Two unrelated events prompted me to think about the story about the
founding fathers of Singapore. The first came from reading the book "Lee's Lieutenants"
by Lam Peng Er and Kevin Tan, which depicted the story about the roles
and achievements of 15 interesting men who in 1959, accepted the
leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, our ex-Prime Minister of independent
Singapore and now our Minister Mentor. The other event is a night spent
with two friends, Bjorn and Michael
who I spent an evening in Ice Cool Bar, Singapore Management University
talking about the politics of Singapore from the present to the future.
For some time, my thoughts revolve around two interesting questions, "Is it necessary to politicize our youth?"
, and "How does our history help to shape our future?".
I believe that I have addressed the first question with a simple answer
that we should not politicize our youth. Ultimately, people should be
able to think for themselves what they want, from making personal
decisions that can affect the individual to following the political
ideology of his or her choice. The second question is not easy to
answer because we did not know much about our founding fathers other than our Minister Mentor. Oftentimes, not many people even know what rights a citizen is entitled to as stated by
the Singapore Constitution.
If we start from the first question, the opinion is that the freedom
to choose decides on how we shape our near future from our past and
present. In every nation which proceed from infant to maturity, the
struggles they face often look different from those who do not share
their perspective in the future. That is because the future is
different. The dogmas of the past is inadequate for the stormy present.
Unfortunately, with the change of guard for every generation, the
context and viewpoint in how our founding fathers made their decisions
on different aspects of nation building (from the economy to national
security) will be interpreted differently. So, how do we ensure we are
carrying the flags of our forefathers, not just our political leaders,
but the many citizens who have toiled with blood and sweat to create a
better future for us, the younger generation?
How much do we know about our Constitution?
Oftentimes, in our newspapers, there is the discussion of the
Singaporean identity. What is exactly the Singaporean identity? From
Singlish to the kiasu/kiasi culture, the government and the populace do
not seem to agree what the Singaporean identity should be. In fact, the
Singaporean is often perceived to be efficient and hardworking, and has
a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in the domain of
challenging traditional conventions.
Yet, no one can tell me what rights exactly the Singaporean are entitled to. Perhaps, the answer lies in an important document that is created since our independence: the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. In fact, here are the fundamental liberties for a Singapore citizen as stated with excerpts quoted from the constitution of Singapore:
- Liberty of a person: "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with law."
- Prohibition of slavery and forced labour: "No person shall be held in slavery."
- Protection against retrospective criminal laws and repeated trials: "No person shall be punished for an act or omission which was not punishable by law when it was done or made, and no person shall suffer greater punishment for an offence than was prescribed by law at the time it was committed."
- Equal protection: "All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law."
- Prohibition of banishment and freedom of movement: "No citizen of Singapore shall be banished or excluded from Singapore."
- Freedom of speech, assembly and association: "(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression; (b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and (c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations."
- Freedom of religion: "Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it."
- Right to education: "Without prejudice to the generality of Article 12, there shall be no discrimination against any citizen of Singapore on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth — (a) in the administration of any educational institution maintained by a public authority, and, in particular, the admission of pupils or students or the payment of fees; or (b) in providing out of the funds of a public authority financial aid for the maintenance or education of pupils or students in any educational institution (whether or not maintained by a public authority and whether within or outside Singapore)."
(Please note that I have not quoted the full context of the rights
of the citizen in this article. Interested readers, do check it out in
the the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore
which provides more details)
Of course, these liberties are not allowed if the citizen violates Part XII of the constitution. Despite there are critics that contest against some of the issues in Part XII, the rest of the populace does not really know or care about what they can do and what they cannot do. The analogy is like being a blogger. How do you know when you get into trouble with the words you say and the actions you perform?
The current young generation's disconnect lies in the lack of space
given for the threshold to be able to express themselves and the lack
of knowledge in our history (the stories that how our Founding Fathers
build this nation) and our lack of understanding in our constitution.
Our schools will start to educate and allow our kids to debate and
learn more about our history and constitution, we might be able to
instill a possible stint of patriotism in the younger generation who
might pack up and leave our shores due to the forces of globalization.
The Politics in Generation Next
"What the framework of our Constitution can do is organize the way by which we argue about our future." - Barack Obama, "The Audacity of Hope"
Before we discuss about what lies ahead in Singapore politics, let us examine how the US constitution has taken the Americans through songs of fire and ice. In Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope", he spoke of the interpretation of the US constitution instituted by the founding fathers that divides the ideology between the Democrats and Republicans. He argued that the constitution of the United States is designed to coerce everyone into a conversation and forces the citizens to engage in a process of pitting their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view and attempting to build consensus through alliances. So, whatever issue, be it healthcare and affirmative action, you find that making laws to regulate it to be extremely difficult. Someday, the lobbyists and special interests group wins and other days, the Congress who decide to end these unhealthy practices. As a result, the process in drafting legislation puts the US politicians into thinking that they cannot be always right and have the flexibility to change their decisions. The essence of the American constitution is to prevent absolute power by instilling a rejection of absolute truth that might lead the future generations to stay away from a single and bad course of action. You can see it demonstrated through the recent midterm elections, where the American people voiced their support against the president's policy of war.
So, what lessons can we learn from our own constitution? Currently, we have a dominant one party system that will stay in power for a long time. We are faced with the problem of forgetting history and the sweat and tears our founding fathers have laid to create the modern Singapore. Someday, with the passing of our founding fathers, another generation will challenge the current norms and tradition, similar to the older generation who fought against colonialism and communism to achieve their goal of independence. Perhaps, our politics is not one that even the opposition parties can now challenge and take the center ground. However, if there comes a day where our stability is challenged by unforeseen circumstances, different political ideologies will erupt and different political parties (old and new) will battle out for the hearts and minds of the people.
Prophetically (attributed to an insight with Bjorn during our discussion), to decide which political party to be the majority and build the government, lies in who can convince the public that they have the better interpretation of the vision of the founding fathers and the constitution which bind us all.
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Bjorn and Michael for that interesting discussion that leads to the writing of this post.