Written by Ng E-Jay
04 May 2009
Janadas Devan’s Straits Times article “Process, pluralism, protection” published on 04 May was generally a well-written one, but I disagree with the points he raised in the last section of the article labeled “OB markers matter“.
In this section of the article, Mr Devan argues that the AWARE saga shows why “illiberal laws” such as the Religious Harmony Act, Group Representation Constituencies, and HDB racial quotas, are needed. His reasoning is that these laws are needed to maintain racial and religious harmony. Citing examples such as the death threats directed at Ms Josie Lau, and the inflammatory remarks made by Mr Derek Hong from the Church of Our Saviour, who was seen as calling for a religious body to interfere with the affairs of a secular organization, Mr Devan says this proves “we still have some work left to do” as far as social harmony goes.
While I agree with Mr Devan’s point that the faithful of any religion should not try to impose their views on others, nor should they organise themselves in groups to pursue secular agendas, he appears to be torturing the issue.
Firstly, bringing Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) into the discussion is disingenuous. Contrary to PAP propaganda, GRCs are not instituted to promote racial harmony by providing for adequate representation of minority races in Parliament. They are instituted to make it more difficult for Opposition parties to win seats in Parliament. Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam won his Anson seat in 1981 without the need for GRCs, in an era when support for the ruling PAP was far higher. If JBJ could do it, so can other good Malay and Indian candidates, contrary to what the PAP would have us believe.
I am glad that Mr Devan recognizes that the GRC system is illiberal. But it is illiberal from a political perspective, rather than from the perspective of racial harmony. If we are to grow politically as a nation, the GRC system must be abolished and the electoral system must be reformed.
Secondly, although religiously sensitive or potentially inflammatory remarks were passed during the AWARE saga, those remarks were made by only a minority of individuals. In fact, the whole saga has successfully demonstrated how the community can debate and openly trash out sensitive issues in a civilized manner, without having the discussion degenerate into chaos and disharmony.
If anything, the AWARE episode has shown that Singaporeans have matured socially and can conduct an open dialogue on sensitive and emotional issues without crossing the line on racial and religious harmony.
I do not have any problems with legislation such as the Religious Harmony Act. In fact, in the Proposals for Internet Freedom that the Bloggers 13 group made to the Ministry of Communication, Information and the Arts (MICA) last year, I dissented on the group’s stand that racially and religiously offensive speech should not be proscribed by law. In my opinion, current laws governing racial and religious content on the Internet and in the offline domain is acceptable to me.
However, I most assuredly do NOT agree with Mr Devan’s attempt to use the AWARE saga to further justify the worn out PAP propaganda concerning the existence of OB markers and the need for continued repression of our political consciousness.
The AWARE saga saw the mainstream and alternative media, pro-establishment, anti-establishment and politically neutral personalities speak with one voice against the attempted hijacking of AWARE by Ms Josie Lau’s team. It was truly a glorious moment. But activists like myself have not forgotten the larger picture of reforming the political system and advocating for independence of the mainstream press. The bigger battle has yet to be won.
Process, pluralism, protection
Straits Times, 04 May 2009
By Janadas Devan, Review Editor
‘THE Aware Saga’ has come to an end. What lessons does the episode hold for civil society? There are undoubtedly many, but here is a preliminary set of what I believe are the chief lessons:
# Lesson No. 1: Ends and means
The group that captured Aware on March 28 presented themselves as exceedingly moral beings. The group’s inspirator extraordinaire Thio Su Mien – lawyer, self-styled ‘feminist mentor’ and, by the looks of it, the world’s foremost expert on homosexuality – described her mentees as just a group of women who wanted to contribute to society.
There is no reason not to accept at face value this characterisation. It is impossible to believe this group woke up one day and consciously decided to do ill by taking over Aware, as the caricature on the other side would have it. Which is precisely why one wonders about the methods they chose to employ.
The means used in pursuit of any cause ought to be commensurate with the ends proposed. Bad means cannot encompass good ends. If your goals are fairness, justice and goodwill, you cannot achieve them by employing surreptitious, opaque and divisive means. The moral universe does have a balance sheet: You cannot be in the red on means and expect to be in the clear on ends
Dr Thio’s team got this equation wrong. Whatever one might have thought of their ends – and there are good people on both sides of that argument – it was difficult not to notice that their means did not measure up.
They did not declare openly who they were – until they were pressed to do so; they were not transparent about their policy aims – until their aims became apparent despite themselves; they did not answer questions – until it was too late to dispel doubts.
We know process matters in the law and politics. The Aware Saga has taught us it matters in civil society too, which tends to attract passionate, committed and often self-righteous people.
It is precisely because the self-righteous have so often in history cited their ends to justify whatever means they employed that democracies have learnt to insist on transparent and open processes.
# Lesson No. 2: Pluralism matters
There is nothing wrong with religious people involving themselves in secular groups – as individuals. The vast majority of Singaporeans are religious. We would have hardly anyone in politics, Government or civil society if we were to insist people checked in their religious beliefs before entering these secular realms.
But that does not mean that the spiritual and the secular, the church and the state, should be confused. It does not mean that the faithful of any religion can impose their views on others. And it most certainly does not mean that the religious should organise themselves in groups to pursue secular agendas. It is actually against the law in Singapore to have a Buddhist Action Party or a Christian Reform Party or a United Muslim Front.
There is no reason to doubt the assurances of Dr Thio’s group that they were not acting on behalf of any particular religion. The clear statement on Thursday by Dr John Chew, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, that the NCCS did not condone any church getting involved in Aware’s leadership tussle, set the record straight.
It was nevertheless daft – no more appropriate word comes to mind – for six people from the same church to have attempted this takeover at Aware. What were they thinking of?
That people wouldn’t learn they came from the same church? That people wouldn’t mind a secular organisation being taken over by a group clearly identified with a particular church in a particular denomination of a particular religion? And if they had won last Saturday’s vote of confidence, having depended on support solely from their co-religionists, that they could have continued credibly as leaders of a secular organisation?
If they had prevailed, Dr Thio’s group would have established, inadvertently perhaps, a new benchmark for social activism among the religiously-inspired. It’s hardly credible that Buddhists and Taoists – who together constitute close to half the population – or Roman Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, would have, in response, left the field uncontested to Protestants.
Everyone realised that would not be good for Singapore. Thus Dr Chew’s statement and the strong support it received from other religious leaders. It was good that they combined spontaneously to draw a firm line.
# Lesson No. 3: OB markers matter
As controversies go, The Aware Saga was minor. It did not permanently alter the body politic. Socially, it was the equivalent of a group of women, setting off on what they assumed would be a diverting walk, falling into a ditch. But it could have been worse – and that is precisely the point.
There were moments when things got uncomfortable. Ms Josie Lau, the erstwhile Aware president, received a death threat. The pastor of her church, Mr Derek Hong, spoke in terms that he later regretted. There was loose talk of Christians versus the rest.
The so-called ‘liberals’ in Aware have won. I am personally glad they did. But here is something that some ‘liberals’ may not be comfortable with: This episode proves why we need many ‘illiberal’ laws – including the Religious Harmony Act, Group Representation Constituencies, HDB racial quotas, etc.
Religious and racial harmony here are not givens. You have got to work at maintaining them. The Aware Saga shows we still have some work left to do.