Managing civil disobedience

By Cherian George
For The Straits Times

THE ‘white elephants’ affair has resulted in a ‘stern warning’ to its unnamed perpetrator. After this case, people will be more careful to check that they do not accidentally flout the law, as the unfortunate Mahout of Buangkok appears to have done.

However, this is unlikely to be the last such case. The stern warning will not deter opposition activists who believe in deliberately breaking the law to make a political point. Their attempt to inject civil disobedience into Singapore’s body politic represents an intriguing challenge to the People’s Action Party’s ideological hold. It calls for deft handling. While thwarting a protest is easy for the authorities, the question is how much political capital they will have to spend in the process.

This is the real power of such campaigns. By deliberately but non-violently flouting laws that they deem unjust, opponents put the authorities in a fix.

The state could choose to close one eye, but this would diminish its authority and probably invite follow-up breaches until these are too large or too flagrant to be ignored. If the state responds with force against a peaceful protest, the activists can still try to claim the moral victory. They may succeed in convincing the wider public that the law in question – and the state’s power in general – is neither just nor moral, but instead backed by sheer force.

Thus, campaigns of civil disobedience test a state’s moral legitimacy, revealing whether its rule is based mainly on consent or on coercion.

Dr Chee Soon Juan has been dabbling with this strategy for some years, at least since 1998, when he spoke in public without a permit and landed up in prison. His new book, The Power Of Courage, promotes non-violent civil disobedience as an opposition strategy in Singapore.

The Government has responded that the rule of law must be respected. Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said that wilful law-breaking ‘regardless of whether you think it is a silly law or not…does violence to the rule of law’, even if the actions are peaceful.

While the principle of zero tolerance for law-breaking is straightforward, applying it will be a challenge. Civil disobedience will test a key element of PAP governance: its acumen in calibrating its use of force against political challengers, such that opponents are neutralised with minimum collateral damage.

This is not to deny the other – and much better-understood – sources of the PAP’s strength, namely its outstanding record in delivering the goods, its internal discipline and its ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans.

But every state, by definition, also comprises instruments of force. And the intelligent use of force is no less a dimension of good governance than, say, an efficient bureaucracy or long-term urban planning.

Its calibrated approach to coercion may be one of the least appreciated of the PAP’s many skills. Indeed, stating it this way will probably provoke some incredulity. After all, even some of the PAP’s most ardent supporters think it is guilty of occasional overkill. PAP leaders themselves are not coy about their macho side. Mr Lee Kuan Yew talks of knuckledusters and nation-building with equal aplomb. If the PAP were to develop and market a computer game, it would be a cross between SimCity and Street Fighter.


IMAGE aside, however, the facts show a government increasingly aware of the need to exercise self-restraint in its use of force. Yes, it has an array of repressive tools within easy reach. But, compared with other states that possess similar tools and are controlled by similarly strong-willed leaders, Singapore’s Government has been relatively judicious and sophisticated in their use.

The spectrum of coercive tools available to an authoritarian regime today ranges from political murders and disappearances, and torture and imprisonment without trial, to criminal prosecution, civil action, the banning of organisations, sabotaging opponents’ means of earning a living and character attacks through state-controlled media.

The most extreme of these tools have never been used in Singapore. And it is noteworthy that detention without trial, under the Internal Security Act, was used frequently in the 1960s and 1970s but has not been applied to non-violent political opponents in almost two decades.

As for criminal prosecutions, most of these have not involved jail terms. Dr Chee went to prison because he would not pay a fine. The state’s weapon of choice – defamation civil suits – similarly does not involve incarceration, though it can be devastating financially.

Some may argue that these distinctions are academic, as the PAP’s calibrated coercion is still coercive enough to neutralise the opposition. On the one hand, that is precisely the point being argued here: The PAP has developed into an art form the ability to suppress challenges with a fraction of the brutality employed by the most ruthless dictatorships, but with an effectiveness that more than matches them.

Still, the difference between physical torture and a lawsuit is hardly insignificant. To claim otherwise – to say that Singapore is like the Soviet Union of the past, or like Zimbabwe today – is to trivialise the suffering of dissidents in some of the most inhumane regimes of the modern era.

Furthermore, different tools have different secondary effects. That is why calibrated coercion is not only more ethical than unbridled repression, but also the smarter option for any regime interested in long-term consolidation rather than short-term plunder.

