SDP: A party ahead of its time

Written by Ng E-Jay
14 June 2011

Apart from the late J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was revered by opposition supporters, the most vilified politician in Singapore is still Dr Chee Soon Juan, and the most misunderstood political party is still the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

The mainstream media has seldom been kind to the SDP. It was only in the recent general elections when the Government-controlled press found that the alternative media and the internet was giving it a run for its money, that it was forced to give fairer and more balanced coverage to the SDP.

The struggle for media fairness is far from over, though. The tabloid-like New Paper, early on in the 9-day electoral campaign, ran an article smearing Dr Chee Soon Juan, painting him as a man who wanted to lead an illegal protest after an election rally.

The fact that the story never picked up steam, and was rapidly discredited throughout the internet, showed that the Government-controlled press can no longer adopt such dirty and vicious tactics against the opposition without having its remaining credibility seriously called into question.

Unfazed, the SDP went on to put up an impressive electoral performance. It scored almost 40% of the valid vote in Holland-Bukit Timah, and over 36% of the vote in Sembawang. This is most remarkable, considering the party only managed to eek out 20% of the vote in 2001, and 23% of the vote in 2006 within those constituencies it contested.

The SDP is the most improved party since the 2006 general elections, and this is the first time in history that it has attracted such a slate of good candidates. However, certain misconceptions about the party remain.

There are some people who say that Dr Chee has finally repented from his old ways. In fact, during a press conference before the hustings officially began, Dr Chee had to clarify that it was not he or the SDP that has changed, but the image of the party that was conveyed by the media. In other words, some of the misconceptions about SDP is due to the biased media which has reported inaccurately and unfairly.

More recently, Ms Teo Soh Lung, a most remarkable candidate for Yuhua, lamented that the general public still has some misunderstandings of SDP’s past civil disobedience activities. (See here; Full article is attached below.) I call Ms Teo a most remarkable candidate because she has overcome the setback of her past detention under the ISA to bravely stand against the PAP in the elections. She is more than qualified to speak about Government oppression in Singapore.

In her Facebook article, Ms Teo recounted the human rights struggle in America, namely, the black civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s which resulted in radical change that brought much needed equality for racial minorities and undid centuries of racial discrimination. She said it is time to distinguish between good and bad laws, and to question why there is no freedom of assembly in Singapore.

A party ahead of its time

The Singapore Democratic Party is a party ahead of its time for two main reasons.

1. Firstly, the SDP has always recognized that human rights and democracy must form the foundation of society. As long as the ruling party is free to enact laws that oppress the people, unfairly use the media to its advantage, and undemocratically control how elections are conducted, that there is a limit of how much change can be achieved.

2. Secondly, the SDP walks the talk. In the past, the SDP stood up for the plight of the Burmese by holding a silent and peaceful protest in from of the Istana. In 2008, some activists as well as several SDP members held a peaceful march to commemorate World Consumer Rights Day and highlight the plight of Singaporeans who are facing a rising cost of living. Some of these activists were arrested for their actions and 18 of them were later charged in Court.

Today, look at the key issues that are affecting Singaporeans. The rising cost of living ranks at the very top. The SDP has been speaking out on behalf of Singaporeans and highlighting the escalating cost of living since 2008 when they held the peaceful march called Tak Boleh Tahan.

Did the Government heed the people’s concerns and what the SDP was trying to tell them? No, the Government did not. They sent people to Court for speaking up on cost-of-living issues. That is Government oppression.

Later, the Government, in an effort to further clamp down on public gatherings, enacted a law called the Public Order Act in which even one person standing outside can be considered an illegal assembly. Instead of addressing people’s concerns, the Government only resorted to instilling fear and attempted to silence dissent by implementing harsher and more authoritarian laws.

Singaporeans gather to express dismay at ministerial pay

Yesterday, through a report posted on The Online Citizen, I learnt that some Singaporeans have begun to organize their own gatherings and outings to discuss political issues.

