Friday, May 27, 2005
No climate of fear here, says Minister for Home Affairs
Straits Times, Insight, May 27, 2005
Bar-top dancing and loosening up, mosquito breeding and active citizenry, political videos and the rule of law - these were some of the topics covered by Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in this interview with the Straits Times published on May 27, 2005.
Climate of fear? Come on, get real
No nanny state. A country where citizens step forward to take charge. That's what Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng hopes Singapore will become, he tells M. Nirmala.
MR WONG Kan Seng often comes across as a tough-talking minister, which isn't surprising given his portfolio. The Minister for Home Affairs is responsible for law and enforcement to deal with crooks, drug addicts, terrorists and illegal immigrants.
During the interview in his office, however, he is expansive, even pensive, sharing his views on how the relationship between the State and the Citizen is developing.
Belying his reputation for being a "hardliner" in Cabinet, Mr Wong argues that some restrictions have to go. He cites recent changes in rules on licensing entertainment establishments as an example.
"Not to loosen up would be like living in a cocoon and we can't afford to do that. Since we are an international city, we have to be plugged into the world. So we have to change with it."
The State has to play less of a "nannying" role. He wants Singapore to step forward and take ownership of matters that are important to them.
Don't like sleaze in your neighbourhood?
Learn from the Joo Chiat residents who formed a citizens' group and worked out solutions with their Member of Parliament and enforcement officers. The group even had bar and lounge owners representing their interests.
Fearful of terrorist attack? Go to your nearest residents' committee and pick up the Emergency Handbook. It is packed with information on how to survive a tsunami disaster or a terrorist attack.
The days of the Government hand-holding citizens in all aspects of life are numbered, he reckons.
He cites the fight against dengue fever as an example.
In July, all residents of landed homes will receive a packet of insecticide in their mail as part of a dengue fever prevention kit. "If the people themselves don't stir to do something for themselves in keeping out mosquito breeding, then who will do it for them? The environment officer can't be there every day to check their flower pots and their vases. It is not possible.
"That's where you talk about an active citizenry. An active citizenry doesn't mean that the people just sit there and wait for the Government to act. It also means that they have to play their part," he says.
Mr Wong, 58, is a former school teacher who worked in the civil service and private sector before entering politics in 1984. He has held ministerial portfolios in Foreign Affairs and Community Development, and has helmed the Home Affairs Ministry since 1994.
From July, he is slated to become Deputy Prime Minister, a promotion that reflects the measure of the man who has played a key role in recent national emergencies, such as during the 2003 Sars crisis.
While he talks about Singaporeans wanting to have a greater say in the way they live here, he is also uncompromising about the need to maintain law and order.
"Our job is to create an environment where people will feel safe to work here, to live here, to bring up their children and have the freedom to walk the streets at any time without being afraid of getting mugged or getting drugs pushed in their face," he says.
Investors also welcome an orderly environment, he adds.
The challenge, he says, is how much freedom to allow while maintaining sufficient order and control.
"Someone once said,'My right to swing my arm must end where the nose begins'. That is the limit of free action; that is the boundary.
"We say we have a right to do our own thing. But surely the other person must have the right not to have his nose bloodied," he reasons.
He defends, for example, the Films Act which bans political videos, and notes that the law is applied in an even-handed manner. Proposals for films about the People's Action Party (PAP) were also shot down, he disclosed.
Is there a climate of fear in Singapore? The minister in charge of the police and security agencies pooh-poohs any such idea. Read the many articles in the newspaper critical of the Government. Are the writers arrested? Get real, he says.
How does the Home Affairs Ministry decide when to give freedom and when to control?
How fast to change and how far to go in opening, that really is a judgment call.
You cannot define it today and say this is the rule and this is where I'm going to stop. Change is an unending process.
We have to wait, watch, monitor and we have to relax. Then we have to moderate as we learn from each step that we make along the way. And that's how we've been managing.
What are some examples?
Bar-top dancing is the most cited example.
Another example is the way we license these entertainment joints and the bars. We now have class licensing.
That means if you operate a licence to provide for this kind of entertainment, we have a general set of conditions. If you follow them, then it's okay.
Then we need to come to you only when there's a violation of some of these conditions. We will tell you that you have breached them and we will give you a chance to improve.
It is similar to the traffic demerit scheme. We say there's a certain demerit point beyond which your licence will be restricted. So we give people more choices.
What about areas which are not so clear-cut?
You have to wait and see what are the situations because you cannot anticipate every situation.
No point working on hypothetical situations when we are not confronted with them.
But there will be new situations all the time that will test where the limits are. Then we look at it and say, "Yes, are we too restrictive or should we therefore now loosen up?"
Singaporeans on the one hand are being asked to be open and express their views and feelings. But on the other hand, the police have called up film-maker Martyn See over a documentary on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. Is there a conflict or contradiction here?
No, there is no conflict.
A political video is not a good means of reaching out to the people and engaging them and explaining rational policies.
Political videos, by their very nature, will be political, will be biased and, therefore, will not be able to allow the listener or the viewer to see a whole range of arguments.
So that is why many years ago, a Bill was passed to amend the Films Act to disallow political videos. And this law doesn't just apply to opposition parties or to Martyn See. The law applies to the PAP, too.
Last year, when we had our 50th anniversary celebrations, there were many ideas about doing a video on the party's achievements.
But in the end, even though the idea was very good, we did not proceed with it.
And the Women's Wing also wanted to produce a video about its work in the last 10 years and we said "no".
So the law is even-handed and it is applied to everyone.
Where we have laws, we must enforce them. We must not make a mockery of the law.
Does the law apply to television stations that put out interviews and programmes on PAP ministers?
That is not a political video. That's a broadcaster and a content provider doing a job.
It is done in other places.
The minister is explaining himself, his policies and how he wants Singapore to move ahead.
Opposition parties and many Singaporeans believe that there is a climate of fear. This prevents people from wanting to speak up or stand for elections. What is your response?
You read the newspapers. People write long commentaries, punchy articles that are highly critical of government policies. Is there fear?
People appear in forums and dialogues and ask questions. Is there fear?
What is the consequence of saying something that is challenged? Is the consequence being locked up in jail, disappearing in the middle of the night and you don't come back?
Get real. Come on, we live in the real world in Singapore.
Minister warns freedom is dangerous
"We do ourselves a great disservice if we import unthinkingly and wholesale fashionable and hollow abstractions. Democracy, human rights and press freedom do not exist in a vacuum. By themselves, these concepts do not guarantee development and progress...So do not believe those few Singaporeans who tell you that with democracy, human rights and press freedom a hundred flowers will bloom and Singapore will prosper."
- Wong Kan Seng, 2001