If we want change, let us do it ourselves – just like the M’sians did

Business Times, 1993

Let’s first get this out of the way: no foreigner should interfere in our internal political affairs. To argue otherwise would be to render our independence meaningless. Citizens sacrifice their lives and nations strive for self-determination, which is the whole point of being independent – to decide for themselves how their country and future should be, and this is done (hopefully) through democratic means such as open elections.

Singapore is not a pariah state, or one where democratic elections are not held, or conducted through the sharp edge of a sword (though some may disagree on this).

Indeed, most Singaporeans (79% in 2015) agree that the electoral process here itself is free and fair. Opposition parties, in fact, have assured voters that their votes are secret and urged them to vote freely.

But the opposition parties (perhaps unsurprisingly) also argue that certain institutions which should be free and democratic are not, such as the elections department and the mainstream mass media, and that gerrymandering is used as tool to advantage the ruling party.

Certainly, institutions here could be more transparent, free, and be seen to be so; and rules could be the same.

But any changes must be brought about by Singaporeans themselves, not foreigners, and through legal means, even if this entails a hard, long slog, unless the government turns to being a corrupt, murderous dictatorship.

It is worth keeping in mind that the change of government in Malaysia, whom some here  look to for inspiration, took place legally, through democratic elections, after a decade of activism and campaigning by opposition parties and civil society organisations.

In other words, it was Malaysians themselves who wanted and made change happen even if it took them a long time.

The same must apply to Singapore.

Therefore, I agree with Law and Home Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam, when he said: “We can have political differences within Singapore … but I think we should never go out and invite someone foreign or a foreign politician to intervene in our domestic politics.”

So that’s that.

Now, for that meeting with Mahathir.

Several Singaporeans (which I shall refer to as “the group” for convenience) visited with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed on 30 August in Malaysia. The group included Tan Wah Piow (who had his citizenship revoked by the Singapore government in 1987), historian Thum Ping-tjin, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, illustrator Sonny Liew, and activist Jolovan Wham.

The meeting was facilitated by Malaysian activist (and one-time Malaysia ISA detainee) Hishamuddin Rais.

Thum wants Mahathir to intervene in Singapore?

At the meeting, which reportedly lasted some 80 minutes, the group raised various issues with Mahathir, including LGBT rights, democracy, freedom and such.

Dr Thum later posted on his Facebook page that he “urged (Dr Mahathir) to take the lead in lobbying for the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression and inquiry in Southeast Asia.”

This statement was taken (by the Singapore government) to mean that Dr Thum welcomed Mahathir’s interference in Singapore’s domestic political affairs, given that Singapore is in Southeast Asia.

Is it fair to ascribe such a view to Dr Thum?

It would be tenuous, if you go merely by Dr Thum’s words 3 weeks earlier where he in fact disavowed “Singapore doing a Malaysia”.

Instead, he said he wanted Singapore to do a Singapore, and for Singaporeans to elect their leaders based on merit, unlike in Malaysia.

“The victory of Mahathir is possibly, probably, maybe an action to protect elite privilege, which is why he was able to defeat UMNO,” Dr Thum said at the JB forum. “And that is not really what I want for Singapore. I want a country which elects the best regardless of language, race or religion.”

But his words at the media conference following the meeting with Mahathir may have confused perception of his position.

They are also perhaps clouded further by what Tan Wah Piow told the media after the meeting with Mahathir.

“Personally, I am very grateful for this open, democratic space that Tun Mahathir’s government has opened and it’s a beacon for many who are struggling for democracy,” Tan said. “Not just in Singapore but in other parts of Southeast Asia.”

And he added:

“I think they will be very concerned, not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.

“And that Malaysia is now shining this beacon which is probably stealing the limelight from Singapore. I think that’s what worries them. Singapore is becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls.

Tan’s remarks were a clear reference to how the events in Malaysia are (presumably) affecting Singapore or the Singapore government.

If you praise Malaysia as a “beacon of democracy in the region”, as both Tan and Dr Thum did, then it follows that you hope what happened there should or ought to also take place elsewhere, including Singapore.

So the question is: is there anything wrong with hoping or even asking for this?

Not that I can see. But what could have avoided any questions or doubts would be for the group to add that changes in each country should be effected by its own citizens, preferably through democratic ways.

One can be a beacon, but that does not mean one should or must intervene in other people’s affairs.

After all, a metaphorical beacon is just that – a symbol, a sign, a metaphor.

Mahathir a symbol of democracy?

So, if Malaysia is “a beacon of democracy”, is Mahathir himself then a symbol of democracy which Singapore should look to?

Anyone who follows Mahathir’s period as Malaysia’s PM and Malaysia’s development would hesitate to shout this from the mountaintops.

Mahathir has no claim to being a champion of liberty.

3 members of the group, Sonny Liew, Jolovan Wham and Kirsten Han, have in fact remarked (after the meeting) that they were not impressed by Mahathir’s views on several issues, including homosexuality, and the progress of Malays, among others.

