Syariah Court, Inter alia

December 21, 2006

Okay, my lawyer actually brought me to Syariah Court for a Pre-Trial Conference (hereafter “PTC”)! Upon receiving the invite yesterday at approximately 3.30pm, I proceeded to plan to get a white long sleeved shirt and full black pants to wear for court (even though it was only a PTC). I felt excited because I finally actually get to see another glimpse of a life of a lawyer, fighting it out for your clients. The case itself was interesting in some aspects and was not the usual divorce case since the husband has a criminal record and the husband has not jatuh talak to his wife yet so technically they are still married.

Just to back track, yesterday (or shall I say Tuesday) was a mad rush after work to get the perfect set of clothes for my first day in court for a actual case (rather than simply going to send some documents to the Probate Counter at the Subordinate Courts)! In the end I decided to get the ones from G2000 since it was the best deal in Tampines Mall and Century Square combined! The white long sleeved shirt was $39/- and the black pants was $29.40 after 40% discount. Thanks to Fatma for accompanying me around both malls to survey and get the perfect set and her advise on the rule to only wear 5 accessories for suits (though I personally do not feel a need in the near future to dress so well if I’m only a lowly law student.. heeheehee)

One of the lawyers warned me that Syariah Court was quite informal and recountered an experience in which the judge actually proceeded to cross examine the Plaintiff from where he was sitting and not in the stand and under oath. But though I never went to an actual trial, what I realised that it was informal but in a positive way in the sense that there is a strong sense of community among the lawyers and even the clerks in the Syariah Court. Though the number of Malay speaking Indian Muslim lawyers outnumber the Malay lawyers, everyone knows each other well to say Hi and lament to each other on various cases. Administrative inefficiencies aside, the clerks themselves know the lawyers personally and their dispatch clerks/workers since there are so few of them around.

Before speaking in front of the Registrar, the lawyers had to wait in what I was told was called a Bar Room which gives the lawyers a private space to relax and read up on their case before being called. And another observation that struck me was the fact that there isn’t such a thing as a stereotypical Malay lawyer. All are very different in their own quirky idiosyncratic way, from the utterly messy, to the rather calm and composed, from being motherly to being rather flirtatious in front of beautiful women! So it really depends on who you really are and how much you yourself make of the law profession that reflects your abilities as a lawyer in the court of law. And the fact that all of them are effectively bilingual inspired me to want to try to speak more Malay fluently at home and with friends to help myself achieve more being a Malay lawyer (if I do so in the future…)

Overall, it was thoroughly an eye opening experience. Though some lessons to be learnt – I need to get rid of my juvenile looking Blue Billabong wallet. Though it served its purpose in JC and army, it does not belong in the hands of a lawyer! (as most people got the impression when I was wearing the suit and tie in the court building) And this also includes my “I don’t discriminate, I hate everyone!” sling bag (or handbag as Vasaant adamantly reminds me!) which totally did not go with the suit. And I need to buy a suit (since I borrowed the one I wore from another lawyer), dress shoes, tie and belt so that I am ready in case he asks me to go along again!

And guess what? He asked me if I wanted to go to prison today and I said yes! Hahahahahaha. My lawyer is a fantastic guy for someone who is willing to teach someone who knows so little of the law. I am in total gratitude to him and I hope I can learn more from him in the next two days. By the way, I’m actually working with another firm (though in the same office) for another lawyer since his secretary is currently on marital leave. So far, secretarial work has been good. Even if I’m not learning about being a lawyer itself, I do get to handle court documents and is exposed to the things the secretary has to go through in order for lawyer to do his job effectively. I really appreciate all the help my fellow collegues have given me as I grapple which how to proceed with the Interlocutory Judgment to confirm liability in a personal injury claim or who should sign the Consent To Dispense Sureties in the list of beneficiaries of the estate. It has been fun and exciting and irritating at times!

Okay parents going off to perform Ibadah Haji tomorrow! Wishing them a safe journey ahead!


There is a First for Everything…

November 28, 2006

Today was the first day I entered a Court Building (not the court itself!). Today was also the first day that I was invited to go for dinner with my lawyer and all of the other lawyers and secretaries in the office. Today was also the first and only time that I had to puke during a meal. And last but not least, I also got personally invited for a Malay wedding that is not at all affiliated to my parents!