States that overplay their hand often find the excessive violence backfiring on them. It unleashes a moral outrage that opponents can harness to mobilise a hitherto-inert public behind their cause.

Tipping points

IN THE Philippines, the sight of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr, gunned down in cold blood on the tarmac of Manila International Airport in 1983, was the beginning of the end of the Ferdinand Marcos regime.

Indonesia, May 1998: The shooting of four student protesters was the tipping point that turned the Reformasi campaign against then-president Suharto into a full-blown revolution.

Malaysia’s Reformasi got a fillip from sensational images of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim being snatched away under the Internal Security Act and then emerging from custody with a black eye, courtesy of the country’s police chief.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew would later comment that the Mahathir government erred tactically in using the ISA instead of a straightforward criminal charge – a rare hint that the calibration of coercion is a conscious policy, even if never enunciated.

One of the few political theorists to have analysed the cost of a state’s violence to the state itself was political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

In her pithy treatise On Violence, she rejected Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted dictum by arguing that while violence can flow from the barrel of a gun, power cannot.

Power corresponds to the human ability to act in concert; it belongs to a group and exists only as long as the group coheres.

‘Single men without others to support them never have enough power to use violence successfully,’ she wrote.

‘Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis – the secret police and its net of informers…Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use…Everything depends on the power behind the violence.’

Power is sustained by legitimacy, and legitimacy is what’s lost when violence is misapplied. ‘To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power,’ she said.

Therefore, even though violence, power and authority often appear together, they are not the same. Indeed, she added: ‘Power and violence are opposites; where one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.’

Arendt thus zoomed in on the counter-intuitive truth that run-of-the-mill dictators have failed to understand. As in so many other areas, the PAP belongs in a different league. It may have wielded mallets to smash assorted flies in the 1960s and 1970s, but since the mid-1980s it has been relatively self-restrained in the use of force.

This is why the Catherine Lim Affair was able to create such a stir in the mid-1990s, and is still talked about 10 years later, despite the fact that she was not arrested, exiled or ‘fixed’. Her books were still published and used as literature texts in government schools, so she was not even punished professionally.

Three decades ago, these less-calibrated means of coercion were more routine. A Singaporean from that period, transported through time to the present day, would be dumbfounded by the notion that the Catherine Lim Affair – which never got nastier than a verbal lashing – could be iconic of PAP intolerance towards dissent. He would have concluded, correctly, that the PAP had changed.

Our time-traveller would be wrong, however, if he assumed that the PAP had undergone a fundamental philosophical conversion towards liberal ideals. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised at his talk at the Foreign Correspondents Association last Thursday, it has not – and will not.

The change is instead at the level of methodology. By systematically shifting political controls behind the scenes – through legislation covering trade unions, universities, the press, religious groups and the legal profession – the PAP has pre-empted ugly confrontations with institutions that could challenge its authority.

Mixed blessing

THE contemporary scene of calibrated coercion is a mixed blessing for Singaporeans who want more freedom. There is certainly less cause for fear today than in the old days when coercion was more blunt. On the other hand, the PAP’s self-restraint gives its opponents less moral ammunition.

Controls are so seamlessly integrated into the system and coercion is so well calibrated that the average Singaporean can go through much of life without bumping into the hard edges of PAP authoritarianism. This is bad news for pro-democracy activists, who consequently have a tough time reminding Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation.

That is where Dr Chee’s strategy of civil disobedience comes in. It is a predictable response to the PAP’s success at calibrated coercion. It involves seeking out laws that may not enjoy great public support, and deliberately flouting them to provoke a forceful response. The use of force will ensure victory to the PAP, but the price of victory, to borrow Arendt’s words, will be ‘paid by the victor in terms of his own power’. The strategy turns the state’s monopoly of force against itself.

Other states have fallen into the trap when those at the top miscalculate, or when their functionaries – especially the police or army – get trigger-happy when putting down peaceful protests. There is little risk of the latter in Singapore, where uniformed services are highly disciplined and under firm civilian direction. The former scenario – political miscalculation – also seems unlikely.

However, it should be noted that a new and less experienced generation of ministers and permanent secretaries is taking charge. For them, there may be an urge to deal with challengers of any sort in the most expeditious manner, and the temptation to get their way through actual or threatened force may be irresistible. The alternative – the use of reason and debate – may seem too slow, too weak, especially when more decisive tools are at one’s fingertips.