According to the TOC article, a group of around 30 Singaporeans had worn black and gathered together at Wisma Atria to express their dismay at the Ministers’ high salaries.

The gathering, entitled “Black [email protected]”, was first mooted on Facebook, allegedly by a person using the pseudonym of “Mandy Mary”. The supporters called themselves the “Black Sunday Movement”, and they have a blog here. Their stated purpose is to “educate the public through events and encourage people to come out and discuss politics through social settings like cafes and restaurants“.

The event at Wisma Atria was monitered by police personnel who were caught on photograph, as posted by TOC, and TOC initially reported that some of the participants could have been called up for police investigations.

Subsequently, the Black Sunday Movement has posted a clarification on Facebook that none of their members have been called up by the police for questioning for any breach of law and that the police presence was meant to intimidate those that had gathered at the restaurant.

Their media release also claim that the photographer harassed by the police was from the mainstream media; and that besides the photographer, the police also harassed the staff of Starbucks Cafe.

Such gatherings are heartening to take note of because they reflect a growing awareness amongst our youths, and dispel the long-held notion that Singaporeans are politically apathetic. Finally, people are beginning to realize that it is their right to speak out publicly on political and social issues, and they have the right to come together peacefully in a public area to debate and exchange views and ideas.

Give credit to SDP where credit is due

Without the sacrifice of independent activists and SDP members who have been charged in Court, fined many thousands of dollars, and even sent to jail, would we have Hong Lim Park today where people can freely go to and protest?

Would Mr Tan Kin Lian have been able to lead a movement at Speaker’s Corner to campaign on behalf of the victims of the Lehman Minibonds fiasco?

Would Pink Dot be able to organize a public gathering at Hong Lim to raise awareness about its cause?

It is because the SDP and its supporters and independent activists have made such sacrifices, that people like Mr Tan, groups like Pink Dot and Maruah, and ordinary folks like myself and other TOC contributors can go to Speaker’s Corner to organize events and speak about society’s issues.

We owe this little corner of freedom called Speaker’s Corner to the SDP. I know I do. I myself have spoken there a couple of times, with the National Solidarity Party (NSP) on the 2009 Budget, for example. I know this freedom is won because activists and SDP members have made sacrifices.

This is something we must not forget.

Instead of accusing SDP of engaging in destructive politics, we should recognize what freedoms we enjoy now, which we take for granted sometimes, are in fact due to them.

Teo Soh Lung’s article on civil disobedience

Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 4:10pm

At last Saturday’s SDP dinner to thank volunteers, there were incessant questions about SDP’s belief in human rights and civil disobedience. One after another and repeatedly, speakers urged Dr Chee to abandon civil disobedience and move on to turn the SDP into an ordinary opposition party that will discard civil disobedience and human rights into the bin.

Sitting amongst the audience, I was a bit surprised at the earnest pleas and good intentions of the speakers. I wondered if 50 years of PAP rule have subdued all of us and turned us into obedient followers of all dictates of our rulers. The PAP has banned in recent years, one-person protests under the Public Order Act. This legislation was the direct consequence of a two-man protest outside the Ministry of Manpower against the deportation of Burmese workers in Singapore. Like so many other laws that were passed by the PAP government as immediate reactions to curb a repeat of what they called ” unlawful acts”, I was surprised that such a law which was passed without much debate in parliament could be so willingly accepted and embraced by members of the public.

In America, the law reserving seats exclusively for whites on public buses was consciously disobeyed by black woman activist Rosa Parks in 1955. That act was of course frowned upon by the white establishment and Parks lost her job as a seamstress. But that defiant act gave momentum to the black civil rights movement. It gave rise to many more peaceful street protests and ultimately earned the blacks their freedom to live as free people and not as slaves. Throughout the history of the civil rights movement, thousands had gone to jail. Freedom was earned through struggles of the blacks and not given to them on a platter. And today, we have President Obama in America.

