Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dealing with Democratic Legacies

Following is the speech delivered by Workers' Party's Sylvia Lim at the closing dinner of the Academic Conference of the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, 21 Aug 2006.

Your Excellencies, President SR Nathan and Ambassador Patricia Herbold, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Recently I spent 3 weeks in the USA on an exchange program. I was joined by 20 colleagues from different countries. As we got to know one another over those weeks, we came to realise that though we were culturally diverse and our countries were at different stages of development, our societies faced issues with common themes.

Many of us came from countries which had been colonized by Britain. During the years of British rule, organs of State and government processes followed British models with some adaptation. Hence, my colleagues and I were able to find similar institutions in our countries and use the same terminology when talking about governance e.g. terms like Parliamentary democracy, Hansard and judicial independence. Though we came from Singapore, Jamaica, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, we understood each other immediately.

The desire for self-determination made our countries seek independence from Britain. However, many of the legacies remain, particularly the public institutions. But the formal institutions tell only half the story. The way these institutions now operate and how the people actually experience them is unique to each country.

Under the British model, Parliamentary democracy installs checks and balances through the separation of powers between the 3 branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. For the checks to be effective, there are several assumptions made. This evening, I would like to touch on 2 of the assumptions:

First, that the legislature is elected by the people through free and fair elections.
Secondly, that there are rigorous checks on the executive.

Status of Elections

There is a constant battle about how elections can be made more democratic.

At one end of the spectrum, some colleagues of mine had to contend with the very real possibility of being murdered by political opponents and having their homes torched by arsonists. Others lived in dictatorships, where ballots were apparently cast by phantom voters or persons who were already deceased. In some countries, the elections are run by the ruling party. It is not uncommon to see ruling parties use their positions as government to entrench themselves politically. The use of the incumbent’s advantage happens in most countries. It is a question of degree. Nevertheless, these practices are objectionable, as they make voting less free by unfair pressure on voters to resist such inducements.

Even in the First World, the electoral process is not without its problems. During my recent travels in the USA, my colleagues and I detected increasing cynicism among Americans towards the electoral process. It costs a lot these days to run for state or federal office, leading to the common belief that successful candidates are beholden to big sponsors and big business. There is also a real threat of public apathy and disengagement – it seems that there are people would rather go on holiday than vote! If voter turn-out is low, how valid is the winner’s mandate? I wonder what Ambassador Herbold would say if I suggested that voting in the USA be made compulsory.

Checks on the executive

Besides the formal checks by the legislature and the courts, it is clear to most Asians that the prevailing culture of a society greatly impacts how much accountability the executive government gives.

Two key factors of culture come to mind. First, how much information is available in the public domain, and secondly, the role of the mass media in the society.

In many Asian countries, the citizen has access only to information which the executive chooses to disclose. Classifying information is deemed to be the government’s prerogative, with the citizen a passive bystander in the process. There is no equivalent of a Freedom Of Information Act for citizens to compel disclosure, nor is there any automatic time-frame for de-classifying information unlike in the USA. This severely cripples the ability of the citizen to lay his hands on concrete facts to call the government to account.

Besides access to information, the role played by the mass media can be decisive in keeping governments accountable. One need only recall Watergate and the pressures facing the Washington Post editors and journalists as they uncovered the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972. If such an event were to happen in this region, how far would it be reported? Each Asian country has its own barometer of tolerance of media control. In the case of state-owned media or media which needs to be licensed by the authorities, their latitude to report also depends on how much discretion the authorities have to issue or withhold licences. There are still serious constraints in many Asian countries which lead the mass media to expound the official view disproportionately, leaving their citizens poorer for it.

Thankfully, the advent of new technology has been a driving force for change. The use of the Internet to “leak” information and to disseminate non-official views is now widespread. This serves as a pressure point for the mainstream media to be more balanced to remain credible. The authorities are also responding to Internet criticisms. These are healthy signs.


In conclusion, what I have talked about assumes that building democratic societies are universal goals. Is this true of Asian societies? There have been views expressed by some Asian leaders that Western democracy promotes individualism, which is inconsistent with collectivism and Confucian values. My view is that if democracy embodies citizen participation in public life and in determining the kind of society we have, there is enough scope within it to cater for Asian values. All politicians should face their electorates squarely and seek mandates which are truly democratic. To this extent, democracy has value for all societies.

Thank you.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Anatomy Of A Speech

"Official text" of speech delivered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his National Day Rally 2007 on 20th August as posted on Channel NewsAsia website:

e. e.g. mr brown’s column in TODAY
i. Column hit out wildly at the government, in a mocking tone
ii. Hence MICA replied
iii. Some feel that reply was too harsh
iv. My view
(1) mr brown is very talented
(2) He is entitled to his views, and to express them
(3) But when he attacked the government, it had to respond
(a) To set record straight
(b) To signal that this is not the way to conduct responsible public debate, especially in the mainstream mass media

Transcript of audio file from Channel NewsAsia:

".... So I give you the example of MrBrown's column in Today. Some of you may have read it , some of you may not, but it hit out wildy at the government and in a very mocking and dismissive sort of tone. So MICA replied, how can you not reply? And some Singaporeans feel we were too harsh. We should have been gentler, or maybe just even accept it. It's just niceness, he didn't mean us any harm.
Well, my view is like this. MrBrown is a very talented man. In fact he is Mr Lee Kin Mun. If you listen to his podcasts, they are hilarious. But when, and he is entitled to his views, and entitled to express them; but when he takes on the government, and makes serious accusations, as he did in this case, because he said the government suppressed information before the election which was awkward and only let it out afterwards. Then the government has to respond. First thing to set the record straight, and secondly to signal that this is really not the way to carry on a public debate on national issues."

