Civil disobedience: a government on the defensive
No commentator in any mainstream medium will dare say it, but opposition
politician Chee Soon Juan's tactic of raising the possibility of civil
disobedience, may have worked.
Even as nobody has followed his call for civil disobedience, there are indications that it has spooked the PAP government.
On 5 August 2005, Minister for Home
Affairs Wong Kan Seng said in a speech that it was important to observe a
key principle, that "regardless of our differences or how convinced
we are about the rightness of our views, we do not act unlawfully,
undermine the rule of law and the institutions of justice in our
In an interview with the Straits Times published on Monday, 19 September 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "The trend continues to be towards opening up. But that doesn't mean the laws don't have to be enforced."
Chee Soon Juan hit the news in May this year when his invited speaker Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, was denied entry into Singapore.  The latter had been scheduled to conduct a workshop on civil disobedience organised by the Chee's Singapore Democratic Party.
Around the same time, film-maker Martyn See was called up by the police over a 20-minute video documentary he made about Chee Soon Juan himself. This short documentary included a few minutes of Chee's protest outside the Istana, the government compound, including the arrival of quite a large number of police, who bundled Chee into a police van despite his protests, a move that was captured remarkably well in See's video.
Four months on, the investigation is still continuing. First, See's video camera and computer were impounded, and now, his friends and associates are being called up by the police for questioning, even though they probably had nothing to do with the video.
Then there were the cardboard white elephants  put up outside the mothballed Buangkok metro station by anonymous persons, presumably to protest how the authorities cared little about the transport needs of the residents by not opening the station. The police then launched a witch hunt for the perpetrators of this vile deed, as they said the elephants had been put up without a police permit, violating the law.
Singaporeans generally ignore Chee Soon Juan, but Martyn See is well regarded in the film-making community, (and hauling in his friends has certainly annoyed an even wider circle of otherwise non-politicised people). The Buangkok issue has reverberated most, seeing what has been said on Singaporeans' weblogs.
Thus, by its own heavy-handed responses, the government has made the idea of civil disobedience quite noble.
* * * * *
Civil disobedience is a form of protest by which ordinary citizens willfully disobey a law that they consider wrong or unfair. The idea is to expose injustice and to shame the powers that designed and implement the law. This is done by the outraged citizen personally taking on the costs and perils of the law through peaceful resistance. From exposure so generated, moral legitimacy is taken away from the government and shifted to the victim.
After winning her third general election in 1987, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK introduced a new Community Charge, more popularly known as the Poll Tax. Hitherto, local government was substantially financed by a tax called "Rates", the amount of which was based on the value of the property you owned.
The Rates were a progressive tax, in that the better-off, who tended to live in houses with higher value, had to pay more tax, while poorer folks paid little.
For reasons which I do not fully understand to this day, Thatcher's Conservative government decided that the Rates were archaic and had to be replaced by the Poll Tax. This was a flat-rate tax, meaning that every adult in the same local-government area paid the same amount, though there were rebates for the really poor. Even so, there was a bottom floor requiring everybody to pay at least 20%. It was a more retrogressive tax than the Rates it replaced.
When the Poll Tax was introduced in 1990, there was widespread resistance. Town halls across the country were besieged by protestors. A large demonstration in London on 31 March 1990 saw some 250,000 people participating. This one and a few other protests turned ugly and rioting ensued.
However, what broke the law was not the intensity of protests, but the extent of civil disobedience. 18 million people simply refused to pay the Poll Tax, risking fines and imprisonment. In Scotland, the part of the UK where the Conservatives had the least voter support, non-payment was over 80%.
The cost to the government of demanding compliance would have been stratospheric. If the government were to go after every disobeying taxpayer, the paperwork would tie up all civil servants for a long time and probably bust the budget too.
Within months of this fiasco, other leaders of the Conservative Party ousted Margaret Thatcher, and in 1993, John Major, the new Prime Minister, repealed the Poll Tax.
Few examples of civil obedience had as wide a participation rate as the Poll Tax revolt of 1990. Yet, even one-man actions can undermine a law, if he gets enough attention.
Sixty years earlier, in 1930, Mohandas Gandhi set out on his Salt March. He was protesting the inequitable laws under which the manufacture of salt was a government monopoly in British-ruled India, involving exorbitant taxes. Now, salt is an essential ingredient in nutrition and it seemed to Gandhi terribly unfair that even the poorest were being taxed for it. Merely to gather naturally-occurring salt, such as by boiling off sea-water, was an offence.
