JBJ: Let us not insult our people

(Originally appeared on TOC)

Today is JBJ’s birthday. In remembrance of JBJ, what better way than to relive his tenacity. This article is an edited excerpt of JBJ’s parliamentary speech first made in response to the 1985 Presidential Address.

There is a general air of expectancy. I was asked a number of times before today about this sitting of Parliament and sensed the eager expectation of the people to see what would be the Government’s program and what would be said in Parliament on it. Now, this expectancy arises, I need not remind Members, from the results that came to light on the night of 22nd December 1984 when the last General Elections were hold.

For the first time since 1959 when this Government took office, there was a significant swing away from the Government towards the Opposition parties. People were clearly expressing their discontent, their dissatisfaction, with what had gone on for the last 25 years. And this result evoked comments overseas. They were saying that Singapore had come of age that the Singapore people had matured and were showing that they were politically able to take charge of their country’s affairs.

The Prime Minister was so disturbed by the results at his press conference that a foreigner had to tell him that he should relax and that the end of the world hadn’t come because his Party had lost 12% of the votes. He should know better. He should know that governments come and go but people survive and continue.

Now, what was the signal that the voters were sending to the Government through the ballot box, the most democratic method of selecting government? The signal that the Prime Minister acknowledged was that the voters wanted a less austere and open government.

That was an acknowledgement by the Prime Minister that the voters were saying that a lot of Government activities, Government decisions, had been made in a hole-and-corner fashion that Government decisions had not been explained, had not been justified before the electorate, that they had been left without any consultation before important decisions affecting their livelihood were made by the Government.

The other thing that the Prime Minister acknowledged was that the people were complaining about the Government being too austere. I do not think that the electorate mind any government being austere. What the citizen and the electorate will mind is when he or she feels that his rights or her rights as citizens are being deprived, when they are not given their full rights as citizens of the country.

Nobody is going to complain about austerity if austerity is necessary provided everyone is given his rights or her rights and all are treated equally. So we come back to the question of the rights of our citizens in this country of ours, whether the Government’s actions in the past, for the last 25 years, had been one of a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens, a neglect, a criminal neglect of their rights as human beings.

The voters were saying much more than what the Prime Minister acknowledged. They were saying that they want their fundamental rights and freedom as human beings in this place, let alone as citizens. I do not propose to detail all the rights of which they have been deprived over the last 25 years. I have in this House over the last three years since I entered it in December 1981 complained again and again about the violation of these rights and I do not propose to go through them again.

I need only say one, and that is even on the question of a personal right as marriage, it would appear that some of our citizens still have to get the permission of the Government before he or she can marry. This is a personal right. So our citizens were saying through the ballot box that it is time that their rights were recognized, their rights as citizens, their rights as human beings, were recognized by this Government.

Only not very long ago, the Opposition Leader of a country not very far from here was also calling after their elections for the restoration of full democratic rights. And he was warning the government in that country that there would be social unrest unless the full democratic rights of the citizens were restored to them.

I am not here to warn the Government of social unrest but I would urge upon the Government to take that seriously. These rights are universal rights, recognized now by all countries all over the world. They have become fundamental and universal for the wellbeing of every human being wherever he or she may be, whether it is Singapore or Timbuktu.

Secondly, the voters were saying that government should be conducted openly, that decisions of the Government are seen by the public to have been made upon due reason, due causes, and Ministers are made to publicly justify their decisions. And they, of course, ask that they should be heard, that there should be adequate consultation with the people before any decisions are made.

After this message, the signal, as the Prime Minister called it, from the voters, we have had a number of statements from the Ministers of the Government trying to pacify our voters and promising them that the Government would take note of their wishes and would implement measures to bring this about. We have had the First Deputy Prime Minister speak at a meeting of community leaders on 8th February and which was reported in the Sunday Times on 10th February. These are his words:

So we have got to try and fire the imagination of Singaporeans so that there is a now creative environment, there is a new vitality to take us through the next 25 years.

And it is about this now creative environment, the creative vibrant society, that the First Deputy Prime Minister says will be the objective of the Government that I propose to examine. How is the Government proposing to bring about a creative, vibrant society which the Government accepts should be the desirable aim of us in Singapore?

Whilst the First Deputy Prime Minister speaks about the creation of a creative, vibrant society, I find somewhat different the Prime Minister’s speech at the Tanjong Pagar Community Centre New Year Get-together which was reported in the papers of the 25th February 1985. To the Prime Minister, it seemed all that mattered was disciplining of the society. Society cannot, as I understood him, progress unless everybody was disciplined and those undisciplined were punished.