The situation, in short, is dynamic. The Government can narrow the opportunities for effective civil disobedience by pro-actively amending regulations that are over-broad and difficult to defend intellectually to the ordinary Singaporean. Until then, the Chees of Singapore will continue to pressure those points in the law. The authorities will not give in; they will say no. But they will have to calibrate carefully how they say no.

The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, where he researches media and politics. This article is based on an academic paper on calibrated coercion, published in the Asia Research Institute’s working paper series, at .

I love this entry, simply because of the level of depth and complexity he goes into further rationalising the methods of our PAP government. Anyone who does not use PAP and authoritarian in a single sentence is terribly naive and ignorant of the reality of Singapore. to read more abour calibrated coercion and civil disobedience, go to Mr Cherian George’s blog (yes he does have a blog! Contrary to Mr Carl Skadian’s narrow definition of blogs!)

But somehow its a very soft method of approach towards politics. I don’t doubt its effectiveness but I would rather go for the argument underpining a stronger opposition rather than “civil disobedience” per se. Because in the end, what we want is a plurality in the government, where the difference in ideas help make the governance of Singapore more accountable, more open and less monopolised by certain key groups and individuals.

Read this entry by K.S. (Some of you may know who I am refering to. Its the same guy!) entitled “The real world we play in” part 1 and part 2 to know more about what I mean. He is able to encapsulate what I mean about sustained political engagement with the PAP for the betterment of the society (and here the imperative word being sustained because we don’t want to simply get rid of the PAP as a political party and install a new authoritarian rule!). Though truthfully, reality is hard to change. But its until we recognise the boundaries and work within them that would mean a true victory for a more better form of government in Singapore.


9 Responses to Managing civil disobedience

  1. yong ping says:

    thanks for posting the article ‘zam! i know they ran it on sunday’s straits times but didn’t get a chance to read it. i’m amazed such a piece with potentially subversive content-though still very much restrained-could appear in ST at all.

    civil disobedience might seem like a ‘soft’ tactic, but it might just produce the tipping point we need. we are becoming more educated and globally aware-a small army of dissidents could be seething beneath the veneer of our ever-peaceful society. sometimes just an ounce more of force can push the boulder over the edge…

    a ‘plural’ government is the ideal situation, but you heard Lee in his comments at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association lunch only just last wk-SG will not be taking on a multi-party system for 20 years to come, at least going by his policy. it is an ideal government, but nearly impossible to achieve by going at them head on.

    but maybe i should examine K.S.’s thoughts more closely…

  2. Libertas says:

    On your point of the “tipping point”, I guess that’s true to a certain extent. I have learnt that these same conditions led to the French Revolutions of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1905 and 1914 (if I’m not mistaken).

    “sometimes just an ounce more of force can push the boulder over the edge…” – what do you mean by this? Are you saying that we are going to experience the same revolutions as we did in the past? The ideological hold the PAP has on us has its strong foundation on economics and that’s very hard to counter in our very Chinese society, unless of course, we go through a Great Depression and the government is seen to be unable to deal with it. And my central argument against civil disobedience is that its an end in itself – such realpolitik does not transcend beyond creating a new non-PAP government. What happens after the PAP loses all “political capital”? Do you forsee a better form of leadership under Dr Chee?

    If I’m not mistaken, his statement for the rejection of a multi-party system is in response to the idea of liberal democracy versus his Asian-Confucian-amalgamtion democracy (or maybe non-democracy for that matter).

    There is a very small room for political development. Under such authoritarian circumstances, maybe “civil disobedience” is the only way to pave this change to a multi-party system. Maybe not. My concern is whether or not this leads to a more effective form of government, or pure utter chaos and political fighting between parties just to gain control.

  3. sourbodhi says:

    i understand your concern. you are afraid that with the PAP gone, political, and social, chaos will break out. but i say, let’s take the risk. order can yet come out of chaos. progress comes at a price. chee might not make a good governor by himself, but-besides the fact that that’s probably not his objective-we do not want another single-party domination; what we need is a multi-party system that will have internal checks and balances.

    lee was speaking separately on liberal democracy and a multi-party system. if he has his way, we are not going to adopt liberal democracy; on top of that, no multi-party system, whether it’s a liberal democracy or not. so you see, liberal democracy and multi-party system are not interchangeable terms.

    he is practically saying that only PAP knows best and that they don’t trust the other parties to be able to govern well, regardless of what the ppl of singapore think.

