As the clamour for democracy in Singapore grows louder, so will the discussion of how to go about the democratisation process. I have advocated the use of non-violent action, or more commonly known as civil disobedience (CD), as a tool to achieve this objective.
Expectedly, such a stance has provoked some debate. The unbelievers say that the method is wrong, the skeptics say that the time is not yet at hand. I will deal in this first of a two-part write-up with the first view: While democracy is a worthy goal to work towards, CD is not the right tactic.
Most Singaporeans, when asked about CD, respond that it is not for Singapore, a society where order is prized over law. Besides Singaporeans are too materialistic and politically lackadaisical to want to be involved in political movements.
Change starts with the few - always
I do not quarrel with such a view. But I hasten to add that it misses the point.
Political change does not start with the masses. It always begins with the few who are informed and interested about the need for reform, and who are willing to act on it. If change was initiated by the masses, much of the world would still be ruled by monarchs and dictators.
It is a fact that people are apathetic to change. History is replete with individuals lamenting the inaction of their fellowmen and women. And yet many of these situations end up in change. Henry David Thoreau, the man who conceptualised and advocated the notion of civil disobedience, lamented about his fellow Americans:
There are thousands who are opposed to slavery and war, who yet do nothing to put an end to them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to every virtuous man.
American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr, had to repeatedly call on his fellow Americans to overcome apathy and get involved:
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.
Yet for all the apathy the Civil Rights Act was passed, paving the way for an Africa American to become the president of the United States.
Closer to home, Filipinos were just as fearful and/or apathetic during the Marcos years. Former Philippine senator (the late) Jose Diokno, echoing Thoreau's and King's sentiments albeit in a more colourful manner, once said that his country was inhabited by "49 million cowards and one sonovabitch."
These cowards later rose to overthrow Marcos to bring about an era of democracy in the Philippines. People Power became an inspiration for oppressed peoples around the world.
Taiwan was little different. The island's activists despaired over the apathy of their fellow citizens during the martial law years under Chiang Kai Shek. The wife of a journalist who died in defence of freedom of speech lamented about the apathy of her fellow citizens, saying that she would never "encourage anyone to sacrifice for the 20 million Taiwanese because sometimes when I see them, I feel like giving them one big slap."
But it was precisely the sacrifice of the courageous few that encouraged the fearful and apathetic many to end martial law in Taiwan and usher in freedom to the island. Incidentally, the wife of the martryed journalist became the transport minister when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 1998.
The late Kim Dae Jung, when he was still a dissident figure in South Korea's opposition, wrote that he felt "crushed" when his fellow citizens criticized him for being too hard and confrontational even as his country's military dictators jailed and tortured him.
Of course, we all know that South Korea is a democracy today and Kim Dae Jung its former president.
No confrontation, please
Suddenly Singapore and Singaporeans don't sound quite as unique, do we?
The reality is that not only are people initially apathetic to change, many are usually hostile to the idea. There will always be those who will accuse the dissidents of being too aggressive. They will advocate a softer, non-confrontational approach.
Even during the dark years of slavery in the 1800s Frederic Douglass, a former slave, was accused of being a troublemaker for fighting against the cruel injustice. Douglass, not mincing his words, countered:
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Even King was criticised for being impatient and acting impulsively. In 1963, a group of clergyman, while acknowledging the injustice of segregation laws, said that King's actions were "unwise and untimely". They said that his "extreme measures" were unjustified and urged the Negro community not to support his demonstrations.
King wrote an open letter while he was in jail in the town of Birmingham, Alabama. His reply, now famously known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail, is a supremely erudite exposition of CD. I urge everyone to read it. For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to highlight the opening paragraph of the civil rights leader's missive:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities 'unwise and untimely.' Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.
It might come as a shock to many but as evil as segregation and as noble as King's response were, there were many in his time that could not understand his motives and strategy. But it was through dogged perseverance that he and his associates started winning the argument.
The important point that needs to be repeated is that history is littered with instances of people rejecting the idea and practice of CD. With time (and lots of hard work and sacrifice in between), more and more people will understand and appreciate the nobleness of defying an unjust law in order to bring about socio-political change.