Report of what was aired on TV by Dominique Loh/Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia:

The Prime Minister said that mr brown is entitled to his views and to express them.

But when he attacked the government in a mocking tone in a mainstream newspaper, the government had to respond and set the record straight, even when some may feel the government's reply may be harsh.

PM Lee said: "By all means, criticise the government and leaders, but be prepared to stand by your criticisms. But in fact we have some serious decisions to make. Because we have to decide: how far to go, what tone to set. And it's not all just fun and games. I give you an example: you put out a fun podcast, you talk about 'bak chor mee'; I will say "mee siam mai hiam", then we compete. Then what will I do? I will hire Jack Neo to be my National Day Rally adviser. It will be a fun time, we will enjoy thoroughly, go home totally entertained. But is this the way to deal with serious issues?"

"Official text" for above paragraph:

c. But have to decide - What tone do we set? How far do we go?
i. You put out a funny podcast
ii. I reply with a funnier podcast
iii. If we compete on that basis, will ask Jack Neo to be my adviser
(1) NDR will be highly entertaining
(2) But is this the way to deal with serious issues?

What was actually said on national TV:

"But in fact we have some serious decisions to make. Because we have to decide: how far to go, what tone to set. And it's not all just fun and games. I give you an example: You put out a funny podcast, you talk about "bak chor mee"; I will say "mee siam mai hum**", then we compete. Then what will I do ? I will hire Jack Neo to be my National Day Rally adviser. It will be a fun time, we will enjoy thoroughly, go home totally entertained. But is this the way to deal with serious issues?"

** According to the Tues 22 Aug 2006 Straits Times report of the speech, we are told his press secretrary clarified that the Prime Minister meant to say "laksa mai hum".

On Thu 24 Aug 2006, it was observed that the transcript on Sprinter, official government source for the speech, does not the carry the complete reference to "mee siam" anymore. Zapped. Just like that.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Voice From The Past

David Marshall as practising lawyerDavid Saul Marshall was the leader of the Singapore Labour Front who became Singapore's first Chief Minister in 1955. From 1978 to 1993, Marshall served as Singapore's Ambassador to France, Portugal and Switzerland. As Singapore's ambassador, Marshall always defended his country's interests, despite his open differences with Lee Kuan Yew's style of government. When the latter abolished trial by jury, his plaintive cry was "The last nail has been driven into the coffin of justice." He died in 1995 as a result of lung cancer.

The following is an except from an interview conducted with David Marshall on 5 May 1994 at the offices of Singapore law firm, Drew & Napier. The interview was part of an assignment for a junior college student, which he completed with two others.


Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account. The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation of this miracle of life.

We are giving a lop-sided view, an unfairness to the government! We come out of a morass of imperial subjugation where people were dying of starvation and now?

You know, when I won a case once years ago, I was presented with a lovely porcelain Buddha with a big flowing belly and ears that reached to his shoulders and a chubby face.

I said to my client, “Look, you Chinese got a real feeling for aesthetics. How can you worship something so obscene?”

He said, “Mr Marshall, try and understand. China is a land of starvation where millions of people die for lack of food, and to be able to eat that much, to be that fat, that is heaven!”

Now, that is the attitude of our government: to be able to eat that much, that is heaven and you should be content.

So are youths not content? They are not anti. Our youths frankly, very honestly respect the pragmatic achievements of the government, and I’m grateful, but they feel empty.

There isn’t this joy of living which youth expects and youth needs – to learn the joy of living. How do you teach it?

I think you teach it through respect for the individual. That’s our tragedy. If you want to put it in a nutshell, our tragedy is that we emphasise the primacy of society as against respect for the individual. Mind you, both are right.

I mean both sides have the liberty. Of course, there should be respect for the needs of society over the right of the individual but you must respect the individual too in seeking the expression of the needs of society. Here, we have no respect for the individual.

Cane them! Hang them! There are more than a hundred queuing up to be hanged, you know that?

[Minister For Law] Jayakumar said, “I have plugged the loop-hole whereby they could escape being hanged and just have twenty years of imprisonment!”

Oh, wacko the ducks – you need a monument!

The joy of hanging people; flogging them, every stroke must break the skin. I don’t like it. I don’t believe it is a deterrent. I see no proof. Look, it seems to me logic! If every year we have more death sentences, how can you say death sentence is a deterrent? If it were, there should be less death sentences.