And he says, “Well, you know, how hard we can punish.” The Prime Minister was quoted as having said that the problem for younger Singaporeans was how they could be galvanized to go up and stay on top. May I say that that is the wrong diagnosis. It seems to me, in the first place, to be a very materialistic and selfish motive to set before the younger Singaporeans, before the young of our country. And that is partly the cause for our present discontent, the materialistic self-acquiring philosophy that this Government has preached from 1959.

I would commend to the Prime Minister and to the Government that the problem is not trying to persuade Singaporeans to go to the top and stay on top. I do not think that Singaporeans, the young Singaporeans, are all bent on that, as it were, the rule of the jungle. As I see it, the problem that this Government will face over the next five years is how to persuade or convince our young people in our midst that in the Singapore society they can live their lives to the fullest dignity as human beings.

That seems to me to be the problem – to get our young people to take pride in the society that we have built for them and to be ready to contribute in their own way to the building of the society. I have studied the addendum to the first objective outlined in the President’s Speech which talks about the character of the society, and it is on that that I am speaking this morning, and I find neither in the President’s Address nor in the addendum anything at all, nothing about the steps, the measures that this Government has, or plans to take, to achieve this creative vibrant society. In place of that, all we have is a lot & wishy-washy thinking.

In his addendum, the First Deputy Prime Minister says ‘we will have this and we will have that’ and it goes on ad infinitum. The question is whether you are going to involve our people to build a society to their liking, to their satisfaction because that would appear to be the first objective of the Government. A vibrant creative society is one where its members live to the fullest dignity as human beings.

An individual cannot live in the fullest dignity unless he has certain fundamental rights and freedoms which are protected and can be enforced if they are violated. So may I commend to the Government that the first requirement is a restoration or investing our people of their rights as human beings.

The First Deputy Prime Minister in his speech to the community leaders reported on the 10th of February, 1985, speaks about the machinery for consulting the people. I was asked by the press what I thought about this, and my reply was, “let’s not have any more machinery. What is needed is freeing, liberating our people.”

We have inherited from the time that we were under the colonial government a restriction on the freedom of speech. Is it necessary to continue this restriction? We do not need any more feedback machineries. All we need is to allow our citizens to say what they wish to say, of course, within the limits of the law. There is the law of libel, there is the law of sedition.

To criticize the government, to take it to task openly outside. The trouble is that once you set up, as it were, a consultative machinery and you stage forums, you would only hear the things that you want to hear. People must be left to their own to say what they wish to say. The trouble in Singapore is that everything is over-controlled, over-regulated. The Government apparently thinks that our people cannot do anything unless they have a Minister in charge; even to the extent of arranging football league games or matches, they must have a Minister.

Let us not insult our people. They can do it very well on their own. I seem to be spending too much time on this fundamental right. May I, because they are very important, refer you to one paragraph of the Report of the Constitutional Commission in 1966. After we came out of Malaysia in 1965, the Prime Minister was all euphoric about investing our citizens with their rights.

He was going to have a new Constitution, everything was going to be spelt out, there was going to be fundamental rights, Singapore was going to be a model country for the rest of the world to take note, and so he said he was going to appoint a Constitutional Commission which would listen to representations and then come out with a Report and then there would be a new Constitution.

That was 1966 and we are still waiting for a new Constitution based upon these proposals of the Constitutional Commission that was appointed in 1966. May I say that your predecessor in office at that time was the Deputy Chairman of this Constitutional Commission. It was chaired by the Chief Justice. They say this, in paragraph 20 (so it is not me who is saying it; it is the Constitutional Commission):

In this present era a notion is the sum total of all its citizens. In a nation, under a democratic form of government, each and everyone of its citizens is entitled to certain fundamental rights and freedoms, the enjoyment of which is protected by law and the enforcement which can be obtained from the Court whom Judges are independent of the Executive.

They then go on to say:

In return for the protection afforded to him of the enjoyment of these rights and freedoms each citizen owes a corresponding duty not to exercise any of these rights and freedoms if by so doing he unjustifiably prejudices the public interest or the rights and freedoms of other citizens.

It goes without saying that where you confer a right there is a corresponding duty. And I am sure our citizens will not be lacking in recognizing their duties if you confer on them their rights. And it is important that not only that the rights be conferred, but that there be safeguarding of these rights once they have been conferred, and there should be remedies where there has been a violation or a threatened violation of these rights of the people.