Two Dirty Words

by singaporearmchaircritic

Right. Freedom.

In Singapore, you’d hardly hear a man-in-the-street utter these words. We shy away from proclaiming “this is my right” and “it is my freedom to do so” because what represent men’s fundamental entitlements in the liberal West are laden with negative connotations here. In the minds of many Singaporeans, rights and freedoms are associated with chaos, instability, individualism, decadence, immorality, lawlessness . . . and the list goes on.

This is the outcome of years of indoctrination through the mainstream media and the education we receive. And judging from the not insignificant proportion among us who still subscribe to this sort of warped thinking, the insidious brainwashing has been very successful indeed.

Don’t believe me? Just tell a fellow Singaporean that you believe in upholding human rights and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be looked askance at, either as a trouble-maker, or someone trying to land himself in trouble.

Who’s Afraid of Freedom?

Some readers and I briefly exchanged ideas over last week’s post on what the rights and responsibilities of Singapore citizens should be. Without going into details yet, I list a few rights below, juxtaposed with the imagined knee-jerk response of the various camps defending the status quo: the pro-government, the conservative, and the unthinking.

1. Freedom to pursue happiness

“This will promote drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and lead to our society’s moral decline!”

2. Freedom from poverty

“What?! You want to bankrupt our country through welfarism?”

3. Freedom of speech

“Oh my. Now all that Internet hate speech and fabrications about our dearest greatest purest ruling party will permeate every aspect of our life and destroy the high journalistic standards set by our mainstream media…”

4. Freedom to participate in the democratic process

“Anarchy will set in and cripple our country!”

So I’ve said it first. Those culpable of propagating or parroting such thoughts don’t have to leave your comments on this post, thank you.

Jabs aside, I have serious points to make.

As you can see from the above, the predictable counter-response to demands for more freedoms and rights always assume that greater freedom for the individual comes at the expense of the community/society/nation; that asking for more freedom means carrying it to the extreme, resulting in a society that is TOO liberal. If you are one of those who genuinely believe in these specious arguments, read on and you’ll find that they’re not necessarily true. In fact, in Singapore the reverse is true: i.e. our rights are often inhibited in the name of the “greater good,” however defined by the government.

Where’s the Balance?

I have organized the rights and responsibilities of a few citizenships into a table so that it is easy to see the interconnections. Citizens are entitled to the freedom of speech, of religion, but at the same time they are obliged to respect the rights and beliefs of others; they have freedom to peaceful assembly but they have to obey the law.

Fair enough. But this system of balancing rights with responsibilities works only when citizens have a say over how to strike a balance between the two. Any talk about striking a balance between rights and responsibilities is meaningless when the citizen has no part to play in it.

Just look at Singapore. Although our fundamental liberties are written into the Constitution, the Parliament can impose new laws at its whim to confer restrictions on these liberties. And the ruling party’s dominance in the Parliament ensures that it can pass any law as it deems fit.

The Public Order Act (POA) implemented before the APEC meeting in 2009 is a good case in point. The Act further impedes our right to peaceful assembly as stated in Part IV of our Constitution: “all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.” While previously a gathering of five or more people was regulated, with the enactment of the POA any “cause-related” outdoor activities now requires a police permit, even if it involves only one person.

This is all in the name of  “public order” during major events like the APEC meeting. But the POA conveniently applies to political activities that are not “major events” (read what the Ministry of Home Affairs said about the POA and a report here).

Participation Makes Citizenship Meaningful

Participation, specifically participation to influence government policy, is what makes citizenship meaningful. This requires a relaxation of controls on the various freedoms, especially the freedom of speech to facilitate dialogue and debate.

The government has repeatedly urged for open debate and balanced views in cyberspace but has failed to reflect on the state of our mainstream media, ranked a pathetic 135th in press freedom. While our leaders can continue to dismiss the dismal performance of our media, the reality is this: as long as our mainstream media remains a political tool of the ruling party, there will not be a common platform for citizen debate. Critics and dissenters including yours truly will continue to air our views in cyberspace and treat the mainstream media with disdain.

Even if the government insists on denying us of these freedoms, we have our voting rights. If our voice is not worthy of its attention, then we’ll have elected legislators of the opposition parties speak on our behalf.