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News Reports

Cracking three hoary old chestnuts

Chestnut No. 1:
Whoever said politics in Singapore isn’t exciting hasn’t been following news events recently. A confrontation appears to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups over the same hoary old chestnuts – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

These tussles have never quite died down but it seems the civil society types are upping the ante and gaining more traction. Their amplifier is the internet and social media, aided by an environment which is admittedly less respectful of authority and more inclined to criticism than conciliation.

The wonder is that civil society groups are leading the charge rather than the opposition political parties in questioning the agenda and actions of the G and, yes, sometimes making statements bordering on the scurrilous. The parties are keeping quiet and seems content with organising policy forums and presenting policy papers. Perhaps, the political parties prefer to be seen as professional politicos in public and leave the guerrilla warfare to groups and individuals, whether or not they are aligned to the opposition cause.

The G is getting a drubbing by bloggers, cartoonists, online sites, advocacy groups and the like. The level of vitriol is increasing and will not go down despite the G’s recent actions and statements. Either a consensus or compromise must be reached on the rules of engagement or there would be no end to the scepticism over the citizens’ to ability to engage the G outside G-sanctioned parameters.

The statement by the Manpower and Home Affairs ministries to a joint statement by some civil society groups and individuals over allegations of police brutality towards a couple of SMRT bus strikers was a super quick response. Clearly, there is official irritation at how that the SMRT saga hasn’t died down.

The thing is, in the digital age, nothing dies. The MSM may decide to “end’’ public discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed off as new. Given that people do not make news reading a daily habit, any satisfactory solution or compromise reached can be easily missed. Nuances will be lost, the tone revised. Anger resurfaces.

Yet the noise in Singapore is no different from the noise wherever there is an educated populace. The only difference is that Singapore is a smaller place than most. Noise can reach all parts of the island in double quick time, moving from the virtual to the real world. The G’s protective stance towards public institutions is correct. It will not do for public trust in agencies that enforce the rules to be eroded. But the question is: How should it react to those who want fuller answers from agencies in the spotlight?

By accusing advocacy groups of exploiting foreign workers “for their own political ends’’, as they did in the SMRT bus drivers’ case, they are reverting to their old tactic of labelling aggressive critics as having “an agenda’’.

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Here’s what happened for those who haven’t caught up:

Police internal watchdogs have investigated the allegations of brutality against the two Chinese nationals who spoke in a video that made the rounds of the Internet. They found them to be “baseless’’. A statement was issued last weekend in which MHA noted that “neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”. They could have spoken up while they were in the lock-up, in court, while out on bail, when a doctor saw one of them for grastic pains, when they were on trial. Neither they nor their lawyers no the Chinese embassy did so.
(The possible cynical retort to the above could be: They were too scared lah.)

The ministry pointed out that even after the videos were released, both men and their lawyers did not report the allegations to the authorities, although the lawyers would have known that would be the proper course of action.
(Again, the possible cynical retort could be: They were too scared lah. Also once the allegations were out in the open, then the expectation would be that the G wheels will start grinding)

But when the two men and their lawyers spoke to police internal affairs, their statements were found to be “inconsistent’’. They subsequently retracted their accusations.
(Possible cynical retort: They got scared again lah)

One of the bus drivers, now back in China, have again repeated the allegations, denied retracting them and insisted that when he said he would not pursue his accusations of police abuse, this did not mean that “those things never happened’’. Implicit (or explicit) in his remarks was he feared what would happen to him if he pursued the case, giving grist to the mill to those who believe that Singapore is a lawless country which punishes real and imagined critics mercilessly.

The advocacy groups have weighed in, asking for clarifications and more details about the investigation into the statements on police brutality: How were they baseless or inconsistent?

Seems they trust the word of the Chinese drivers more than the police. Can the police give more details than what they already have in the interest of placating the groups? Would that not, however, would be setting a precedent of sorts? Surely detailed police investigations cannot be released on demand, unless demanded by a court?

Thing is, the groups have found the wrong examples if they want to make a political point about suppression of labour rights and other wrongs. It is unlikely that the police would have done anything untoward towards foreign nationals in a high profile case, especially with diplomats from a big country watching.

The groups might be better-off if they had Singapore workers instead of the bus drivers as their “poster boys’’. If suppression of labour rights and the role of MOM and unions is an endemic problem here, there would be rather more Singapore workers who could be held up as examples.
Of course, this is not to say that everything is hunky dory here. If anything, the actions of the SMRT bus drivers have led to changes and brought to light several worker-management issues. Manpower officials will probably be more alert to disgruntlement in the worker rank and file. Unionists will also have to think about going back to basics, whether in ensuring better salaries for locals or watching the impact of foreign workers on the livelihoods of members – which appear to have passed them by over the years!

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Now what?

