If this vignette sounds like a low-down dirty trick, its because it is. And yet, this is exactly what has taken place with the new PMs announcement that indoor meetings will henceforth not require permits.
For those who think that this is too pessimistic a take on the latest development, one should remember that the last time we went ga-ga over a prime ministers promise to allow more freedom of speech, we ended up with a little grass patch called the Speakers Corner. Speakers could yap away at Hong Lim Park without a permit, the Government trumpeted and the people cheered.
Except that in PAP-speak, not needing a permit from the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit didn't mean not needing one from the police stationed at the Corner. Today, as the Singapore Democrats had predicted, the place resembles more like a cemetery than a hotbed for ideas and debate.
The lesson to learn from all this is that the PAP calculates well in advance what it has already taken from the people and what if can afford give back, and the final equation always results in it gaining a lot more that it gives up. It wasn't long ago that it banned the production of political documentaries, amended the law to prosecute foreign broadcasters who report on opposition politics in Singapore, and introduced the Political Donations Act, just to mention a few pieces of legislation that have been put in place in the recent past. Collectively, these acts have throttled the life out of politics in this country much more than any Singaporean can imagine.
So before we get all tingly over the latest announcement from PM Lee Hsien Loong, we must ask ourselves: In the balance have the people come out better? Will this mean that our voices will be heard and more important heeded? In both instances, the answer is no.
The PAP knows that as long as discussions are confined to some room tucked away in a corner of a hotel, away from the eyes and ears of the masses, it loses nothing. In fact, it gains much because it can tell the world (as it did with the Speakers Corner through those colourful tourist brochures) that it is loosening up.
But even as the Singapore Democrats remain cynical about this latest PAP move, we are encouraged by the victory that has been achieved, small as it is. At the minimum, the government has been forced to acknowledge that Singaporeans are demanding freedom of speech.
Sadly, however, some people continue to think that political rights such as freedom of speech have no place in pragmatic Singapore. After having lived under a repressive regime for more than four decades, it is understandable that Singaporeans do not realise the power of freedom and democracy, and how these can be harnessed to better their lives and the lives of their loved ones. But what is understandable doesn't mean it is acceptable.
As long as the PAP prohibits citizens from coming together in public, it knows that it can control the country's political process, including elections. And as long as it controls the electoral system, the PAP can ensure its own victory at every election.
What does this mean? It means that the Government can continue to do whatever it pleases, regardless of how the people feel.
It means that the PAP never has to reveal the actual costs of HDB flats despite repeated questions about the high prices.
It means that the Government can continue to retain more and more of our CPF savings even after we retire.
It means that the Ministers can continue to lavish themselves with million-dollar salaries even as they lecture the people to take wage cuts and lower-paying jobs.
It means that our children continue to have to undergo the madness of our education system which turns students into psychological wrecks.
Without freedom of speech and assembly we cannot pressure the Government to make elections free and fair and, in turn, we cannot make it address issues vital to our well-being.
This is why the Singapore Democrats will not rest until it we reform the system and push the PAP to respect the rights of all Singaporeans to freely assemble in public places. Declaring that we no longer need to ask permission when we want to hold indoor public discussions is to dance around the periphery. Nothing meaningful has changed.
Freedom of speech means freedom from injustice. It is time the citizens of Singapore find courage and stand up to the robber. Let us go to his lair and take back what has been stolen from us. (30 Aug 2004)