October 29, 2002

Activists can criticize Singapore's gov't.

When I read in last Tuesday's Maroon that several campus student organizations intend to protest the Singapore government's imprisonment of political dissenter Chee Soon Juan, my response as a Singaporean was to roll my eyes. I could just imagine the activists: a bunch of Americans, most of whom had never been to Singapore. "These Americans don't know anything about us," I thought. "To sensationalize and criticize what we do without understanding our situation—what gall!"

Then on Friday, Walter Theseira, another Singaporean, wrote a letter to the editor about this issue; most of his sentiments echoed the gut reaction I'd had. Yet there was something about his argument that I found distasteful. Wielding his Singapore citizenship like a badge of authority, he basically told the activists that they don't know the whole picture, and asked them, politely if condescendingly, to buzz off.

First, while many Singaporeans have good reason to support certain restrictions on expression in Singapore, I suggest Theseira and other protesters of the protesters take a more accommodating approach towards the expression of opposing viewpoints here in the University. To quote J.S. Mill, "How can the answer be known to be satisfactory if the objectors have no opportunity of showing that it is unsatisfactory?"

It is one thing to tell people to respect a nation's sovereignty, but it's quite another to tell people "to refrain from vocalizing the issue." While I agree that this case is "essentially an internal political affair," Theseira's reasoning—that students should not exercise their right to free speech on this issue because Singapore is a sovereign state—is warped. As Theseira himself is aware, Singapore's sovereignty is not in danger of being threatened by the protesters. The activists hope to communicate their discontent to the Singapore government, but I'm sure they have no illusions of storming the island and freeing the natives. They are simply expressing their concern and, just as we Singaporeans would like them to respect our ways even though they think we're brainwashed and oppressed, we too should respect their right to voice their opinions.

Theseira was also surprised that "anyone other than Singaporeans should consider [this issue] a matter requiring significant comment." What surprised me was that Theseira identified the activists as presumptuous, and then went on to presumptuously dismiss their belief that there exist universal rights that should be defended. I think it's obvious there are times when a political matter internal to one country is everybody's business, and the activists have the right to their opinion as to whether this is such a time.

Also, Theseira asked the activists to consider "the fact that this protest does not appear to be led or sanctioned by any significant Singaporean involvement," pointing out that, as mentioned before, Singaporeans have reasons for not protesting, such as having alternative views on government and democratic liberties, and because Chee is not exactly respected in Singapore. To this I add a third reason: the Singaporeans here are not protesting because of the type of Singaporeans they are. Basically, these are Singaporeans who have thrived under Singapore's current system. For example, many if not most of the Singaporeans at American colleges are on scholarships from the Singaporean government or from corporations with links—whether official or de facto—to the government. Those Singaporeans who are not on such scholarships have still, obviously, benefited from a good education that enabled them to gain admittance to top universities. Singaporeans here don't complain about the system because it works for them.

But not all Singaporeans are so lucky. I'm not so naive as to think the system works for everyone. Thus, even though I think the activists' intentions are misinformed, maybe there are Singaporeans who don't think like me. Indeed, as Theseira resents American activists "claiming to represent me or my countrymen," I point out that while Theseira might represent a certain privileged minority of his countrymen, he does not necessarily represent the rest. And maybe it is Chee who does.

I met Chee once, albeit very briefly, a few years ago. I was walking along Orchard Road (Singapore's Michigan Avenue) when I encountered some men by the roadside yelling anti-People's Action Party messages while selling a newsletter expounding their ideals, and breaking a million laws in doing so. Being a rebellious teenager, I went and gave one of the men a dollar. It was only when he smiled at me that I realized I had just bought anti-PAP material from Chee himself. As I walked away, I turned back to check that it really was him—it added so much more glamour to my purchase. Chee was already back to hawking his words: there were giant sweat stains on the armpits of his shirt as he waved fistfuls of newsprint at the people passing him by.

It would be easy for an educated man like Chee to immigrate to a more liberal country and make his life there, as many like-minded Singaporeans have done. Emigrating would even be advisable—he's obviously blacklisted in Singapore for life, and he has a wife and two young children to care for. Still, Chee has chosen to stay: it's plain that for whatever reason he keeps fighting, it's not just for himself. Some might laugh at him, but I say that he is a man who loves his country.

So do I think that the protestors have a point in protesting? Based on my knowledge of Singapore, I believe that the government is acting for the good of Singapore in jailing Chee. We can't afford civil unrest, because of our size (approximately 4 million people) and our geopolitical circumstances. We are a secular society comprised largely of ethnic Chinese, surrounded by states dominated by South Asian Muslims; we also buy our water from these states. When you live in straits like ours, you have to put society before self, and Singaporeans realize that means sacrificing some personal liberties.

Yet I also appreciate the value of free expression, especially since I view it as a privilege rather than a right; and I am glad America is willing—and able—to allow such freedom within her borders.

And so, to all the activists out there, I would ask that you do some careful research and get a clear understanding of why Singapore does the things she does, before you get on your moral high horse. And then I would add, "O ye idealists, go forth and protest!" Not that you need my sanction.