There’s always a first for everything. As some of my friends already know, I have been working in a law firm for about two months already. And it has been such a refreshing change from the regimentation and discipline of the army! And it has actually come to an extent that I self impose such discipline and regimentation on my lawyer and his office, with my ever obsessive compulsive desire to keep things neat and tidy and on stand by conditions, even during the day when I leave for lunch! I actually cleaned his whole office, making it workable for once! Since I am employed as a secretary/admin assistant/clerk, I don’t expect to really understudy him and learn the mechanics of law and go to court. So when some documents had to be personally delivered to the Subordinate Courts and when the dispatch rider was on MC, the onus was on me to go with him (since I can’t drive!) So yes, the first time I actually went to court was to send documents to the Probate counter. Not entirely spectacular but its a start, given my initial ambivalence to the law profession itself.

Today was also the first time that I participated in a social event with the rest of the people in the office. I have to clarify that there are three separate law firms with three separate lawyers and secretaries working in the same office, so including me that makes seven of us. It was hard initially when I did not know them well so as I worked and proved my worth to them, even though I am only a temp, I was still invited to go with the rest of them. (Though traditional Malay courtesy would prove otherwise, that I still would go regardless of whether I was only a temp!) And it was fantastic, meeting and talking to them on a social setting since its difficult once we are in our offices and immersed in doing documents and paperwork. And I actually managed to talk to the other two lawyers and gain much insight on the law profession itself, especially with regards to being a Malay lawyer.

And this was definitely the first time I vomitted during the meal. And no, I did not vomit on the table. (Thank Allah!) I vomitted in the toilet! I knew that eating at a table barbeque restaurant which mainly consisted or burnt or undercooked food was not good for my sensitive stomach so when I was on to dessert, I already felt queasy and nauseous. One of the lawyers even commented that I was eating too little but the truth is, I was simply feeling sick and the smell was making it worse! So yup I vomitted in the toilet without their knowledge and nonchalantly went back to my seat. Note to self: Never ever again eat at Seoul Garden or Hans River or any other table barbeque restaurant. There’s a reason why you swore off Seoul Garden since Secondary school. No more overpriced undercooked/burnt food for you!

And I was also invited to my first Majlis Persandingan or wedding! One of the female secretaries was getiing married this december and I’m invited! It feels good in the sense that on one hand, she feels close enough to me to invite me to her wedding and that I’m also old enough to actually receive an invitation! I’m definitely going, just that I will going alone since the rest of them are married and have children. So yup, my first wedding invitation no vaguely associated to my family!

So yup, the first of many firsts. Just that today was exceptionally more special with my vomit-in-toilet in mind. Hehehehe. Never ever shall I go to any table barbeque restaurant. NEVER.

These maids sleep on mats outside the house

November 2, 2005

Loh Chee Kong

Dr David Tio has witnessed a disturbing sight for the past two weeks, walking past his neighbour’s house on his way home: A group of maids lying huddled on the cemented backyard, sleeping on thin mattresses, mats and newspapers underneath the zinc roofs.

His neighbour’s HDB terrace house in the Whampoa area is situated next to a raised pavement and a multi-storey car park. Passers-by get a clear view of the maids sleeping in the backyard.

Said Dr Tio: “This is no way to treat fellow human beings. How can you make the maids sleep outside? Besides the discomfort, there’s no privacy at all.”

Today visited the double-storey house four times over the past week in the wee hours of the morning. About six maids were sleeping outside the house on two occasions.

When approached by Today, the owners of the house, who have been running a maid agency for 13 years, claimed that the arrangement was only “temporary” until a new boarding house is ready this week. The wife, who employs a maid of her own, claimed that “under no circumstances” had the maids slept a whole night out in the open.

The bespectacled, middle-aged woman claimed the maids had “only rested outside on not more than two occasions” as there were visitors in the house and it was “inconvenient”. After the visitors left, she said, the foreign domestic workers would go up to the room — one of three bedrooms in the house — of the couple’s maid to sleep.

But on one of the nights that Today witnessed the maids sleeping in the backyard, there were clearly no guests in the house as the lights were already out.

The maids spend their day at the employment agency’s office and only return to the house at around 9pm to sleep.

Telling her neighbours to mind their own business, the wife told Today in Mandarin: “We run a reputable agency and of course, we know how we should treat our maids … Would we be in the business for so long if we ill-treated them?”

The couple’s maid, who has been working for them for 14 months, said that her employers were “nice” to her. Speaking to Today when they were out, she said: “They treat me very well but I wouldn’t know how they treat others.”

When contacted, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said it would investigate the matter. From June last year, all maid employment agencies were required to adhere to best practices — which include guidelines on accommodation and food — and be accredited by CaseTrust and the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore. Those that fail to meet these standards risk not having their licences renewed.

