Singapore truly needs another human rights ‘naratif’

Lee (middle row) and other Singaporean ministers including former prime minister Goh Chok Tong recite the pledge at the republic's recent national day celebration. — Straits Times/Asia News Network

READING the recent speech delivered by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the 2021 National Day Rally, when major policy announcements are made, could be one of the best ways to understand the approach of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) toward the greatest challenges faced by the city-state.

Lee spoke of a number of important proposals, from a new focus on assuring enhanced harmony among different ethnic groups to new ways to deal with discrimination and bias in the job market, as well as a further, progressive step-by-step tightening of work permits for expatriates earning high incomes.

The latter is a contentious subject that has created a certain degree of resentment among the general public that feels they are losing out to skilled foreigners. Yet, Singapore will remain open to the world and continue to attract global talents, a recipe that, while generating frustration among locals, has also proved successful in positioning the city-state as a global trade and economic hub.

The overall impression is that the government there is becoming not more progressive per se, but certainly more emphatic and caring of society in such a way that, to some extent, the projections of Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh in their bold book, Hard Choices, Challenging the Singapore Consensus (2014), are coming true.

No doubt that some reckoning over its narrower election win last year has forced the PAP’s hands in becoming more human. Then the pandemic certainly accelerated Singapore’s vision of becoming a semi-welfare nation. While it still has a long way to go to reach the Scandinavian model, there is no doubt that it has made progress.

This, at least, is the official story, the narrative pushed by the PAP government. But there is actually another way to complement this version that Lee has explained so well, which offers an entirely different perspective or better yet, a different narrative on the state of play in Singapore: Watch The Show with PJ Thum on YouTube.

Singaporean citizen PJ Thum is an academic at Oxford University, a historian by background, and one of the co-founders of New Naratif, not just an alternative news portal focused on South-East Asia but a “movement for democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of information in South-East Asia”.

Through his show, Thum ably, simply and ironically breaks down the PAP’s most controversial landmark policies, from the typical gerrymandering to the ridiculous length of the election campaign period, and to the ambiguously threat posed by the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

Thum dedicated his last two episodes to the POFMA, explaining in plain language how dangerous such legislation can be for the citizens of a nation that considers itself a democracy.

“Instead of the most heinous cases of falsehood, the POFMA is used to stifle criticisms and suppress freedom of expression,” explains Thum. The problem with POFMA is not its aims or the rationale for which this legislation was brought in.

In an era of misinformation and disinformation, it makes sense to have a system in place to maintain sanity, decency and common sense in cyberspace. The real problem here is the huge gulf between the law’s intentions and its application, because at the end of the day, it all depends on interpretation and the way POFMA has been implemented thus far, which clearly shows that the interpretation of one man, K. Shanmugam, is the one that counts.

In Hard Choices, Low and Vadaketh, with contributions from Linda Lim and, coincidentally, Dr Thum Ping Tjin (PJ Thum), attempt to propose bold policy innovations. The last section of the book focuses entirely on governance and democracy. If their prognostication that Singapore’s social compact would become more focused on alleviating the needs of the common citizen is now a reality, there is still a long way for the city-state to go before it becomes a “model democracy” as per the hopes of the book’s authors.

“The act only tackles falsehoods. It does not cover criticisms, opinions, satire or parody,” says Thum. POFMA has been used in a political way to stifle genuine criticism, and this certainly cannot continue to be excused by citing Singapore’s “exceptionalism”, which has been used to explain why the island nation has always been reticent in implementing the most basic human rights.

In one episode, Thum wonders what would have happened to Greta Thumberg if she were in Singapore. Well, he pointed out that there have been climate activists in Singapore who held peaceful protests but were still persecuted by the police. During the second cycle of the Universal Period Review (UPR) in 2016, the only global mechanism keeping nations accountable in the field of human rights, the Singaporean government accepted the recommendation to “adopt legislative measures to permit the realization of peaceful demonstrations and promote freedom of expression” and “ensure that freedom of opinion and expression are encouraged and protected, including for individuals and organisations communicating via online public platforms”.

If so, why is protesting peacefully still so controversial for the PAP and so dangerous for citizens? How many more local activists like Jolovan Wham might be ridiculously jailed or sued for defamation?

On Sept 30, during the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Singapore will adopt the third UPR and once again, just like in 2016, we will find out what recommendations submitted by other nations the city-state will decide to accept.

This will be another exercise in futility and the Singaporean government will not listen to these arguments. Nevertheless, it is important to keep talking about Singapore’s democracy and human rights because the city-state can be better and do better.

Lee is correct on many fronts. The PAP government has achieved much in ensuring social stability, always showing its readiness to act in order to guarantee the wellbeing of fellow Singaporeans. Still, when will the party understand that there remains still another hard choice to be made? It is not about climate change and sustainability. On this, Lee and his cabinet have been quite good.

Instead, it is about framing a new conversation about democracy and human rights. Singapore must work out its own ideal version of democracy, building on its achievements and traditions but also breaking from its past. There is a need to come up with a new social contract with the people, one that focuses not just on benchmarks of effective governance but on higher standards in terms of democracy, political participation and human rights.

For now, Lee and the PAP are able to answer these questions with confidence. Yet there might come a time that the usual narrative won’t be enough to do so. Singapore truly needs another "naratif", and this will require an admission of guilt for all the human rights abuses of the past and present and consequently, issuing a public apology.

It will then be up to the citizens to express themselves freely and think independently about whether they deserve something more from their government, something that the PAP has not cared for so far. — The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Simone Galimberti writes on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the Asia-Pacific context.
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