Tuesday, December 17, 2013

50 years under the PAP's grip

Transcript of speech by Martyn See at the forum 'Freedom of Expression and Democracy' organised by Maruah held on 15th Dec, 2013.

Report by Today.


From Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP's perspective, Operation Coldstore was a resounding success. It was the game-changer. In one fell swoop, the opposition was decimated, the student activists neutralised and the union movement crippled. Yet, there were no big protests on the streets. Suddenly, everything appeared calm and tranquil for the PAP.

 So from 1963 to 1965, Lee Kuan Yew devoted much of his political capital trying to woo the Chinese in the Malaysian Federation. But after a series of setbacks - the 1964 racial riots, the humiliating defeat of the PAP in the Federal elections and the near-arrest of LKY by the Tunku on charges of stirring communal tensions in Malaysia, the Merger came to an abrupt end on August 9th, 1965.

By then, the PAP had become the dominant party in Singapore. The Barisan was floundering and struggling as their leaders remained in prison. So you would think that the PAP would relaxed a little and allow more space for democratic processes (or whatever that was left of it) to play out. Instead, emboldened by the arrests of 1963, the PAP tightened its grip on power. ISA arrests became more frequent, and while the length of detention became shorter (with the exception of Chia Thye Poh), interrogation methods became more violent.

Here's an excerpt of an Amnesty International report published in 1980.

"One case that has come to the attention of Amnesty International is that of Chai Chong, who was tortured by electric shock treatment as well as beaten several times. On other occasions he had filthy rags forced into his mouth and red ants placed on his mattress.

Another detainee is Tan Kim Chong who was arrested on 9 April 1977. During interrogation he was frequently beaten and as a result lost several teeth.

Pang Hee Fat, a detainee arrested in 1967, had his jaw broken as a result of beatings. Because of his ill-treatment he tried to commit suicide by banging his head against the cell wall. During one interrogation session at Whitley Road, Pang Hee Fat's wife, Wong Kui Inn, also a detainee, was brought in to see her husband being beaten. Wong Kui Inn was herself badly treated during interrogation and was subjected to dousing in cold water and electric shocks."

Another detainee, Chan Hock Hua died shortly after he was admitted to hospital during his 7th year of incarceration. "Chan's family have repeatedly alleged that he was suffering from a lacerated liver caused by beatings he had received in the early years of his detention. No newspaper in the Republic was willing to carry an obituary notice from his family."

Another feature of ISA arrests in post-independence Singapore was that it was no longer front-page news. Reports were relegated to side columns of the newspapers. And after some time, the Government began issuing press releases one week or more after the arrests, which presumably offered the interrogators at ISD more time to extract confessions. This practice of delaying announcements continues today.

With the Barisan's boycott, the PAP won a clean sweep in the 1968 elections. From here on, Singapore became a one-party state.

Again, you would think that with the opposition completely neutralised and the PAP firmly secured in the driver's seat, LKY would relax a little and give civil society some breathing space. Instead, the government passed more laws to curtail civil activities.

If you had wanted to start a newspaper, you were prohibited to do so under the Newspaper Printing and Presses Act. If you had wanted to make a political speech in public, you were prohibited to do so under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. If you had wanted to start a human rights NGO, you were prohibited to do under the Societies Act. If you had wanted to form a union, you were prohibited to do under the Trade Unions Act. If you had wanted to conduct a march or a demonstration, you were prohibited to do under the Penal Code.

And if all these laws do not deter you, the ISA will. According to the just-published book on Operation Coldstore, the ISD detained 357 people in the 1970s. Although a good number of the detainees were remnants of the Chinese-educated Left - Barisan members and students of Nanyang University - majority of those arrested did not seem to fit into any specific profiles. There were lawyers, construction workers, housewives, businessmen, journalists, factory workers and doctors. The more well - known among them were Lee Mau Seng and Lee Eu Seng of Nanyang Siang Pau, renowned playwright Kuo Pao Kun and his wife Goh Lay Kuan, prominent lawyer TT Rajah and a young journalist by the name of Ho Kwon Ping.

By the end of 1981, all political prisoners (with the exception of Chia Thye Poh) had been freed. Some former detainees I spoke to believe the government had succumb to pressure from the Carter administration at the time.

So with the PAP winning all the seats at the 1980 elections and in absolute control, you would think that there would no use for the ISA. But something happened in the early 80s. A man named JB Jeyaretnam won the Anson by-elections and went on to retain the seat in the 1984 elections, along with Chiam See Tong winning Potong Pasir. At the same time, a group of overseas graduates of elite universities (some with links to exiled student leader Tan Wah Piow) had returned to Singapore armed with liberal education. Among those was current DPM Tharman, who was swiftly summoned to the ISD for questioning, but not arrested. Meanwhile, a motley group of local graduates, lawyers, social workers, theatre practitioners and professionals, energised by JBJ's electoral breakthrough, began taking an active interest in social and political affairs. So the ISD became active again, and coupled with the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines by a people power movement led by the Catholic Church, an imaginary conspiracy began forming in the head of Lee Kuan Yew, one involving the Catholic Church, Law Society, Workers' Party and what-not - all of which culminated in the Operation Spectrum arrests of 1987.

