Dr Chee Soon Juan recently delivered the keynote speech at a CALD conference where he talked about the importance of civil liberties and political rights.
I am always inspired when I find myself in the company of committed and able servants of justice and human rights. This morning I am exceptionally inspirited because I see so many familiar faces who have served freedom's cause so valiantly. It never fails to encourage me when I am in their presence.
We are met here today not to extol the virtues of democracy for we have done that many times before, but we are here to study how we can address the challenges to fundamental freedoms that are the bulwark against tyranny and, in so doing, empower our peoples.
To this end, the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, of which the Singapore Democratic Party is a proud member, has, in no small measure contributed to the changed and changing political topography in Asia.
Twenty years ago when like-minded Asians came together to caucus the idea of liberal democracy, freedom was just another word and justice had little form. Back then, much of Asia was under authoritarian control.
But in the span of two decades, many democracy activists have realised their dream of seeing the richness of democracy and human rights come to their lands. Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia – just to name a few countries – have taken that bold stride and entered into the world of free countries. Even our colleagues in Burma seemed to have crossed the Rubicon of freedom. Malaysia is also undergoing the birth pangs of democracy.
Many of these democracy leaders have found a home in CALD.
But these developments did not occur by happenstance. They came about because of perseverance and sacrifice by leaders who cared and dared to defy those who would persecute them. Just years ago, the Benigno Aquinos, the Kim Dae Jungs, the Aung San Suu Kyis, were imprisoned and humiliated, but they soldiered on always believing in the rightness and inevitability of their cause.
They have distinguished themselves from politicians who would cry: "Tell me where my people have gone so that I may catch up and lead them."
No, these people acted on principle, not popularity. Their paths to freedom were narrow and lonely, but through courage and dedication they widened these paths to broad avenues of democracy where their fellow citizens now travel.
In Singapore, we have often wondered when our time will come. But we have done more than just wonder. We, the Singapore Democrats, have worked to widen the political space in our country with one, and only one, hope: To make more secure the future of our fellow citizens.
I am, therefore, glad to report that something, too, is happening in my country. The people are beginning to stir. The spirit seems to have awakened. There is a chorus in the air, a chorus that is crying out for change.
On 16 February, 5,000 people gathered at the Speakers' Corner to protest the Government's plans to increase the population size to unthinkable levels. This may seem unremarkable especially in places accustomed to public gatherings but, remember, this is Singapore where for the past half-a-century state propaganda has seared into our minds that protests are not only illegal but they also bring about turmoil and chaos that would undo all that we have achieved.
For decades, we have been taught by one teacher and under one school, that democracy and its attendant freedoms are a danger to to economic growth. With the GDP sprinting ahead year after year, it was an argument that found receptive ears and democracy was banished to the wilderness.
There are still many people, even those who want to see change in Singapore, who continue to think that matters like political freedoms and civil liberties are esoteric concepts, far-removed from their everyday lives. "Human rights cannot make me better off" is the common refrain. They have never been more wrong.
I had warned in a book that I wrote in 1994, that "in the absence of debate, the dangers of misguided and ill-conceived policies are not exposed and corrected.” Such misguided policy has come in the form of the Government flooding this tiny island with foreign workers and transfusing the Singaporean population with non-Singaporeans.
Because there was no debate, no democracy we find ourselves in a perilous state today where our way of life and well-being have come under threat by a Government insistent on overpopulating this island.
As a result, younger Singaporeans cannot afford even public housing, older Singaporeans don't have enough savings for retirement, sick Singaporeans find it hard to afford healthcare, working Singaporeans work longer and harder for less and less, poor Singaporeans become homeless and skilled Singaporeans emigrate by the thousands.
Even though we have registered GDP growth at a blistering pace, we find ourselves, according to a recent worldwide survey, being the unhappiest people in the world.
These problems did not emerge recently. It took years, even decades, to develop. Without an effective opposition and without the ability of the people to converge in protest, the PAP continued with its wayward policy until today when we find ourselves in danger of being displaced in our very own country.
The reality is that the deprivation of our rights has denied us what we really want: To live a little more comfortably; to retire with a little more security, and to work a little less stressfully.
It is because we have been shorn of our rights that the Government has been able to enrich itself at the people's expense. While it stores hundreds of billions of dollars in its reserves, Singaporeans live with little financial security.
Even as the SDP continues to focus on cost-of-living issues – proposing ways to reduce healthcare costs, coming up with ideas to lower HDB prices, fighting for minimum wage for our workers and so on – we would be negligent if we did not, at the same, educate the Singaporean public on the importance of our political rights.
The real hard truth is that without political rights, our economic rights are as solid as warm butter.
Exercising our freedoms – especially freedom of assembly – must not be seen as taboo. Peaceful protests are necessary and righteous means with which the people speak truth to power, hold their leaders accountable and compel the government to act in their interests. Without our fundamental freedoms, we cannot hope to bring about change.
I am heartened to see that Singaporeans' views about public assembly and protests are beginning to change. The idea that our rights are inviolate and cannot be traded away on the stock market is an idea that has been neglected for too long. Democracy is an idea whose time has come – the idea of a people tired of living in fear and exploitation, of a citizenry who want to be empowered, of a society vibrant and intelligent – it is an idea that looms large and imminent on the horizon of this nation.
But the road to freedom is long and fraught with unknowns, the challenges to fundamental freedoms are many. We must persevere and not let our vision, our dream of building our democracy be hijacked and aborted. There is one big obstacle, though, which is our minds. I've said this before and I'll say it again: Our biggest battle is not against the PAP, it is against what the PAP has done to our minds.
To this necessary end, the SDP pledges to be at the front pointing the way, to be at the side fighting with and alongside the people, and to be at the back encouraging those who cannot see the urgency of reform. We need to be that rock that Singaporeans can lean on when they’re weary, that fountain when they thirst for support, that flame when all else around them seem to be cloaked in the bleakness of a one-party state.
We stand ready to work with civil society and our fellow citizens to effect change. Our common devotion, our common conviction, and our common faith are our greatest weapons. Let us wield them with prowess and fortitude.
We must use public assembly to reform our election system, to free the media and to rid ourselves of the detested Internal Security Act.
If we can unfetter the chains that cripple our minds, then we can empower Singaporeans. Empowering Singaporeans is the biggest goal of the SDP for if we succeed, we will build a nation that is strong and secure, a nation that is ready for the future and, most importantly, one that belongs to the people. Empowered Singaporeans are a people who will stand just a little taller and whose souls will be a little richer.
And so my friends, I thank you for giving me the privilege of traveling the long road of democracy with you. Its been 20 years since we came together as Asian liberal and democrats. I know you well. I know that you will not waver in your stand for what is just and right, your creed is never to bow down before injustice and oppression.
Only when the vision of a democratic Asia is realized will Asia, in the words of my good friend Martin Lee, cease to be merely a large continent but become a truly great one. For it is only with the presence of freedom and justice can nature bestow upon humankind true happiness.