Most of us appreciate the struggles of the blacks in America and South Africa. But when it comes to the struggles of our people in our own country, we don’t seem to appreciate or understand the sacrifices of people like Dr Chee, J B Jeyaretnam and many others. We laugh at them. We described them as “stupid” and “stubborn”. We tell each other that “they never learn”. It is tragic. It is like blaming a raped victim for bringing about the rape upon herself. Yes, the PAP government gets off scotch free while Dr Chee and others are labelled “incorrigible” and are jailed. Why cannot we cast doubt on the government that gives us such unjust laws and thank those who disobey such laws and sacrificed their freedom for us? Why cannot we stand up against injustice instead of blaming the victims of oppression?

At the height of the black civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr said : “Good laws are to be obeyed. Bad laws are to be disobeyed.” It is time for us to distinguish what is good law and what is bad law. It is time for us to check if every law the PAP passes is good for us and for our country. It is time that we question why we cannot stand at street corners with placards telling our fellow citizens and our government why we are so unhappy. It is time we reflect on our past and examine ourselves before we tell Dr Chee and those brave men and women to change their ways.

7 comments on SDP: A party ahead of its time

  1. let’s say democratic and human rights fight by SDP is finally won one day,then will SDP will lose its raison d’etre? Its economic stance is also echoed by parties like NSP,SPP and WP to some extent. Its social stance is however too liberal for many singaporeans, thus impeding its way to parliament unless the electoral system is changed to proportional representation.

  2. I fully agree with you that SDP is ahead of time. This is possible because the PAP is behind time.

  3. Without the sacrifice of independent activists and SDP members who have been charged in Court, fined many thousands of dollars, and even sent to jail, would we have Hong Lim Park today where people can freely go to and protest?

    I beg to differ. Take note that the idea of having a Speakers’ Corner was mooted out in the late 90’s and was opened in 2000. SDP started their protests and demonstration more aggressively only after the 2001 elections! So for heaven’s sake, stop giving mindless credits!

    I am also an SDP supporter but I disapprove of those demos and protests not because I feel it’s wrong but because these do not go down well with Singapore voters if you want to do well in elections.

    One can safely say that it was these mindless civil disobedience that SDP scored so pathetically in the 2006 elections. In fact I have observed that many of the protests were against underhand tactics of the PAP to invent the GRC concept to give themselves an unfair advantage. Everyone knows that including WP. Instead of resorting to civil disobedience like SDP, WP shows how astute strategising can achieve breakthroughs as shown in the victory in Aljunied.

    All said, I am not saying that SDP MUST NEVER resort to civil disobedience, but do it only when voters are ready for it, not now.

    To say that Chee “has repented” is definitely an insult to him. If he is repentent, he would have disbanded SDP. Let’s say that he did not see the need to resort to civil disobedience in the 2011 elections, and this, coupled with more credible candidates joining the party, resulted in them making vast improvements in the elections. Try resorting to civil disobedience again too soon, all these good efforts would go down the drain!

  4. While I agree with most of Mr. Ng’s points, I must take issue with his title.

    Surely the SDP is NOT ahead of its time … but particularly relevant to Singapore, in this critical time, TODAY ?

    At the same time, I agree with Zhenzidan that Civil Disobedience may be “ahead of it’s time” for Singapore. While I honour and applaud Mr. Chee’s courage & resolve, there is no doubt that his past activities are still a burden that the SDP must bear.

    In this new millenium, there are other & better ways to draw attention to important issues and indeed, this forum is a prime example of this.

    Civil Disobedience may still be useful but it must be used in an environment and for a cause which will engender widespread support. A lot of preparation needed for such drastic measures.

    Meanwhile, the last GE has shown there are pressing issues worthy of the SDP’s focus, many touching on Human Rights. In the next 5 yrs, perhaps there is a need for an apolitical approach to addressing these.

    The Opposition and would be Opposition, has shown remarkable solidarity in this post-election phase, but can we take this further? Are there no PAP MPs with a heart and enough courage to speak out on these issues?

Comments are closed.