By the end of 1990, the last of the its detainees - Teo Soh Lung and Vincent Cheng - had been released. So throughout the 90s, again with the exception of Chia Thye Poh, there were no ISA detainees in Singapore.

One suspects that this had to do with Goh Chok Tong not wanting his prime ministership to be marked by political detentions without trial. So Chia Thye Poh was exiled to Sentosa and eventually released in 1998, one year after the 1997 elections where the PAP regained two seats lost in the 91'elections.

At the time of his release, Chia Thye Poh was 57, relatively young in political age. One can only deduce that Chia was detained for over 3 decades on account of 3 factors : That he was young, that he refused to renounce politics and that Lee Kuan Yew was clearing all obstacles to ensure the smooth rise of Lee Hsien Loong's political career.

But lest you think the Goh Chok Tong era marked a gentler and kinder approach to civil liberties, think again. Truth is, at the start of the 1990s, Singapore had no civil society to speak of. There was no internet yet, no Think Centre, no TWC2, no Maruah. Yet, Goh Chok Tong escalated the use of defamation suits. Libel suits were filed and won against international publications, and not to mention crippling damages awarded against JBJ and Tang Liang Hong. Goh had managed to do something that Lee Kuan Yew could not in his time - that is to effectively cripple JB Jeyaretnam's legal and political career.

The Goh Chok Tong administration also passed new laws to further curtail political expression. Some of these laws are known as the 'Chee Soon Juan Laws' - meaning laws which were introduced in response to what Chee was doing at that time. One such law is Section 33 of the Films Act which criminalises party political films. This was introduced after after Chee's SDP produced a video to promote their campaign. In 2005, I was placed under investigation under this law after I produced a documentary on Chee.

Another is the Political Donations Act which bars all political groups from receiving foreign funding. This was introduced after Chee and JBJ had secured funding from the Soros Foundation for their political NGO Open Singapore Centre.

However, one positive by-product of a "Chee Soon Juan policy" was the opening of Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park in 2000. Of course, the space didn't see much usage until the rules were revised in 2008.

It was during Goh Chok Tong's time that the first arrest of a cyber critic occurred. In November of 2001, police raided the home of ex - journalist Robert Ho after he had posted articles in a forum urging opposition candidates to enter polling stations, just as the PAP leaders did in the 1997 elections. The police classified the articles as attempts to incite violence or disobedience to the law. Ho was arrested twice more in 2002 but he was never charged, although he was sent to the IMH for psychiatric examination.

Then after 9-11 happened, Goh Chok Tong invoked the ISA again, this time on alleged Islamic militants, to almost no objections from the public and opposition parties. These ISA arrests continue today.

Now, moving on to the Lee Hsien Loong era. To his credit, Lee made two very significant concessions to relax political space. First, upon his inauguration in 2004, he waived police permits for indoor talks. This was a big deal. It will come as a shock to you that prior to this announcement, all indoor public talks and performances, political or otherwise, were required by law to seek police approval. A forum such as this would have been illegal before 2004.

But that did not placate Chee Soon Juan, who escalated his campaign of civil disobedience from 2006 to 2008, culminating in a protest against the high cost of living outside Parliament House, which resulted in fines and prison sentences for its 18 participants.

And seemingly in response, Lee Hsien Loong made his second big concession by announcing in 2008 that Hong Lim Park will be opened to demonstrations, protests and audio amplification equipment - all of which were disallowed in the previous 8 years of the Speakers' Corner. On hindsight, had Lee predicted that huge crowds would turn up for Pink Dot or Gilbert Goh's protests, I doubt he would have made the move to liberalise the space.

And sure enough, the government began rolling back the concession. After the first Pink Dot, the police installed CCTVs around Hong Lim Park.

And then in 2009, the government passed the most draconian law in recent memory. The Public Order Act criminalises all unlicensed cause-related activities, even by one person, held outside of Hong Lim Park. Exceptions apply to indoor talks, but I was hauled up for questioning by the police in 2011 after I organised a talk which had featured two foreign speakers. The case was eventually dropped, presumably after I had stated that it was a private function.

From Kuan Yew to Hsien Loong, the government adopts a one-step forward, two-steps back approach in calibrating space for political expression.

Today, there are three tiers of censorship in Singapore. The 1st tier are the legislations such as the ISA, Sedition Act, Films Act, Broadcast Act, Undesirable Publications Act, Public Order Act, civil and criminal defamation and the new weapon of choice - contempt of court.

The 2nd tier of censorship involves a combination of rules and regulations drawn up by government bodies, particularly the MDA. For instance, under the Broadcasting (Class License) Notification, all websites that "propagates, promotes or discuss political and religious issues relating to Singapore" are required to register with MDA. This week we witness a casualty of this regulation with the closure of the Breakfast Network. And we also learn that the definition of websites now includes facebook and twitter.

Finally, the 3rd tier of censorship which is the most insidious. We are seeing less and less of it but it is still prevalent. In Singapore, when politically sensitive subjects are raised in public, there is uneasiness that one's speech and movement is being monitored. The defence against this perceived State surveillance is avoidance - that is to say - stay away from discussing politics in public. This climate of political fear creates a culture of self-censorship.

1 comment:

Bruce Hammerson said...

The Barisan was floundering and struggling as their leaders remained in prison. So you would think that the PAP would relaxed a little and allow more space for democratic processes.

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