Tan Wah Piow is the exiled former President of the University of Singapore Students Union. He is currently an outspoken critic of the Singapore government and a proponent of the rule of law. He has recently published a recent book recently entitled ‘Smokescreens & Mirrors’ that basically rebuts the 1987 allegation that Tan was the mastermind behind the Marxist Plot to turn Singapore into a Marxists State. Tan calls the Marxist plot to overthrow the government baseless and an attempt by the government to invoke the ISA laws to deny him the right to be tried in the courts. Afraid of being incarcerated by the Singapore government Tan fled Singapore almost 36 years ago and has since been a citizen of the United Kingdom. Tan’s recent book calls for a reclaim of fundamental rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and the rejuvenation of bi-partisan politics in Singapore. He understands the need for an open society in Singapore and the role of the opposition in Singapore that has become an alternative voice of the people. Roy EdwardsIII a freelance correspondent, caught up with Tan recently in Thailand where he was delivering an address to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Thailand regarding the prelude to the Post Lee Kuan Yew era. He was joined by another author, political activists and lawyer Teo Suh Lung who wrote the book “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”. The event was hosted by Danthong Breen, the Chairman of the Union for Liberty based in Thailand.
Question and Answer
Do you see a more liberalized and democratic Singapore now with more opposition members in Parliament in Singapore?
The ultimate tests at the moment, you can see from the past elections and the attempt by the PAP to transform itself. But that transformation is more a reaction of the demands of the younger electorate in Singapore. That sort of transformation is still done within the confines of keeping the PAP in power. But the real tests of whether there is a fundamental attitude towards democracy are whether the PAP is willing to contemplate a system where the opponents can get into power themselves. A very simple tests would be weather the PAP would forego the control of the Straits Times. If the answer is NO then the transformation itself would not go very far enough to satisfy the requirements of the younger generation. The younger electorate is more sophisticated and not easily bribed by the material transformation which is promised by the government.
Is the ultimate ownership of the Straits Times important in the democratization process of Singapore?
It is a matter of editorial control. Journalists in the Straits Times follow a different beat. For example if you do an interview with me or Kenneth Jeyaratnam or with any of the opposition members of political parties would you as a journalist be able to write and get it published without editorial interference. I don’t believe at this stage you would be able to exercise your editorial integrity. And that itself is a real test for Singaporeans. You see for yourself during the coverage of the bi-elections the kind of mud that was thrown at the Worker Party’s candidate is unbelievable. If it were to be London or any other capital, this would not be the case where there is only one major paper or one major point of view.
Is the recent by-elections a case in point where more Singaporeans want to see more opposition in parliament?
I would think so. The younger electorate the under-35 are becoming more sophisticated due to the changing values in society. Economic development brings about more independence of thought. They are more individualistic and the ultimate defense of Asian values I think does not hold any water. The proponent of the Asian value, Mr Lee Kuan Yew since the 1980s onwards. Due to the development needs of the 1950s and 1960s and even 1970s, there was a need for an authoritarian regime. And that brings me to the fact that it was believed that to combat communism we need an authoritarian regime. Hence there was a need to support the argument for the need of Asian values. That has collapsed and does not hold any water even in new democracies like Korea and Taiwan. Both of them are considered liberal democracies and not compatible with Asian societies. This is the problem of the PAP.
Is Singapore still a façade democracy? What is the culture of silence you have spoken about in the past?
That culture of silence is being eroded by social media, younger generation and there still a great deal of fear. In the last general elections, some candidates that had originally wanted to stand for elections withdrew because of difficulties within the family. And that is the fear. They (The candidates) themselves have broken the fear but their families are holding them back. That fear should not exist altogether. That has to go. But the younger generation are less constrained but they are constrained by their parents. They tend to worry about their career. There is the implication of doing something that would identify them with the opposition especially if it’s a civil servant or an academic or a professional. That is the state of real fear in Singapore.
What does the book: “Escape from the Lion’s Paw” mean to you personally?
In the book I set out the events that led me to leave Singapore. And it also helps to define or describe the period that I went through which many younger generation would not have known. It’s not in the history books and in that sense it is trying to set the record straight because there is a vilification of not just of me but the whole generation of people in my time. The time has come to set the record straight. The younger generation has some interests in history which is relevant and in future how we define the political landscape for Singapore. The post Lee Kuan era is now and not in the future.
Do you foresee a time where Singapore would be having a two party system in place? Where the opposition would also be considered the majority and not just a minority?
I would see this as the only realistic option where we have a two party system in place. We see that kind of system in Korea and Taiwan. We see the transformation from military rule, the rule of very entrenched parties. We have seen bi-polar systems taking over. These are great manifestation that Asians are capable of dealing with differences within an adversarial system themselves. There are plus and minuses within that system. So far we have seen that it works.