Gandhi called salt "the only condiment of the poor" and he instinctively knew that more than any intellectual argument, an act of civil disobedience defying the salt laws would resonate with hundreds of millions of Indians, winning people over to his cause.
So after some preparation and media publicity, Gandhi set out at daybreak on 12 March 1930 with 78 disciples from his ashram outside Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He and his disciples would walk – yes, walk on foot through dirt tracks and muddy fields, and wade through streams as well -- some 350 km to the coastal village of Dandi. All along the route, thousands of well-wishers greeted him and provided resting places. Twice every day, Gandhi gave a talk at whichever village he rested, often addressing thousands. Every day, he woke at 4 am, picked up his walking stick, and walked.
Finally at Dandi, on the morning of 6 April 1930, he waded into a hollow of the beach and scooped out a handful of mud and salt and announced to the throng watching him, "with this salt I am shaking the foundation of the [British] empire."
For the next few weeks at Dandi, he and his disciples scooped out seawater and boiled it dry to extract the salt. Every day, he wondered when the British would arrest him. Finally, they did, but by then Gandhi had made his point and the arrest only crowned his moral victory.
Some Indians all over the country, inspired by him, did likewise, taking seawater and boiling it off. Though these followers weren't all that many, there were nonetheless not enough prisons to hold them all and so the police went around beating people instead. As you can imagine, this only made things worse.
However, we should not imagine that civil disobedience gives quick results. Governments can hold on for very long even as they look more and more out of touch by the day. Mohandas Gandhi's dream of an independent India wasn't realised until 17 years later, and only then were the salt laws repealed. 
* * * * *
Lee Hsien Loong told the Straits Times that "people want to explore social issues and political issues" which is code for acknowledging a growing demand for more political space. Yet he and Wong Kan Seng puff on about keeping all actions lawful.
In itself, it is not a contentious principle, but neither he nor Wong should feign ignorance of context.
For forty years, our laws have been bent here and stretched there so that they imprison the citizen, and particularly our opposition politicians, in various no-win situations.
Access to the mainstream media is tightly controlled by
editors who know they can only be as independent as the government allows.
If people bypass the mainstream media in trying to communicate with other
Singaporeans on political issues, they are slapped with the Broadcasting
Act (controlling political speech on the internet) or the Films Act
(videos); if you want to put up some placards or hold a march, then it's
the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act; and now we're suddenly alive to
the Sedition Act, Section 3(1)(a) of which criminalises anything
which brings "into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection
against the Government." You'd be well within your mental faculties
to wonder if that isn't the essential purpose of opposition politics in a
Apply for a licence as the law says you should, the government argues. But years of intimidation and negative example have led everybody to believe that while you can apply, it doesn't mean they will give.
You can go ahead and host a political website, the government says. Just put up a good behaviour bond in the order of tens of thousands of dollars and sign an undertaking to pay more damages if the censors later find something objectionable on your site. If you believe that people aren't bothered or silenced by such rules, you must be living in some cloud-cuckoo-land.
Go speak at the Speakers' Corner or organise your own indoor forum, the government says. But will you get an audience after everyone has been scared stiff of being on the wrong side of the government?
If you are not happy with the laws or with the way this government implements the laws, then change the government, the PAP says. For example, in his 5 August speech, Wong Kan Seng said,
How do they say "freely elected" with a straight face? Are we to pretend we don't see the gerrymandering of constituencies, the rapid hiking up of candidates' election deposits (making it prohibitively expensive to stand for election), the brutally short election campaign period, the defamation suits, the witch hunts and intimidatory police interrogations, and of course, the stranglehold the government has over the media?
When laws and regulations are designed to box people in tightly, and movement is impossible, something must break, or be broken. For the government to insist that the laws must be adhered to at all cost until changed through constitutional means, when the constitution itself has been twisted about, is either incredible naïveté or arrogant disingenuousness.
If the Prime Minister acknowledges a desire for more political space, it's his job to look at how that space can be provided, not to make silly comments about how any and every political video must necessarily trivialise or glamourise politics, nor equate our system of qualifying presidential candidates through a committee of 3 civil servants whose high-paying jobs depend on the favour of the Prime Minister with the openly democratic primary contests of American political parties.
Here's a rule of thumb: when law enshrines freedom, then advocacy for change can take place within the law. When law denies freedom, change may have to be sought outside it.
© Yawning Bread