Ms Braema Mathi, president of civil society group Transient Workers Count Too, said the couple’s actions were inexcusable.

She said: “Is there no space within their home to let the maids sleep in? Even if there is really none, I don’t understand why the owners didn’t have alternatives. They could have rented rooms for these maids.”

Adding that there is a “basic decency level to treat humans”, Ms Mathi said: “If this is their business model, this agency’s practices leave much to be desired.” Loh Chee Kong

I read the article here.

Yesterday there was news about installing cameras around the house to keep a watch on maids because we, as employers are afraid of “maids gone wild” (I saw them trying on mam’s clothes while she was out! She brought home her Bangladeshi boyfriend home! She totally manhandled my child!) And today we have this.

What is the world coming to?! What are Singaporeans coming to?! The way to measure one’s character is how we treat the people under us. If we treat them like crap, who are we then to say that we have progressed as a society? More needs to be done on this issue! What are you all doing ah, Gahmen!

The banality of sedition

October 17, 2005

October 15, 2005
John A. Tessensohn
Osaka, Japan

THE seditionists’ flimsy mea exculpa in Convicted for sedition, blogger insists: ‘I’m no racist’ (Today, Oct 8-9) is disquieting because this incident shows how blogs have denatured and desensitized admittedly “normal persons” like Koh, Lim and the rest of his ilk from the dangerously volatile issue like race relations in Singapore. By his own description in the Today report, Koh said he “blasted away” on his blog and even engaged in “another blog war” that resulted from his earlier entries – strong fighting words that are easily recognizable by legions of sedentary keyboard warriors who dwell in a nether world of trolls, lurkers, noobs, rotflmao, flame throwers and other denizens in planet blogopolis.

The causus belli of his blogging racist tirades? He was offended by the consternation displayed by a group of Malay picnickers after he had walked his dogs too close for their comfort at East Coast Park.

Admittedly, the very nature of blogging with its unfiltered expression and publication online almost as instantly as a thought strikes makes some of these blogs engrossing and edgy reading. But while this quick-trigger sensation is sauce of the blogging goose, it is now sedition for the real world gander, especially when it comes to race relations in Singapore.

All racist rants are clearly more dangerous than entertaining blogging, for example, about what color underwear a lingerie model may have laid out for herself that morning, but I digress. Words in blogs are published and put out there for the world to read and react to.

By Koh’s own admission, he counts on having Malay friends, one even showed up in a gesture of comradeship at his hearing. But Koh flatters to deceive because Koh and Lim would not be sitting in a cold, dank prison cell today if he had been equally conscientious to ask his many Malay friends’ opinions about the wisdom or propriety of publishing online the contents of his racially offensive blogs.

Such is the banality of these bloggers’ strain of racism. Koh et. al. , like many other Singaporeans would most likely have friends of different races, and are not your archetypical, mouth-frothing, right-wing racist fanatics. But racism inherently dehumanizes and debases the individual and refocuses some irrational rage onto an abstracted target of hate.

One’s friends are never part of that group that is scurrilously targeted because of its race, even though they are members of that race. People, in their worser states, can probably think or compose such vile and hateful racist thoughts, but before the advent of the blog, such thoughts should not be hastily published, for the entire online world to read and dwell upon, by easily as pressing an ENTER button. The liberating and empowering faux authority of blog publications can amplify such baser impulses and cause mayhem.

The blogger may be liberated by the medium but is a willing captive of the machine. The blogger minimizes contact with the multifaceted human dynamic, flesh and blood-based interaction and is certainly more at ease with a no-contact, non-tactile reductivist exercise in self-gratification – a supreme master or mistress of their domain. One clearly knows if one engages in too much self-gratification, the physiological and psychological consequences are not for the faint hearted.

For the record, I am not asking the Singapore government to ban blogs or the Internet (they must have either seriously considered the feasibility or are currently secretly planning to do so as I write this). But using the Sedition Act to police and regulate such blogs could be akin using a cangkul (hoe) to crush a kacang putih (peanut) – typical of the Singaporean instinct to law and order – just like to a dog, everything looks like a fire hydrant.

A more enlightened approach would have been that in addition to short and sharp imprisonment for such offenses, community service by the offender at the many self-help groups like MENDAKI or SINDA could help sensitize first time offenders like Koh and Lim.

In schools, students should be encouraged to volunteer time at such self-help groups, and that how and who can contribute to such organizations are not solely based by their color of their skin or their article of faith.