As recent as 2004, I even hesitated to use the word "protest" when I spoke at a forum, much less the two words "civil disobedience". Today, the terms aren't such a taboo, at least not on the Internet. People are starting to talk about defying and protesting against unjust laws.
We will not get there all at once. But let us, the people who are interested, the people who know better, start the process. The rest will follow and change will then be upon us.
In Part I of this essay, I wrote about how some Singaporeans saw civil disobedience (CD) as being an inappropriate tactic for Singapore's democratisation because the majority are averse to confrontation and therefore will not support such a strategy.
In this second part, I wish to focus on those who agree in principle that CD is an effective tool but contend that the time has not yet come for its employment. The reason given, which is not an invalid one, is that Singaporeans are by and large not sufficiently aware and educated in politics for such an undertaking.
This, of course, leads one to ask: When are people going to become educated? When does the education start? And how is this process going to take place or in what form should it take? In other words if not now, when is the right time to defy an autocratic regime?
The answer is that there is never a "right" time.
In the beginning
This is because political progress does not occur in a neat linear fashion. It ebbs and flows. The pages of progress turn slowly, often indecently so, during which nothing ever seems to happen.
Then it explodes; dictatorships are toppled, new regimes are elected (in some cases installed) and a new era is heralded. The changes may or may not be consolidated, and the people may or may not live happily ever after. But that's not the point of this discussion.
The point is that change necessitates perseverance. Perseverance encompasses repetition of action (even though that action may be refined and improved along the way). And repetition of action draws more participants in to the campaign.
The reality is that the concept and practice of CD cannot be taught only in the classroom, nor can it be advocated only at public forums. It must be demonstrated in the real world, on real streets, facing real opponents. It is through action that citizens come to learn and understand of the need to not bow our heads in silence in the face of repression.
Action generates discussion. It forces people to take sides. Opinions and views are exchanged. Reasoned argument is put forth. Awareness is raised. In other words, education is occurring.
Unfortunately, the people who start the education process are seldom the ones who witness the change that occurs later. These are the same people who are most often accused of banging their heads against the wall, of conducting quixotic acts that only end in pain and futility.
And yet without their initiative, change would not have come about. Actions of individuals or groups of individuals build on previous ones. Such progression allows the gradual accumulation of experience and knowledge which are the basic ingredients of all successful endeavours.
The story about Rosa Parks, who boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to move to the back like all obedient black Americans were supposed to, is one that many of us are familiar with. Her defiance of white authority prompted a certain Martin Luther King, Jr to join the fray and spark the Civil Rights Movement in America.
And yet Parks, who died in 2005, did not just burst on the scene to start the campaign in 1955. Before her were Irene Morgan, Sarah Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin who had all committed the same act. In fact it was Colvin's act of defiance nine months preceding that enabled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to plan for Parks' move.
Contrary to popular folklore, Parks was not a disinterested by-stander. She was a trained and "knowledgeable NAACP stalwart" at the time she committed her act of disobedience.
But it was not just in the mid-20th century that these acts of civil disobedience came about. Generations of African-Americans had begun the process decades before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King came along. These acts of CD did not precipitate the Civil Rights Movement. Were their actions conducted at the wrong time, that is, prematurely?
Of course not. Early pioneers of the movement laid the groundwork upon which successive groups built their campaigns until the barrier was finally breached. In other words, political movements don't happen spontaneously at the "right" time. It takes the pioneers to push, often against psychological
inertia and the reluctance of the majority, before the tipping point comes about.
What must be emphasized is that when an action that is taken does not, for whatever reason, achieve its intended goal, the resultant effect is not zero. Each time we act, we move the needle of progress up one notch, however small that notch may be.
It is the cumulative effect of each single act that ultimately brings about change. The late Robert F Kennedy once remarked:
Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Moving the needle
And so it must be with us in Singapore. The vast majority of the people may not know or understand what CD is. But, as I pointed out earlier, a political movement does not start with the masses. It starts with you and me.
We are the ones who must help with the education process. We are the thin end of the wedge that will eventually force wider the crack in the PAP wall. Our spreading the word is the education that is needed.
We may or may not live long enough to see our efforts bear fruit but that should not be our primary concern. Our goal must be to ensure that the process of changing and opening up minds continues.
