: “Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”
(Okay, the AMP gets funding in the form of a $1m matching grant yearly for five years. Other organisations which get any form of G funding might want to take note, like arts groups.)

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So did Mr Nizam quit voluntarily or was he pushed?This is what he himself said in a posting today:

“I received a surprise phone call from Mr Azmoon Ahmad, Chairman AMP on 20 Apr 2013. He informed me that he received separate phone calls from two Ministers to the effect that they were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media. Mr Azmoon had relayed a message that he said he received for me to “take it easy” and refrain from such activities. Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP. This puts AMP in a difficult situation. Mr Azmoon also painted the alternative that if I were to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP.”

Mr Nizam also cited instances when he alleged that threats to pull funding was made:

“For instance, State funding of AMP’s programs were cut in the wake of a proposal for a collective community leadership during AMP’s 2nd Convention in 2000. Threats of funding cuts were also made in reaction to a proposal for an independent Community Forum made by AMP during its 3rd Convention in 2012, as that was seen as a threat to the State-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF) – which ironically, was perceived to be set up as a reaction to the Collective Leadership proposal made earlier by AMP.”

At least, Mr Nizam doesn’t need a lawyer which is what Demon-cratic cartoonist Leslie Chew now has. Online media (link to yahoo) said he was held in custody and questioned over the weekend, and was released at 8.45pm on Sunday after posting bail of S$10,000. The police confiscated his handphone, computer and hard disk. He was also asked to surrender his passport to the police at the Cantonment Police complex.

Mr Chew has been warned twice over his cartoon strips, first for scandalizing the judiciary with a cartoon strip that refers to the removal of a judge and second, for running foul of the Sedition Act with a second strip that talks about the Malay community’s fertility rates. He has refused to take them down, nor apologise for them. Crossing the Sedition Act can lead to $5,000 fine or up to three years, or both.

In his defence, Mr Chew pointed to the disclaimer in each of his cartoons which says that the portrayals in them “are purely fictional”. “I also explicitly stated that Demon-cratic Singapore is an entirely imaginary country and is not the Republic of Singapore,” Mr Chew said. He added that most fans know that Demon-cratic Singapore is fictional and “just for laughs” said Chew.
“Even when there are new readers who thought otherwise, they are usually quickly reminded by other readers that everything on my Facebook page is fictional.”

Hmm. Wonder what sort of defence this is. It’s a silly person who can’t connect his cartoons to Singapore developments. He might be better off suggesting that his cartoons are satirical takes and produce evidence to show that his audience treated them this way.
As if both incidents are not enough to make one wonder about the G’s approach to differing views, then comes an intriguing message from the organisers of that May 1 protest in Hong Lim Park: Foreigners, please do not attend.

The NParks has told organisers to get a police permit because a “Police Permit must be obtained if permanent residents of Singapore are speaking or organising a demonstration, performance or exhibition, and/or if foreigners are speaking or participating in or organising activities at Speakers’ Corner.’’ (link to site)

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No foreigner is behind the rally or will be speaking, the organisers claimed. They didn’t apply for a permit for the first rally in February either. Like the Nizam case of getting “involved in politics’ , just what amounts to “participating in’’ activities at Speakers Corner? A curious tourist looking on? Would having a police permit mean that security measures must be taken to ensure that foreigners are screened out? The organisers do not want to apply for one. They should. To see if they get it and whether it comes with strings attached. They should cover their bases.
What to make of all this after all the warning letters shot into the blogosphere in recent time?

A coming confrontation between civil society and the G? The G attempting to impose some order on what it deems as freewheeling, chaotic discourse? Or part of the process of a maturing society, in which both sides are negotiating the rules of engagement?

Hopefully, the last option.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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