While I am loathe to praise the Singapore government for its over-efficient curtailing of the precious few liberties that Singaporeans can still indulge in, this enforcement action was a long time coming. A jail sentence sends a strong deterrent warning to those that have played with the fire of racism, deserved to get burnt, but a more nuanced approach to promote race relations against such offenders and other Singaporeans need to be applied.

I saw this article in the Singapore Window. I felt it sums up the whole issue of the racist bloggers very well, dealing with the disgusting racist diatribe of some who are not your “archetypical, mouth-frothing, right-wing racist fanatics” while at the same time, highlighting the “over-efficient” (I love this word! Its so true of the Singapore government..) enforcement of the Sedition Act which may not be the best long term solution to the problem.

On a related note, when I was talking to my elder brother about the issue, he actually had received a forwarded email containing such racial slurs. And I asked him to send it to me for me to take a closer look. And boy was I truly surprised! Believe me, it was VERY VERY VERY vile and disgusting! I’m simply shocked at the level of stupidity and narrow-mindedness such people are. And the fact is such people do exist among our midst. Argh. Leads me to question to what extent our education system, housing system, racial harmony day etc has been successful…

Restriction on Freedom of Expression

October 16, 2005

05 August 2005

by Sinapan Samydorai

There are still many restrictive laws which limit the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. On 22 August 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, made his first National Day Rally speech, calling for a more open and inclusive society. In Singapore, there are still many restrictive laws which limit the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Constitutional Rights to Freedom of Speech, Assembly & Association includes freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble peacefully and without arms, and freedom to form association. At the Speakers Corner, citizens are free to speak. But the Speech must not be inflammatory towards any race, religion, and/or against the interest of national security and public order.

Various restrictions are enforced by legislations and rules such as:
Sedition Act
Undesirable Publications Act
Newspaper and Printing Presses Act
Penal Code
Internal Security Act
Public entertainment Act
Trade Unions Act
Societies Act
Mutual Benefit Organization Act
Rules and regulations on Speakers Corner

The laws state any gathering of 5 persons in a “public place”, could be considered by the authorities as an illegal assembly. Even indoors meetings face the same restrictions. The Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, section 5 (1): “The Minister may make rules: (a) regulating assemblies and processions in public roads, public places and places of public resort…”

29 July 2005: The minister made following rule “Under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) (Assemblies and Procession) Rules 1989, a permit is required for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort intended: (a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person;
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign;or
(c) to mark or commemorate any event.”

The Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act defines “public place” as: “Any place or premises to which at the material time the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission.”

The Public Entertainments and Meetings Act: “No public entertainment shall be provided except:
(a) in an approved place; and
(b) in accordance with a licence issued by the Licensing Officer.”

The Schedule appended to the Act, defines “public entertainment,” inter alia, “(m) any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion;”

To speak one needs a Public Entertainment Licence. To invite more than 4 persons, Police Permit is required, issued pursuant to the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

In Think Centre’s experience, when the Public Entertainment Licence Unit issues the license the gathering is considered a legal assembly.

The Prime Minister at the 2004 National Day Rally Speech said: “… for indoor talks, we are going to do away with licensing. Right now, if you are going outdoors or indoors, if you want to do a talk you need a public entertainment licence. Usually it’s approved. It’s not a problem. But once in a while… you are slow or the police have reservations, they say ‘no’. But it’s very rare. So now we’ve decided we are going to exempt indoor talks from licensing requirements unless they touch on sensitive issues like race and religion.”

28 August 2004, the Straits Times reported the police “refinements to licensing requirements”, for a lecture, discussion or debate to qualify for exemption from licensing as:
* Only Singaporeans can speak, no foreigners;
* Must steer clear of issues related to race or religion;
* Must be in the four official languages or related dialects;
* Must be in an enclosed space “and which is not within the hearing or view of any person who is not attending or participating”.

Think Centre had organized a number of indoor forums without any need for licences. But in May 2005, Think Centre had to obtain a licences for a “vigil” against the death penalty held at the Furama Hotel [indoor gathering].

At present laws require permit for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort.This is too restrictive. Think Centre hopes that the government will allow gatherings of 20 or less persons without the need for permits.

No to “Civil Disobedience”!

October 15, 2005

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?

Govt doesn’t depend on ‘calibrated coercion’

October 12, 2005

Oct 12, 2005

IN ‘MANAGING civil disobedience’ (ST, Oct 10), Dr Cherian George regretted that the PAP Government’s ‘calibrated approach to coercion’ and its self-restraint had made it harder for ‘pro-democracy activists – (to) remind Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation’.

