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Crossed lines

Over the weekend, there were several pieces in ST that would be of interest to civil society. The first was a piece about when civil society activists would be perceived as moving into the political space. The other, more useful, piece is by a law don who talks about Singapore’s approach to contempt of court laws.

The first piece is pretty much old hat, drawing a great deal from a speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong to the Harvard Club (circa 1991) and an article by ex-Cabinet minister George Yeo (circa 1999). Law Minister K Shanmugam was interviewed for the piece and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong gave a statement.

Nothing very new at all from them except that a new term has crept in: partisan politics. Said Mr Wong in the ST article: “NGOs should not be used as a cloak for partisan political objectives. Similarly while individuals in NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a party political agenda.”

It’s like what Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said a week earlier regarding the Nizam saga. The accusation was that Mr Nizam Ismail formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals pushed for “race-based” politics (although it would be clear to anyone that the AMP is a “race-based’’ organisation). Going by what Mr Nizam said, he wanted Malay issues discussed across race lines instead of just community lines. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Then again, the G said his call echoed a failed proposal made a long time ago for a collective leadership in the community, which might well rival that of elected Malay MPs. And that, the G said, is bad.

G funding, Dr Yaacob said, should not be used for “the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”

Ministers must have some kind of template…

What is partisan? According to the Oxford dictionary, it’s about strong support for a party, person or cause, especially in politics. So it isn’t about whether you are an outright fan or card-carrying member of this or that party, but also whether you support some political cause (which might not even be championed by any party).

Anyway, how do we count the ways?

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The rights of foreign maids and foreign workers – political parties won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole because they won’t look patriotic. Abolition of Section 337A – another hot potato best fought between the evangelical right and the gay community. Independence of the judiciary – too dangerous because it is protected by the law. What about a group lobbying for minimum wage legislation – a favorite of opposition parties. If an NGO has a similar cause, would that be considered even more partisan because it is similar to a party’s platform?

The other phrase is “for political ends/purposes”. That’s the accusation the Home Affairs and Manpower ministry have levelled at NGOs who have been pressing the issue of alleged police brutality against the Chinese SMRT bus drivers. The NGOs, the ministries said, were exploiting vulnerable foreign workers to make their case about suppression of labour rights in Singapore. It’s a very big statement, which led to a retort from the groups which insisted that what they wanted was clarification of police processes.

Said Maruah, a human rights group: “We are troubled that the government sees the involvement of civil society in pushing for greater transparency as casting aspersions on the integrity of the police and “working for their own political ends.”

What’s the political “end’’ here? Getting the G to fess up that there are few labour rights here so that it will be kicked out at the next GE? Laying the groundwork so that NGO members can get elected on an independent platform at the next GE? Would such groups have to form a political party and make it a truly partisan party political cause – and fight in the political arena? Now, was anyone waiting for something like this to be said by the G? (It used to be uttered like a reflex action…) Well, it hasn’t done so…

Anyway, if the G did say something like this, it means that every NGO which has a cause that will have it butting heads with the G would have to form a political party. Like nature/heritage societies? Save Bukit Brown, green spaces, the birds etc… Butting heads with Singapore Land Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority and the like. Haven’t heard that members should form some kind of Green Party…

But, as the ST report points out, perhaps a lot depends on who is the one doing the speaking and lobbying. So it is okay for a Tommy Koh or a Ngiam Tong Dow to utter a completely contrarian view but not some nobody (never mind the quality of the view). Even Catherine Lim wasn’t let off in the past, although in recent time, her writings have not raised the same kind of ruckus. She seems to have been deemed “acceptable’’. Or has she earned her spurs in some way. Or the G has realised that there are too many Catherine Lims out there to discipline.

How should the twain meet? Actually it all boils down to the evidence, the facts. Statements made must be backed by proof, and not bare assertions – which both sides are sometimes guilty of.

After denying political pressure initially, the G came clean (almost) on exerting pressure on AMP to get Mr Nizam to resign, even implying that funds were hanging in the balance. Likewise, the NGOs should reply to charges of “hindering’’ police processes, in the SMRT case. Sometimes, there is no proof, you know, when something smells fishy? Then the civil way is to ask questions than make accusations – but answers must also be forthcoming.

As for G funding, all NGOs, including arts groups, which get any should take note. There’s now a new OB marker that has been thrown into the works. If you take G money, you can’t do things that the G doesn’t want you to do. There’s some justification for that. You take money because you’ve convinced someone about your cause – so you shouldn’t deviate from that or it will be like biting the hand that feeds you. Of course, you can be far more circumspect about taking the money and specify that it is only for this or that programme and not tantamount to a total gag order or a pair of handcuffs. And get it down in black and white.

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Frankly, what would happened if the AMP declined to pressure Mr Nizam to quit? Would the G really have pulled funding from AMP and leave hapless Malay/Muslim families depending on AMP’s work in the lurch? It didn’t come to that but it would have been interesting to see the result of such a confrontation. The bet is, the G would lose. Evidently, it never envisaged the AMP not doing as asked.

Then there is this business of whether you can really speak for yourself or would be seen as speaking for an organisation. Mr Shanmugam said it depended on popular perception. So never mind if Mr Nizam swore with hand on heart that he is speaking in his personal capacity, it will be perceived as a view of the AMP. It’s not unlike the position of The Straits Times. It can swear all it wants about being independent, but everyone still thinks it’s a G mouthpiece anyway. The thing is, going by what Mr Shanmugam said, plenty of backbenchers should get out of NGOs and such. Does anyone doubt that they are involved or invited into NGOs because they are representatives of the ruling party? When they speak, it is with the party behind them – never mind if they too swear with hand on heart that they are speaking for themselves. There will be exceptions, of course, for MPs who were already active in NGOs and VWOs before they entered politics. They’ve earned the spurs to speak as independent minds.

As for the second piece on contempt of court, what was interesting is how the onus is actually placed on the state to prove that supposedly offensive remarks were not “fair criticism’’ and would actually lead to the judiciary to be regarded with contempt. Go read it.

The Law ministry is apparently looking at codifying the law on contempt and the writer, law don David Tan, noted that a court of appeal had actually suggested that Parliament consider legislative changes to allow for defences to scandalising contempt. Perhaps, that is what the Law ministry is up to. It had better get a move on.

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