Fundamental rights must take precedence before national conversation

Posted: September 10, 2012 in Commentary
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Of late, there has been increasing dissent being articulated in Singapore. Not only are the more established sources of dissent such as the opposition parties are more pronounced, but ordinary citizens are also finding their voice and their courage to speak up on important issues. Even some prominent figures often associated with the establishment are also articulating their concerns with different aspects of policy.

The two areas in which dissent is strongest is that on cost of living and immigration policies. Cost for goods such as cars and houses have reached extremely high levels. This discomfort has been exacerbated by the immigration policy which has been putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on prices. This increased cost of living has brought the reality of living in Singapore home for many Singaporeans from different walks of life.

Economist Yeoh Lam Keong has highlighted the sharpening income disparity in Singapore over the last 15 years. In key areas such as education, healthcare and housing, the lived experiences of Singaporeans are increasingly separated by wealth. Government spending and support on these key issues is sorely lacking. In a highly stratified and competitive society such as Singapore, instead of ameliorating differences in wealth, the policies end up exacerbating it. There needs to be an honest and open  debate on these key issues from various sectors of society.

One of the government initiatives is a ‘national conversation’ to illicit responses from a wide section of Singapore society.  This national conversation is headed by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat amongst a variety  of people who would decide on the issues to talk about to chart Singapore’s future. This ‘National Conversation’ has been criticized for its lack of representation amongst the new opposition members of parliament  in its steering committee. It also has been criticized as part of yet another government program to ‘engage the people’, after all a similar broad theme of an open and inclusive Singapore was adopted even as early as 2004.

Such criticisms expose the problem of the ‘national conversation’. While commentaries on the difficulties of everyday life and national policies are important they underscore a relative powerlessness on the part of the popular interest groups to exert pressure on the government. Even established organizations have to ‘play the game’ networking behind the scenes in order for their interests to be even heard. This is not to disparage the efforts of various groups, but more often than not working through such channels will often lead to the further weakening of the overall bargaining power of such groups. Instead of uniting to channel their strength, such official platforms for dissent merely threaten to divide civil society as they are engaged in the politics of representation, who gets to represent where and increases the risk of cooptation.

The risk is that the previous election result may prove an interregnum to authoritarian rule rather than lasting change. The result has opened up space for discussion on policies and topics previously taboo. However, to ensure lasting change, civil rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of information need to be instituted to ensure such a space remain open and democratic to all groups.  This is especially so as the legal mechanisms in Singapore which restrict such rights might prove to be far more durable than even the ruling party in the long run. It is these mechanisms which will underpin the future of Singapore’s society  reproducing closed, elitist, authoritarian groups immune to scrutiny or democratic pressures. As such the need for these basic freedoms and rights are far more urgent than any contrived conversation.

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