  4. Libertas says:

    This is the definition of liberal democracy in wikipedia: “Liberal democracy is a form of representative democracy where the ability of elected representatives to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law and moderated by a constitution which emphasizes the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities (also called constitutional liberalism), and which places constraints on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised.” And according to Wikipedia, “A multi-party system is essential for representative democracies, because it prevents the leadership of a single party from setting policy without challenge.” So you see, though they may not be exactly interchangable, essentially, liberal democracies tend to be characterised by a multi-party system, which can be seen in most Western governments.

    Another thing I would clarify is the fact that I am not so much concerned about the “pure utter chaos and political fighting” but more about what comes after “civil disobedience”. And with Dr Chee as the face of such a political tactic doesn’t bode well for the future of governance in Singapore. You wouldn’t want ministers confronting opposition members in hawker centres to expose government conspiracies. And this again is related with my argument for a more effective opposition, which will ensure the “internal checks and balances” you pointed out.

    Of course PM Lee would say that. He’s from the PAP. We should not expect anything less of him. But by saying this, he’s trying to challenge the opposition towards making any wrong moves which may be political suicide.

    This coming elections (don’t know when, hopefully soon enough!) would be the litmus test of how much “political capital” the PAP has lost (or won) so far. Aljunied GRC is definitely the place to look at, and with the government launching a new redevelopment programme, the opposition would have a tough time trying to gain votes (with HDB redevelopment continuing to be a key issue in the elections). Do you think civil disobedience here would help discredit the PAP in the area?

  5. sour_bodhi says:

    i do not dispute for a moment that the idea of a multi-party system is closely associated with that of a liberal democracy. but the point is that either way, we are not going to see a ‘plural’ government anytime soon, at least in the foreseeable circumstances. and that is regrettable indeed.

    i don’t quite understand the part about ‘ministers confronting opposition members in hawker centres’. civil disobedience would be an expedient tactic which should only be used as long as the dominating party does not engage in constructive dialogue. once the desired change is achieved there should be no more use nor value in it. do you mean that you are afraid that civil disobedience will persist after change is won, leading only to a different set of problems?

    the most effective opposition will be found in a multi-party system. in fact, in such a system, the idea of ‘opposition’ would become moot because by its very nature it implies that there is a dominant party to be kept in check. the ideal multi-party system would comprise various parties of equal standing, where each party could air its views and debate carried out. you are rooting for a ‘more effective opposition’, but i fear it is a catch-22 situation; to change the government we need stronger opposition, but such an opposition force is unlikely to materialise without the very change the opposition is fighting for. these are the sorry facts facing us in SG.

    i think you are not being fair when you simply plug the idea of civil disobedience into the context of Aljunied GRC. civil disobedience has greater implications; it would not be limited to a particular area, although it might start in that area. anyway, it is not a concept that yet has general support, opposition members included; there would be no one to lead the constituents in any campaign of civil disobedience. and what law would you be aiming to break?! if there is any law to protest it would be the elections system itself; and that would entail the whole nation, not just Aljunied GRC.

  6. Libertas says:

    I was refering to Dr Chee when I talked about “ministers confronting opposition members in hawker centres”, where if Dr Chee came into power he might do what he did in 2001 when he was sued for defamation by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the then Prime Minister of Singapore, for remarks made when he saw Prime Minister Goh in a hawker centre in Jurong GRC. So I doubt such political and moral legitimacy would exist under his leadership, using his brand of “civil disobedience” as a method for political power and position. He would have come to power not because of the strength of his ideals and values but because he simply discredited the PAP.

    And if you were to refer to “civil disobedience” by “opposition activists” (not opposition party members) as Dr Cherian Goerge referred to his essay and were to use the white elephant protest as an example, my question to you is what has this achieved? Even though I accept the fact that more political awareness is created as a result of this blatant exhibition of anti-governmental policies, did this result in the immediate (or to put it more reasonable terms, in the next few months) opening of Buangkok Station? Did “civil disobedience” created the intended result, in this case, the opening the station for use by the residents of Buangkok? Sadly no. Has the PAP lost any “political capital” in doing little to this ‘funny’ act of political opposition? Infinitesimal. If we ourselves fail to engage the government into constructive dialogue, how are we to expect the government to do so? This easily led the government to do so little in response to the protest, since little “political capital” and legitimacy is lost.