Under Mahathir, Hishamuddin Rais was locked up under the country’s Internal Security Act for a trumped-up charge. And it was also Mahathir who laid concocted charges against his once-deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Mahathir’s previous stint as PM is not an impressive one indeed, as far as democratic liberties are concerned.

Thus, to praise him and hold him up as some champion of democracy now is premature (given that he became PM only in May, barely 4 months ago).

And as Dr Thum cautioned, the underlying reason for Mahathir’s victory in May is still unexplored fully.

Was it a win for democracy, or a win to protect elitism?

Is Mahathir really a convert of democracy, or just someone who rode on a public tide of unhappiness over Najib’s blatant corruption?

Mahathir knew what he was doing

Relationship between Singapore and Malaysia under Mahathir has always been rocky, to say the least. Since taking over the reins from Najib Razak in May, ties between the two sides have turned cold once again, with Mahathir raising questions over the old ghosts of the price of water, the “crooked bridge”, the high-speed rail project and so on.

He has also recently made snide remarks about how perhaps Singaporeans are “tired” of their government, snobbish from his victory in May.  

Given that he clearly doesn’t like Singapore very much, why was he amenable to Hishamuddin’s suggestion to set aside time (more than an hour) to hear what the group (who said they went to the meeting as individuals) of Singaporeans have to say?

It is a bit odd, especially when you consider he had only a 20-minute meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister following the results of the May election.

A slight against PM Lee? Perhaps.

Mahathir knew what he was doing meeting the group – and how even a photo of him with anti-establishment critics will reverberate in Singapore, as it indeed has. The group was not going to change his mind on anything. Neither was he really interested in what they had to say (Jolovan Wham posted on his Facebook page that some of Mahathir’s views were “still very conservative and offensive.”)

Mahathir knew what he was doing.

But I am not so sure the group is aware of this, and this is what is more worrying.

Some have said the group was used by the old fogey as a prop for his own agenda against the Singapore government.

It is hard to see why this isn’t so.

Do we believe Mahathir suddenly had altruistic, democratic blood running in his veins when he agreed to visit with the group?

It would be naive to think he had.

In fact, Sonny Liew said exactly that later – that the group had been naive.

Lee Kuan Yew’s declaration

Lastly, just a word about that declaration of independence by Lee Kuan Yew on 31 August 1963.

Dr Thum had posted on his Facebook page on Malaysia’s Independence Day that in fact Singapore should also celebrate our first independence day, when Singapore finally gained self-rule under the PAP on that day.

The post was criticised for trying to deny historical facts about Singapore.

His defenders have searched the historical archives and posted screenshots from websites which said Lee Kuan Yew declared Singapore’s independence on that day at the padang.

Well, it is true that Lee did that – but it is also true that he, at the same declaration and speech he made that day, declared and pledged allegiance to the Tunku and to Malaysia.

In fact, Lee said his government saw themselves as “trustees” of a Central Government in Malaysia.

Lee never saw Singapore as an independent state, until 1965.

History, as they say, is always more nuanced than it seems on the surface.

Read Lee Kuan Yew’s full speech here.


So, what do we make of the controversial meeting of the group with Mahathir?

I think Sonny Liew himself said it best – it was “bad optics”, given the context and the persons involved in the meeting. And I don’t think the group itself can deny this, which is why I said earlier that it is worrying if the group knew what it was doing.

Sonny Liew said, “I think we (as individuals and as a group) were much too wide-eyed and naive when we went into the meeting with Dr. Mahatir.”

I agree.

Why is it “bad optics”?

One, since he became PM in May, Malaysia’s relationship with Singapore has gone downhill, without Singapore doing much to encourage that. It was, to be honest, all Mahathir.

Two, Tan Wah Piow’s presence in the meeting has raised questions of his intent among some Singaporeans, and why the group would associate with someone who has broken the law and evaded National Service. (Tan has said that the govt was out to get him and which was why he had to leave Singapore.)

Three, it doesn’t seem that the group had raised the issues which Mahathir had raised since becoming PM – the water issue, HSR and so on. Perhaps the group thought this was already being discussed by the two governments, and chose to stick with other matters. Still, it was an opportunity for Mahathir to hear what ordinary Singaporeans thought of these issues.

But the question, for me, is this: why would we go running to someone who is not known as a champion of democracy, and in fact is well known for being the complete opposite, and ask him to “take the lead in lobbying for the promotion of democracy and freedom of expression and inquiry in Southeast Asia”, including Singapore?

And this is also a person who had not been a friend to Singapore, who in fact seemed to go out of his way at times to make life difficult for us.

At the end of the day, we need to remember that Singapore is our country, the only one we have. We should have no illusion that Mahathir will come to our rescue or be a friend to us if we descend into failure.

The meeting makes for a great talking point, but there are more important and serious things than a photo-op.

I agree with Dr Thum – that I do not want Singapore to do a Malaysia. I want us to do a Singapore, and to do it through Singaporeans – and not through foreigners, especially one who has shown no interest in being a friend to us.

If we want change, let us do it ourselves, as the Malaysians did.


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