He noted that ‘that is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)’s strategy of civil disobedience comes in’, and commended it as a ‘strategy (which) turns the state’s monopoly of force against itself’.

Dr George has mixed up several different issues. First, the Government does not depend on ‘calibrated coercion’, but derives moral authority precisely from what Dr George himself acknowledged – ‘an outstanding record in delivering the goods, internal discipline, ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans’.

Second, this record of good and clean governance depends on rigorously upholding the rule of law in a plural and democratic society.

The Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters, and whether through violent or non-violent means.

If a law is unjust, there are established avenues for reviewing and changing it. Neither Mr Chiam See Tong nor Mr Low Thia Khiang has had to resort to ‘civil disobedience’ or defamation in order to be elected as MPs.

Our defamation laws follow the English model, and keep our public discourse responsible and honest. Dr George described defamation civil suits as ‘the state’s weapon of choice’, but ministers can sue successfully only if they have been defamed, and they do so on a personal basis, not on behalf of the state.

Opposition MPs themselves have sued when they considered themselves defamed.

Third, zero tolerance for law breaking does not equate to zero tolerance for dissenting views. On the contrary, we encourage people to speak up and express their opinions on national policies and community life, so that out of the diversity of views a consensus can be forged, and a better decision made for the good of the nation.

Dr George’s critical article was published in The Straits Times, contradicting his own claims.

Of course, where criticism is directed against the Government, then the Government has to respond to it or rebut it, or else lose the argument and the respect of Singaporeans. This is what it did a decade ago in response to Dr Catherine Lim.

Such exchanges do not represent ‘PAP intolerance towards dissent’. They are part and parcel of public discourse in a democratic society.

Dr George is, however, right that the PAP has not ‘undergone a fundamental philosophical conversion towards liberal ideals’. He offered no supporting arguments or evidence why these are the right ideals for Singapore.

The Prime Minister has explained why he does not believe that liberal democracy as practised in the West will work here.

Singaporeans know that we have thrived on a different approach – the PAP has won every election since 1959 because it enjoys the trust and support of the people, governs in their interests, and involves citizens in the large issues that affect us all.

Chen Hwai Liang
Press Secretary to the Prime Minister

I humbly beg to differ that Dr Cherian George has mixed up several issues. While he acknowledged the fact that the PAP do derive “moral authority” from “an outstanding record in delivering the goods, internal discipline, ability to win genuine freely-given loyalty from the majority of Singaporeans”, this does not mean the calibrated use of force and coercion does not exist. This utter denial of his arguments simply because she believes it to be so is a weak response to his theory; even “PAP leaders themselves are not coy about their macho side”. She should have explained why Dr Cherian George would have thought this to be so, if the situation was so clear and simple.

Her assumption that we are in a “plural and democratic society” is also debatable and highly contentious – why is it that reknown and intellectual thinkers such as Fareed Zakaria and Dr Cherian George himself continue to label our system as authoritarian single party state? Even Wikipedia says “Western democracies consider the form of government in Singapore to be closer to authoritarianism rather than true democracy”. Again she should reassess her choice of words in describing the true nature of governance in our country.

‘PAP intolerance towards dissent’ is not so much as responding to her Dr Catherine Lim’s higly politicised article, but more towards the treatment of her as a citizen making political opinions about the governance of Singapore. I wonder and pray hope that Dr Cherian George, after publishing his article, would not suffer from any political denouncements by the government or civil suits for that matter.

In the whole letter, what was obviously missing was any clear relation to the notion of “civil disobedience”. She avoids even using the phrase and only refers to it by linking it to the idea of “breaking the law” and that “the Government must act when the law is broken, whether by opposition politicians or government supporters, and whether through violent or non-violent means”, meaning that offenders will be dealt with, in any circumstances. If the PAP has the “moral authority” of the people, why is there talk of “civil disobedience”? She does not dealt with this either.

I just realised that Dr Cherian George’s article is in itself a form of “civil disobedience”. It forced the government to respond and it is up to us to decide whether it was a victory for the government or the opposition party and any other dissenting views. Its obvious to me that it was not a victory for the government because she had failed to adequately deal with various issues Dr Cherian George has highlighted in his article.

[Postscript: Please read Singapore classics to get a better understanding (or a lack of understanding) of the letter and the lack of connection of ideas between Ms Chen and Dr Cherian George. Very insightful! And here is Dr Cherian George’s personal response. Here is Ms Chen’s response to his letter. I decided to reproduce both of the responses in my comments since it will otherwise make this entry a mother long one.]