No to “Civil Disobedience”!

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.

I shall refrain from launching personal attacks. However, I strongly disagree with you that my interpretation of “civil disobedience” is nebulous, misunderstood or miscontrued for that matter.

Let me first clarify my point on Dr Chee. My point into bringing in the example of the him being sued by the then PM Goh was to show the lack of moral legitimacy in his leadership, that he chooses sensationalist politics over one that is more reasoned and mature. This is an extension of the lack of faith I have in “civil disobedience” if such a campaign was to be championed by him.

I have noticed that you have consistently failed to provide any examples of your own as to how “civil disobedience” has made its point (“inducing a change in government policy” so to use your definition). So I’ll give you an example using Dr Chee (since the hawker centre incident was not an example per se): in late 1998, Dr Chee mounted a series of talks in public places, deliberately flouting the government’s licensing rules, which he felt was “unjust” so as to draw attention to the lack of freedom in Singapore (we both do agree that such laws are unjust eg Speaker’s corner at Hong Lim Park so there’e no confusion here?) The government, realising this, did not give him the satisfaction of an overwhelming show of force. The police officer who approached him at the end of each talk to remind him of the rules was such a timid looking fellow that you actually felt more sorry for him than for the bellowing opposition. In this case, “civil disobedience” did not “induc[e] a change in government policy”, but only discredited him as an opposition politician even further.

I am very sorry if my point of using Dr Cherian George’s article and the Aljunied GRC examples were not clear enough to underpin my very rhetorical arguments against “civil disobedience”. You view that his article was not an instance of “civil disobedience” because “no law was broken”. This I presumed to be the Freedom of speech, assembly and association. He was speaking in his own personal capacity as an academic interested in the political development of Singapore. And he has pointedly made his stand clear, through his letters with Ms Chen, that he was trying to be “non-partisan” in his approach, being an academic paper. But Ms Chen did provide a valid point which I will quote:

It is no surprise that critics of the Government, especially those who are academics, will want to portray themselves as being dispassionate observers who are above the fray.

Though his essay was not purposefully breaking the law, you will agree with me that the government, with all its legislative and judiciary powers, can prove this otherwise, which is obvious since Ms Chen viewed his essay as partisan whereas he doesn’t. Therein lies the difference in interpretations. I choose to view his essay as an example of “civil disobedience” because it can be argued to have flouted the Sedition Act. And again I quote Ms Chen who reproduced some parts of his essay which was ommited from the Straits Times:

This paper, titled ‘Calibrated coercion and the maintenance of hegemony in Singapore’, describes Singapore as an instance of ‘authoritarian rule’, declares that ‘the normative thrust of this essay is directed at democratisation’, and claims to offer a ’sophisticated understanding of what makes certain kinds of authoritarian rule endure – the better to resist and challenge them’.

Doesn’t this (a) bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government and (b) excite the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure in Singapore, the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter as by law established? He did clarify that he did not intentionally encourage people to break laws but his critique of the government’s method of “calibrated coercion” did place them in a negative light. And by highlighting the government’s so-called authoritarian rule, isn’t he trying to show that such repressive laws are indeed unjust and he is trying, inadvertedly and unintentionally, to “induc[e] a change in government policy”. (which brings another question of whether unintended “civil disobedience” can be argued to be breaking the law or not!)

But then again, he has not been charged or convicted for his essay, so what am I saying? My point is this, you say that his essay was not “civil disobedience” and though you are inclined to justify this within your narrow framework of your definition, politics does not work that way. In fact, I shall explicitly state that Singapore politics does not work that way. That Ms Chen chose to enagage him in a polemical debate emphasizes my first point using Dr Chee, the government will always find ways to justify its own rule, without loosing any “political capital”, whether is it through letters or through an unassuming police officer. Dr Catherine Lim hasn’t been directly charged and convicted but does this mean her “civil disobedience” (towards the laws governing freedom of political expression through her Straits Times essay “Utopia or Dystopia”) was not dealt with (the verbal attacks were especially deafening and silencing..)? So again lies my lack of faith in civil disobedience – to what extent can inject any semblance of political change in Singapore?