The needle has moved. Let us continue to move it up one inexorable notch at a time.
Discourse on civil disobedience (CD) in Singapore tends to centre around whether Singaporeans are receptive to the idea (as discussed in Part 1) and, if they are, whether they see society as being ready, that is politically sophisticated enough, for such an undertaking (Part 2).
There is yet another view: Singaporeans are economically comfortable even though they may not enjoy political freedoms, and because of this soft underbelly, they will not engage in risky political ventures like taking part in CD.
Put simply, Singaporeans are too rich and contented to risk their well-being by getting into trouble with the law, unjust as they are. On the face of it such an analysis makes complete sense. Who wants to leave the comfort zone into territory that is alien and dangerous? CD works best for those who are economically deprived and have little else to lose.
Too rich to protest?
Such a view is problematic for a couple of reasons.
One, if it is the possession of economic wealth that causes people to shun non-violent action, then Taiwan and South Korea would still be toiling under dictatorships. These two countries were experiencing heady economic growth in the 1970s and 80s as Asian Tigers when their citizens, many of them professionals, were pressing hard for political change.
The risks of getting involved were many as they were immediate and the rewards intangible and distant. And yet it was the middle-class that rebelled and brought about change.
Malaysia's economy may not be as advanced but it is nevertheless fast-growing by any standard. Malaysians enjoy a standard of living quite unsurpassed in their own history. Yet, in the past couple of years there has been an unprecedented push for democracy in the country despite the authoritarian Barisan Nasional regime.
Indeed, there is a theory that says that as a society becomes more affluent and as people don't always have to think about where the next meal is going to come from, citizens will naturally demand more liberty and rights.
Conversely peoples like the Burmese and North Koreans cannot make any headway in bringing about democratic change even though the masses are starving and living in abject poverty.
Two, if it is true that only the economically down-and-out engaged, or were willing to engage, in CD then I would find myself surrounded with people who are lower on the socioeconomic scale. But this is not the case. The individuals actively defying the PAP laws are not exactly those whom one would consider down-trodden.
Among those who took part in the Tak Boleh Tahan protest in 2008 was a graduate student, a businesswoman, an engineer, a property developer, a lawyer, a computer programmer, an artist, and a psychology lecturer. The one thing that they have in common is not the lack of wealth but a strong sense of justice. It is this conviction that moved them to action.
Kicking the can down the road
The truth is that it is dangerous to leave things until a time when the economy turns sour and wait for an angry and hungry mob to rise up. Such non-strategy runs the risk of having the situation end up in violence and strife.
Sometimes a dictator will go after much bloodshed and violence. That's what happened in Indonesia in the late 1990s when the economy unraveled and Suharto was toppled.
And sometimes not. Regimes may dig in and step up their brutality to quell the revolt. Zimbabwe is one example. The result? Countless lives are lost, the economy is an absolute shambles, and the dictator is still in power (and apparently still shopping).
Either way, leaving change to the boiling over of popular anger is riskier than a well-constructed program of CD and non-violent action.
The fact of the matter is that without initiating and educating people in the ways of CD, we are setting ourselves up for even more pain in the future. Opposition and civil society leaders trained in non-violent action are in a much better position to steer society away from the violent chaos that we all don't want to see, and achieve change through peaceful means.
Don't forget, without Independence fighters like Lim Chin Siong and company who strove valiantly and were jailed repeatedly fighting for our freedom, we would still be singing God Save the Queen instead of Majulah Singapura. If it was good and right for Singaporeans to use CD against the British then, why is it bad and wrong for us to use it against the much more authoritarian PAP now?
On this note, let me end this piece with a quote from The Economist:
It is clear that a successful popular change of regime—one, that is, that results in a reasonably democratic and enduringly free system—is much more likely to emerge if it has certain characteristics. What is needed, according to an analysis by Freedom House of 67 overthrown dictatorships, is "broad-based, non-violent civic resistance—which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience to delegitimate authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support, including the loyalty of armed defenders.” Such people power can be decisive. And if it is a significant feature of the change of regime, the emergence of a free society is much more likely than in a top-down change of power brought about by elites or others close to power. Moreover, the most important factor in contributing to the emergence of a freer society is the presence of strong and cohesive non-violent civic coalitions.