The majority of Singaporeans probably have enough faith in the integrity of the institutions but there will always be some who don’t. Since it’s clear who some of these people are, is there some way the G could unbend enough to sit down with them to talk? Advocacy groups are good for the development of civil society but not if they are so apart from decision makers that the adversarial relationship leads to just more words and no action. They are volunteers with special causes, giving off their time and energy.They shouldn’t be dismissed like just so much trouble makers.
Note also that they are unlike political parties which have as their ultimate goal the formation of an alternative government.
The sit down and talk proposal is probably idealistic and even naïve but it is made in good faith. We don’t need too many fractures in society.

Chestnut No.2
Now what about the actions taken against online cartoonist Lester Chew who is “helping police’’ with investigations with regards to the Sedition Act? The Attorney-General’s Chambers gave the longest response so far on how it wants to deal with comments and criticisms. Here’s a look:

a. Every day, there are hundreds of commentaries, if not more, on socio-political matters both in the mainstream media and online. Many of these do not contravene the law, and no legal action will be taken by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on behalf of the State, even though some may contain factual inaccuracies. Some of these statements may defame or otherwise cause damage to an individual; whether any action is to be taken is generally a matter for that individual.

In other words, you can say what you want so long as you don’t break the law. No one will come after you even if your sometimes inaccurate. Beware though the consequences of defamation. The G can’t sue, but individuals sure can.

b. However, racial and religious harmony is vital to our society and has enabled Singaporeans to live together in peace over the years. Words or deeds touching on race or religion have the potential to create fault lines within our society. Such bonds, once frayed, let alone sundered, cannot easily be repaired and we must therefore remain vigilant against any threats to racial and religious harmony.

Very clear. No one would object to this.

c. Where statements are made, or actions are taken, which insult a particular religion or race, or seek to engender hatred amongst races or religious groups, or which suggest that the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes, then a response will follow. Where the statements or actions are heinous, a firm line will be taken. For example, the burning of the Koran or the Bible will not be allowed in Singapore under the cover of freedom of speech or expression.

Here’s the problem : what’s an insult or could engender hatred to some could be satirical to others or even humorous. Or justified as “awareness raising’’. Think Porn Masala. Second thing: That the G is using race or religion for its own purposes. What does this mean? That the G is using race or religion as a policy tool to benefit itself or protect its members? If people are questioning the G’s use of race and religion, then there is something wrong in the first place – there is no agreement on both sides on the rationale, much less the use.

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d. On the other hand where comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, a more nuanced response may follow. Much will depend on what is uncovered by investigations

There is a bit more clarity here. You are forgiven if you “let yourself go’’ in the heat of the moment. That is, you misspoke and didn’t go on and on. Then age matters. The young and immature will be forgiven, maybe counselled? but they won’t get the book thrown at them in the face – or not full on anyway. That leaves the older folk whose racist remarks ecetera form a pattern or a trend.

e. Similarly, the rule of law is another fundamental tenet of our society and action will be taken in respect of any statement or action that seeks to impugn or undermine the independence of the Judiciary. Unwarranted allegations of bias or partiality strike at the heart of the judicial process, threatening the very institution that protects the rights of all Singaporeans.

Okay, this is the famous contempt of court thing that keeps cropping up which critics say is a muzzle on freedom of expression. In this, they have on their side that a member of the British House of Lords who has described the Singapore version as “outmoded and archaic’’. Plus, in Britain, there is a move to remove the offence of “scandalising the judiciary’’. The AGC is sticking to its guns on this so it’s not likely to be abolished. But one thing is happening: The Law Ministry is looking into “codifying’’ the law of contempt which it has described as a priority. Now just what is “codifying’’? Making the lines clearer? The ministry had better work a lot faster then.

Chestnut No. 3
In the wake of Mr Nizam Ismail’s departure from the Association of Muslim Professionals, Ms Braema Mathi of Maruah has written to ST Forum page to ask for a clear stand on the participation of politicians in groups that receive state funding. Apparently, Mr Nizam’s participation in opposition forums and his sometimes controversial views have led to some pressure on him to leave.
That, plus a statement from a minister that state-funded groups should not be used as a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.

Ms Mathi’s query deserves an answer. She did not give a number on how many People’s Action Party MPs are involved in volunteer groups , but the bet is probably quite many. Ms Mathi said that MPs’ participation would elevate their political profile and hence, the profile of the PAP. In other words, the charge of using a VWO as a platform for partisan politics would apply to them too.

How will the G answer? That the PAP MPs were “invited’’ by the groups who already know that they are partisan? So there is a difference between an aspiring politician who intends to make use of a platform and an elected one whose presence was asked for to burnish a VWO’s credentials? If so, then there should be no objection to Opposition MPs sitting on board state-funded groups as well. Are there any?

Even if the G somehow makes the case for elected PAP MPs, it has to reckon with aspiring PAP politicians now sitting on VWOs. Using the Mr Nizam example, they should be booted out too, especially if they speak at PAP-organised forums or join in partisan political activities. Looks like a whole can of worms is about to be opened.

Maybe every state-funded VWO should ask members for their political affiliations and screen them all out just to be safe. Maybe this is why no one wants to be in politics or get involved in politics. Maybe it’s best to stay apolitical.
That is surely not what the G wants.

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Or maybe that really is its aim – to make sure politics in Singapore is as unexciting as can be.

Written By

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

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