But you know I’m in a minority and my father had one saying which I’d like you to publish. It is a beauty. He was a true democratic heart although he didn’t know it.

He used to say, “David, if ten men tell you your head is not on your shoulders, shake it and make sure. Don’t accept it. Just shake it and make sure!”

Well, I’ve shaken my head again and again and again and I still think I’m right. I know I’m in the dog-house.

The government doesn’t see I do respect them immensely. They don’t see I’m a genuine friend. They only see me as a critic and to be a critic is to be an enemy who must be erased and destroyed. There is no such thing as an honest critic to the PAP. It’s a blasphemy to criticise the emperor, spoilt son of heaven.

[Lee] Kuan Yew says you mustn’t lampoon a Chinese gentleman. Oh, dear me! Ya, what happened? What happened to China?

In Europe, they institutionalised the court jester and the court jester had total immunity against any result from his public criticism of the kings and emperors and the courtyard. Open public criticism – that was his job! They tried to laugh it off but at least there was one person to prick the bubble of their overgrown egoism.

And which civilisation has progressed better for the development of humanity? The Western civilisation or the Chinese civilisation?

You talk of Asian values. I only know two Asian values and, I wish someone would really pinpoint them instead of pontificating ponderously in humbug and hypocrisy.

Family values - I think we have more family cohesion in Asia than in Europe; more family warmth and I like that. I accept that there is a greater tradition of family warmth and family cohesion.

Two, we have a greater passion for education. My secretary – I asked her once what her background is. She said her mother is a washer-woman and, here is this lovely secretary doing a damn good job. She was educated. How her mother could save enough to give her the education?

So these are the only two values I know. Somebody tell me what other values that are Asian, which everybody talks and nobody mentions the exact parameters.

And you know we use this concept of family cohesion to place on our youths the burden of caring for aging and ailing parents and grand-parents.

The young have got their own lives to make. To carry in your own homes aging irritable ailing parents and grandparents can destroy the family life of the young.

But then, the alternative is for the government to pour so much mountains of gold into building homes for the aged. That’s sacrilege – gold is to be gathered and not to be spent.

I want to see more crèches, more homes for the aged.

Our Prime Minister [Goh Chok Tong] talks about gracious living. Where is the gracious living?

So I am a bad boy, I’m ostracised. The Straits Times makes slimy remarks about me.

The [press are] running dogs of the PAP.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One System, Two Judges

Singaporeans across the island could not help but notice that ever since Yong Pung How was replaced in April 2006 by Mr Chan Sek Keong as Singapore's new Chief Justice, the Singapore's courts, renowned for their tough laws and strict sentencing, have been showing a softer, more humane, touch when dealing with young Singaporeans who run foul of the law.

Some examples quoted include:

* An 18-year-old girl shed tears of relief when she was given two years' probation, instead of a jail term, for multiple counts of counterfeiting currency and using fake S$50 bills.

* A polytechnic student, whose mother was jailed for maid abuse, was given another chance by a district judge who placed her on probation for similar offences.

* The High Court judge reduced a woman's 33-month jail term to probation for seven credit card fraud charges because of a sanguine probation report that she deserves another chance.

* A Singaporean blogger has received a stern warning but escaped imprisonment for Sedition after posting cartoons mocking Jesus Christ on his online journal, instead of a possible three years' jail and/or S$5,000 fine.

Yong, a long-time friend of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (Lee said Yong lent him his lecture notes to read during varsity days), was known to be very firm on the use of punishment as a deterrent to crime. He even declared that his sentencing was sometimes correlated to the type of breakfast he had for that morning.

New Zealander Peter Jenkins, who operated the Sensible Sentencing Trust website, wrote about his visit to Singapore's lower courts.

"I witnessed a sentencing session where 20 offenders were dispatched in the space of less than an hour," he said.

The sentences were very much tougher than in New Zealand, he added, giving the following examples:

1. Shoplifting goods to the value of S$45 - three months.

2. Four assaults (30 months each) to be served consecutively not concurrently as would have been in New Zealand, making a total of 90 months or over seven-and-a-half years.

3. A sexual assault - 10 years.

4. A number of other offenders - shoplifting and other relatively minor charges plus some with drugs charges - were also sentenced for sentences ranging from six weeks or more (for a first offender).

5. A repeat offender who stole numerous ATM cards and withdrew S$25,000 from them was jailed for eight years. Punishment for rape is not less than eight years, not more than 20, plus at least 12 strokes of the cane, he observed.

6. A man with previous convictions for armed robbery and housebreaking who vandalised a welfare home in which he had been placed, causing S$4,000 damage, was sentenced to 42 months in jail - and eight strokes of the cane.

"Another thing I could not help but notice about the court on arrival - there were no intimidating low-lives hanging around who are often found lounging around outside NZ courts. And there was no graffiti inside or outside the court," Jenkins added.

Yong's own daughter caused some unhappiness when she was appointed CEO of the IDA (Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). Fully aware that the IT industry knew she lacked the qualifications or experience to lead the country in information technology development, she proclaimed in the press that she "didn't know what CDMA was", but she "could always hire someone who knew".