16 January 2007

Why non-violence is not mischief

Charles Tan looks at the way others have used non-violent civil action to press their points of view, and wonders why Singaporeans dismiss this strategy. Guest essay.


Anonymous said...

Often the argument forwarded for passive, if not absence of, resistence to injustice in Singapore is its strict laws. Yet I often wonder if this itself is an excuse for a lack of appreciation of civil disobience or an uncaring attitude brought on by complacency.

If it was a case of lacking appreciation then what Dr Chee and many of his supporters had done (and is still doing) would not be in vain. Ater all it is only a case of getting people to be less ignorant.

If it was a case of complacency due to a profound believe that the status quo is right or simply slightly dysfunctional and only in need of minor adjustment, then Dr Chee et al's effort will definitely be in vain. Frankly, one will need a major catastrophe to bring about a mindset change.

I fear, if I had to hazard an opinion about the mindset of Singaporean, there is a deeply in-grained cultural aversion to civil disobience driven in part by a highly individualistic, a fervour for expediency and a materialist attitude. I am thus incline to the complacency reasoning. As long as such attitude can be satisfied, the effort of Dr Chee et al will be seen unsympathetically or worst subversive.

Personally, I sympathise and laud the efforts of Dr Chee et al. However, I wonder if Singaporeans are really worthy of such sacrifice s?

Herein is my dilemma, should I support the cause of civil disobience in the Singapore context or should I go with the notion of tough love and let Singaporean simply learn the folly of their attitude through catastrophe?

KiWeTO said...

why isn't it taking hold as an idea?

Some additional points to ponder:

1. Indoctrination in school.

The legalistic traditions that we are educated under means that one is taught to always run to the official in charge for redress, rather than seek to convince the greater majority that there is an issue that needs redressing by all, and not just the ruling 'power'.

Other sub-factors:

1.1 The repression of all things political. We are encouraged to stay under the radar, not rock the boat, not stir up trouble, not be the nail that sticks out; all the above behaviors discourage initiative. We are taught to wait for the 'powers' to pronounce. The lack of any political training through classroom elections (and any real power that comes from being 'elected') means that politics within SG society has been reduced to something undesirable - We're better off just working hard, and letting our learned 'betters' run the government (and therefore society).

2. Social cohesion leading to apathy

Do we really feel like a community? or are we just a nexus of economic and social contracts? What is the higher ideal that Singaporeans revel in being Singaporeans? Food?
Family? Which principle or ideal do the majority of all Singaporeans subscribe to? Pragmatism?

If the only higher ideal that all of us subscribe to is pragmatism, then on an individual level, civil disobedience would be seen as an unproductive approach. Standing around waving placards to emphasize a philosophical/political point is fruitless to the pragmatist.

3. Increasing awareness - the lack of an independent press

For a city of 4 million, we seem to be in perpetual intellectual anorexia. The lack of any kind of printed diversity in local views (see Newspapers and Printing Presses Act for details), means that there can never really develop a emotionally supportive segment of society that will empathize/sympathize with the civil disobedients' cause. All we are interested as a society is news that comes in tabloid genre - trashy, fantasy-world reports of other things ongoing that only aim to titilate rather than contemplate.
(truly, titilate the masses, and all power pf theirs be yours.)

What we have here is for all intents and purposes, 1984. The citizens are told what to believe, believe what they are told, and that the powers can never be wrong. As long as nobody upsets the apple cart, it keeps going.

Is there hope? Venice in its heyday was more than a nexus of economic contracts in the 14th century. It was an economic and military power with an identity.

Can Singapore become the Venice of the 21st century? What aspirations do we have for this country as its members? or do we only have individual interests?


Anonymous said...


1) Personally, I'm a great admirer of non-violence/peaceful acts of protests as practised by MLK and Mahatma Gandhi. However, I just can't identify with CSJ. I admit that he is passionate about his cause but I don't sense the same dignity in him as in the aforementioned pair of people e.g. that crazy incident chasing after GCK in Jurong. Somehow, I don't think MLK or Gandhi would do something like that. Furthermore, some of the policies, etc. that he proposes are pretty impractical. I think for non-violent acts to achieve recognition, you must first have people's respect

2) Although I am not gay, I can venture a reason why people have not employed such a method. This probably applies to most Singaporeans with any sort of cause to speak of. I feel that it's most likely because most Singaporeans realize that they have too much to lose and too little to gain. One of my friends, who is gay but holds a pretty good job with an investment bank, tells me "What's the point? You get fired and lose a lot (materially, at least). The current situation is bearable." That is what makes the PAP so clever... they know that you don't want to corner people and make them desperate... you satisfy the material cravings and when they realise they have too much to lose, then...

Anonymous said...

your title is wrong; civil disobedience is the issue, to protest against laws you disagree with; non-violence is just to ensure focus on the original objective

whether civil disobedience is mischief depends on the justification for the law being protested against; the lack of popular support for the civil disobedience protests could be used to justify it "the people dont mind it so we keep it"; thus, the protests undercut themselves

I believe the opposition would be better off putting effort into (a) it demonstrates democratic principles in running itself (b) it anticipates the government in proposing needed changes

Teck Soon said...

This is an excellent essay.

Charles, might some members of the gay community in Singapore consider turning themselves in for breaking Section 377 of the penal code? This involves no protest and is also not mischievous. This would, however, force the authorities to either publicly enforce these insidious laws, or rather make Singapore look like a place where lawbreakers (of quite serious "seizable offences" I might add) run amok -- a country without the rule of law. Why not publicly "confess", on blogs or at a police station, as follows:

"I am a criminal. I have committed a serious, seizable offense, violating Section 377 and 377A of the penal code on multiple occasions. I confess and am ready to be arrested."

I don't think confessing to a crime would be viewed as mischief, do you?

Anonymous said...

Rather, the question is, "Why are Dr Chee and his team so eager to try this non-violence thing when history has proven that the governing party has never relented and the general public simply don't care?"

Anonymous said...

"Herein is my dilemma, should I support the cause of civil disobedience in the Singapore context or should I go with the notion of tough love and let Singaporean simply learn the folly of their attitude through catastrophe?"

Tough love is the answer all along. Applicable to Singaporeans and also equally to the govt. Govt says, hey you Singaporeans not giving birth! I say tough. Hey you Singaporeans got to be more courteous and welcome foreigners! I say tough. Hey you Singaporeans got to donate more to charities. I say tough. This is the kind of social compact that exists in Singapore now. Well, tough. Let's not think too deeply over such issues, better to think for oneself and plan an exit.

charles said...

Replying to Teck Soon, perhaps what we can do (those interested) is to turn up as a group at a police station and state that we have all committed the offense, violating Section 377 and 377A of the penal code on multiple occasions.

Of course the details can all work be worked out on what to say, how to react, and that we will not leave the station until complaints are processed ... ...

Though me thinks we shd have legal aid if they do decide to bring us to court...

Anonymous said...

We need to recognize that institutions and people are forever engaged in a mutual tug of war.

For Singaporeans, our role has become subjugated by our institutions, and it is no longer about finding the paths of resistance but rather about summoning the will be engage inresistance against an insitution's encroachment onto our individuality.

Perhaps when enough of political will is summoned, then action can be take to (however the means) take back our powers as individuals.