    I find your view that “civil disobedience” as an “expedient tactic” very dangerous because its an end it itself. So are you saying the PAP should not be in power simply because it has monopoly of power only and that there is no political freedom? What about other more important issues such as the CPF savings, unemployment, poverty, the quality of life in Singapore and the relative socioeconomic development of the various races? If “civil disobedience” placed the SDP in power with Dr Chee as our Prime Minister, would that mean a better future for Singapore, under a multi-party system? Therein lies again my idea of an effective opposition.

    Your view that the opposition is in a Catch-22 situation is very true and valid – we have seen how the opposition has been loosing much support of the electorate in the 1990s. But you fail to recognise the fact that this was not so in the 1980s. In fact, it was common to hear predictions that the ruling party’s dominance was in inexorable decline, with the victories of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam and Mr Chiam See Tong and the dramatic 13 point swing from the PAP in the 1984 elections. If we had such a strong opposition then, why can’t we have it now? How did Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang manage to gain credibility now, even though we have seen numerous PAP’s hardball politics against the opposition?

    My postulation of “civil disobedience” in Aljunied GRC is just reflection my own ruminations – how does it apply in a real scenario of a hotly contestly ward during the next General Elections? Do you mean that the opposition should place cardboard cutout of carrots with “Say no to your $160m redevelopment for more political freedom”?

    You brought out another interesting point which needs careful thinking – who should lead this campaign of “civil disobedience”? An uncoordinated, maybe spontaneous expression by the oppressed public or the opposition party members fighting for more votes and seats in the parliament?

  7. sour_bodhi says:

    we’re really enjoying this aren’t we? and we’re leaving the realm of ‘comments’ in a blocks-of-text, multi-paragraph fashion 🙂 …

    some clarification of what civil disobedience encompasses is in order; from your remarks it would seem that it remains a nebulous concept in your mind. civil disobedience is the refusal to obey laws viewed as unjust, without resorting to violent action or resistance, with the aim of inducing change in government policy. it can occur on an individual level or be a collective effort; it may take the form of street protests, or writing letters, or going on strike. civil disobedience definitely does NOT equate to anarchy; it should always have a rational justification behind it. granted dr chee has flouted the law on several occasions, but the hawker centre incident was not an example of that. similarly, dr cherian george’s article in ST cannot be considered an instance of civil disobedience, because no law was broken. nor would the residents of Aljunied GRC, should they be so inclined, be enaged in civil disobedience if they rejected the redevelopment plan in favour of political reform. by its nature any campaign of civil disobedience would probably be a long and drawn-out process; no overnight revolution there. it is for this reason that it is erroneous to think that an isolated incident such as the white elephant protest-being a one-off affair with no extended or coherent campaign, and pertaining to an issue with a relatively low significance-can effect significant change in the government.

    i must clarify that just because i’m for civil disobedience doesn’t necessarily mean that dr chee has my staunch support; i beg your pardon if i have led you to believe that. we mustn’t confuse the idea with the man. indeed, his public outbursts leave something to be desired. it is worth noting that the concept of civil disobedience did not originate from dr chee; it is a strategy that has been employed in many nations. a campaign of civil disobedience does not have to be led by dr chee-it could be anyone seeking change in the government. dr chee promotes the idea, but it doesn’t mean he has to spearhead it. it does not follow that if civil disobedience succeeds, then he and his party will take power.neither does it follow that civil disobedience should entail toppling the pap. civil disobedience targets policies; it does not target the ruling power per se.

    it is funny that you should mention mr chiam and mr low as examples a strengthening opposition; they also happen to be the only 2 opposition MPs out of 84! their winning over of their constituencies is laudable, but they are far from representing the general opposition scene in SG.

    perhaps i should explain why i think the opposition is fighting a losing battle. among other things, the pap poses numerous obstacles to the opposition: they manipulate local media to their advantage, but the opposition is not given access to the media; the pap controls the elections system ; and defamation suits are slapped on political opponents once they step out of line. the problem is not so much the opposition not doing enough as the hurdles that are placed in their path.

  8. […] This is my latest response to sour_bodhi on “civil disobedience” which all started from the article by Dr Cherian Geroge entitled Managing civil disobedience. Its long enough to be an entry so I decided to reproduce it as an entry in itself. […]

  9. […] “civil disobedience” which all started from the article by Dr Cherian Geroge entitled Managing Civil Disobedience. Its long enough to be an entry so I decided to reproduce it as an entry in […]

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