You have also misread my example on Aljunied GRC. What I said was “Do you mean that the opposition should place cardboard cutout of carrots with “Say no to your $160m redevelopment for more political freedom”?” I did not simply mean that the citizens themselves would engage in “civil disobedience” but rather on the opposition for flouting the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, having puttin up protest posters against such a unfair show of politicking even before the election has even begun! My question is should the opposition engage in such tactics to protest the unfair advantage the incumbents have over the voters, especially so on such bread and butter issues which will resonate well within the Singaporean psyche? Maybe my caption for the protest was not clear enough. Maybe it should read “Say yes to your $160m redevelopment if you support unfairness in the political system and the blatant hardball politics of the PAP”.

You are also mistaken to assume that the White Elephant protest was a one-off affair. And here I quote the article Why the white elephant rumpus?:

The residents have seen their MP, done their research and compiled their figures to the relevant bodies to bolster their case for opening the station — all in vain. Then, a surprising, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek display of cardboard white elephants to make a point to Minister Vivian Balakrishnan — who visited the ward that Sunday — affronted some people enough for them to lodge a police report!

It was a “long and drawn-out process” and was not “an isolated incident”. It was not, however, done as part of an extended campaign but what acts of “civil disobedience” usually are? Can you name me any acts (or series of acts for that matter) that truly represents a concerted year long champaign of “civil disobedience”? To you, not being a resident living near Buangkok station, the issue of “relatively low importance” but I believe it is important at least to those residents who live there. And if only we had opposition politicians who could give voice to those unheard, realising that this is why we need opposition members in a political system, would only the government be fully accountable and the laws fair.

I’m very confused. You say Dr Chee does not lead the campaign of “civil disobedience” but he only promotes it. And it “could be anyone seeking change in the government”. Doesn’t this contradict your initial point that it should be an “extended or coherent campaign” or that it is not anarchic since literally anyone and everyone can and will want to seek change in the government? You talk as if “civil disobedience” is a national campaign but in reality only Dr Chee is seen to have formulated such a campaign (sort of.. Hence my lack of faith, again. This is the third time I said this..). And since you don’t even regard the White elephant protest as an example, even though it was a long process and it was united under a single cause, what is “civil disobedience”?

I concur that “civil disobedience” has a corrective function toward policies and unfair laws but wasn’t the point of Dr Cherian’s essay using “civil disobedience” and “calibrated coercion” both hinting towards the downfall of the PAP since both feeds on each other (loss of moral legitimacy and authority when the government responds or doesn’t respond). I’ll quote him to be sure:

“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.”

It is debatable that if civil disobedience succeeds, Dr Chee and his party will take power, even though only he has a semblance of a plan of “civil disobedience”. It is true that “civil disobedience” targets policies; it does not target the ruling power per se. It is, however, not true that “civil disobedience” does not entail toppling the PAP because eventually what Dr Cherian emphasizes is how the PAP will have to deal with it, since “calibrated coercion” would be a harder tool to master. We are not arguing about fluttering bold sounding theories in the realm of abstraction – “civil disobedience” has been proven continuosly to have failed into producing the intended changes in policies and laws. Dissention of views are tolerated but do they really effect change?

But one thing I do agree with you: The PAP and the multitudinous forms of obstacles it has placed in front of the opposition. The opposition can do more, but whether it is enough, or whether the population responds well to that is another issue altogether. “Civil disobedience” is a convenient form of checks and balances on the government since it goes against the law. But wouldn’t it be better if we were to rise to the challenge and fight within the system and triumph?


One Response to No to “Civil Disobedience”!

  1. sour_bodhi says:

    i’m glad we sorted out stuff on msn chat… anw i sent my thoughts on the AG attempting to get the case dismissed to SG_Review, and then the next day it appears on Singabloodypore!

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