Do you see the opposition united or divided for the next general elections? Do you foresee greater political freedom in Singapore? Which party is your favorite bet in the future?
My concern relates to the abolishment of structures for political control. These structures are the Internal Security Act (ISA) which I believe it should be abolished. All laws concerning society act, public assembly should all be dismantled and to replace them with human rights compatible structures. I believe that the control of the media by the ruling party is unhealthy and that should be done away with so that there is balance is political reporting. This includes both the print and Audio Visual media. Most of the opposition parties would push for these reforms. Some would push it more than others. Parties like SDP have been known to be vocally expressive while others are not.
Some say that by dismantling the ISA it would put Singapore at jeopardy especially with terrorist elements? Is that true?
There are societies where you don’t have detention without trial and these are advanced societies like the UK and the US where they face grave threats of terrorist attacks in the past like the IRA and Al Queda type attacks. But they resolve it by other means. Ensuring that these perpetrators of such crimes are put out of action. And it is not that by doing away with the ISA would be doing away with any form of control. Hence the ISA is part of the arson of the government to instill that culture of fear among its people. It is used very effectively from the 50s to the 80s and now it is probably more difficult for the government to use it against the recalcitrant because they could not resurrect a new bogeyman. As in the past in was the communists. In 1987 they resurrect this Marxist threat. It was so much so discredited that the government is too embarrassed to mention that incident. And that is why it is a reminder to the Singapore population that it was one incident by the Singapore government that they need to apologize. Those within the PAP will have to search their conscious. It is not that a mere 22 or 24 people were affected. How could a modern state live with itself after doing such wrong to its people. How can it live with itself knowing that it managed to cow a whole generation of social activists back in the 1980s?
Do you see the internal dynamics of the PAP changing with the shifting of the old guard and younger MPs and Ministers taking over the helm? Do you see more relaxing of the old rules or a reverse taking place?
That tension between the PAP at the moment is not obvious. They themselves suffer from a very Leninist type of control, the system within the party. So far I have not come across anyone that is able to express themselves freely. I have not come across anyone that has critized the fundamental control of the media. And so far any lip service is towards the degree of transformation and the degree they would respond to electoral complaints. So far they have not done enough. And this is out of fear for their own position. With such great remuneration they may not even earn a fraction of that in the private sector.
Are salary remuneration and perks and benefits driving public service in Singapore then?
In a decent society and a successful society there would always be people that would give their services for very little. Meaning they would perform public service not for the remuneration. The greatest award to public service is the public recognition itself. And that is greater than material reward. It is sad if a society like Singapore is unable to produce such people for a ruling party so much so that they need to be remunerated because they don’t have such characters that would be willing to do public service. I remember that Toh Chin Chye made a public complaint about this particular matter. If we look at the dynamics of the change of personalities at the end the last man standing defending this is Lee Kuan Yew and many of his vocal colleagues that disagree with that system of reward are now all gone. It is sad that they only way to find public servants is through this system of reward. This is the argument that the public cannot be expected to make sacrifices and lower their salaries while their leaders are rewarded according to the rate of the GDP of the economy. You look at any advanced society many of the leaders are living according to the standards of probably a professional person but not excessive.
How often do you meet up with students, opposition politicians and activists from Singapore? Whom have u met recently?
I meet up with all kinds of people when they travel up to the UK or when I have a chance to travel to Asia. For example two weeks ago, I attended a talk at the school of Asia African studies where there were some Singaporeans around. There was a public meeting and I spoke about Operation Spectrum as it was the 25th anniversary of the Operation (Spectrum). And the event that was to happen at Tanglin Park in Singapore. So there are always opportunities to meet up. Yes I come to Malaysia often as well.
Do you foresee a time you will be “forgiven” and you will be accepted back to Singapore? And even participate in political discussions?
Coming back to Singapore? Yes but the question is when. Playing a political role as far as I am concerned is not just electoral politics. I have not confined myself just to such a narrow spectrum. I would like to contribute more towards the development of a democratic culture. And that is more my immediate interests and that has in fact been my interests since my student days.
Is there someone you would idolize in Singapore politics and shared similar beliefs like you?
Someone like JB Jeyaretnam who single handedly tried to raise the issues of justice, fairness and human rights. Fighting always that lone battle against an active establishment with very little public support requires a lot of stamina and personal demands. His sacrifice is so great for Singapore. It’s such a shame that he is not honored and recognized by the Singapore state at the time of his death. He is someone that was driven by his liberal beliefs. He was fighting a very lone war. I think he should be remembered for his contributions to the development of democracy in Singapore.