Our right to peaceful assembly

The primary force that delivered Singapore’s independence was public demonstrations by courageous Singaporeans who cared for Singapore, not Lee Kuan Yew or the PAP who benefitted from that force instead. Once in power however, PAP illegalised public demonstrations, including peaceful assembly, and made them to be evils. Today, protests are restricted to writing letters and petitions. If Lim Chin Siong’s independence movement consisted of writing petitions to the Queen, we would still be singing God Save the Queen today.

No regime would willingly relinquish power. Only by demanding it can the people gain power back from the autocrats. Peaceful assembly is one such tool that people can use to demand power back. Singaporeans have many grievances but they are seldom heeded. Despite the 2011 watershed elections, nothing substantive has changed. More than just writing letters, we need the right to peaceful assembly to effect greater change. Public demonstrations empower people; keeping people isolated from one another renders us powerless.

The right to peaceful assembly is not some Western concept far removed from bread and butter issues. It is embraced by South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Malaysia. The people of Hong Kong stopped GST and Malaysians successfully pushed for minimum wage through democracy. Our lack of peaceful assembly puts us in the same league as North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

All of the 40,000 who turned up for the 2007 Bersih movement broke Malaysia’s illegal assembly law. But if we look at this year’s, almost carnival like, Bersih movement where young and old alike participated, quite clearly the people aren’t doing anything wrong. Just because the government passed an unfair law doesn’t mean it is right to follow it. The Malaysian government tried to paint the Bersih movement in as bad a light as possible. But in today’s era of instant citizen journalism, it is difficult for the government to manufacture an incident and then blame demonstrators for it.

The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by our constitution which is the supreme law of our land. Any law that contravenes our constitution is necessarily illegal. It is a right, not a privilege accorded by the government. Exception can be made temporarily in times of war or insurgency but it should not last for half a century.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaims that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”. The UDHR is now part of customary international law recognised by every government in the world save the most autocratic regimes. Singapore voted in favour of a resolution to establish the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, a resolution which stipulates human rights to be universal.

Singapore signed the Commonwealth Principles on the Three Branches of Government pledging to protect fundamental human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief in 2003. In that case, how is it that whiles the NTUC can protest against the US embassy in 1998, PAP women MPs can march on International Women’s Day in 2005, CASE can demonstrate for consumer rights in 2007 but SDP can’t march in a group of five?

The opposition should stand together and not join in the PAP in condemning the SDP for engaging in public assemblies. The SDP defended WP’s James Gomez in 2006, spoke up for NSP in 2010, defended lawyer M Ravi and so on.

It was democratic leaders in South Africa, India and communist Europe who freed people through non-violent but necessary action. Conversely, it was the obedient Germans and Japanese who slaughtered millions in WW2.

Singaporeans are against or even hostile to the idea of non-violent action for we prize order above our constitution. We accuse dissidents as being too aggressive and we advocate a softer, non-confrontational approach. But there is a danger that what we think is right or wrong has been conditioned over decades by a media dominated by the state. We must not let the state dictate what is right or wrong.

Rahman (not his real name), 70+, works as a cleaner six days a week, from 7am to 1pm or 2pm and earns $400 a month. When he was a young man, he was told that if he didn’t support unions, didn’t clamour for rights and trusted the PAP, he would be better off. Today, he is told he must not think of retiring because he does not have enough CPF. He is told to work for less pay. He is not alone. What has these people gotten in return for giving up their rights?

Civil disobedience is not breaking laws and challenging authorities on whim and fancy. It is not unruliness and anarchy. Those engaged in protests know that the government has done wrong, not them. The fight is not a political one, it is a moral one. It is a fight for justice, for the thousands in Singapore living like serfs than citizens.

Nearly all of the above ideas are taken from the book “Democratically Speaking” by Dr Chee Soon Juan.

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