Straits Times: Erasing the fear factor



Whether they are real or perceived, the Remaking Singapore committee wants clarity on out-of-bound or OB markers so that ordinary people can talk politics without fear of reprisal. Senior Political Correspondent LYDIA LIM looks at the issue and those who crossed the OB markers and lived to tell the tale.

THERE are two views on the out-of-bounds or OB markers that have, for so long, delimited political discussion here.

The first is that the OB markers are real, as real as the out-of-bounds line at golf courses, from which the phrase was first borrowed.

A golfer who hits a ball out of bounds is deemed out of play and incurs a penalty.

Similarly, some Singaporeans fear reprisal if they should unwittingly stray beyond the political OB markers in word or deed. That is why they want the Government to define these markers clearly.

The second view is that OB markers exist only in the minds of “thick-skinned” Singaporeans, who want a guarantee that what they say will not invite a rebuttal from the Government.

Those who subscribe to this view say that Singaporeans should stop using OB markers as an excuse for their lack of courage.

Reflecting these divergent views, members of the Remaking Singapore committee were themselves split over how best to encourage more open discussions.

Should they do so by urging Singaporeans to claim their right as citizens to speak up on all issues, as long as they stayed within the law?

Or should they place the onus on the Government to clear the fairways of political discourse by defining the boundaries?

Mr Raymond Lim, who chaired the panel that dealt with this issue, says his personal preference was for the first approach.

In an e-mail reply to Insight, he writes: “I see citizen engagement as organic and relational and as such, it would evolve and turn not just on the say-so of the Government but by people exercising their right to speak up and be heard.”

Despite this, he decided to support his panel members’ proposal for a green lane, red lane approach to defining political OB markers.

The red lane is for those engaged in big P politics – that is action and speech directly linked to electioneering and party politics. These will get closer scrutiny.

The green lane is to enable free-flowing discussions on small p politics, including debates on government policies. The only caveat – these discussions must not compromise sovereignty, security and religious or ethnic harmony.

Mr Warren Fernandez, a member of Mr Lim’s panel, explained that the members wanted to craft a “broad enabling statement” to encourage Singaporeans to speak up.

But they also felt the need to reassure the many who remain wary of doing so because of incidents like the 1994 Catherine Lim affair, during which Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong challenged the writer to join a political party if she wanted to comment regularly on politics.

This happened not long after the Government said it was in favour of more openness and consultation.

Since then, other critical Singaporeans have received sharp words from the Government. Most of them are none the worse for it, saying that they were not deterred.

However, the resulting public perception is that commenting on politics is a risky enterprise.

Mr Fernandez, who is also The Straits Times Foreign Editor, says that the panel first tried to draw up a list of OB markers but found it to be “a near-impossible task”.

They asked themselves if race and religion, for example, should be beyond OB markers, or policies such as transport-fare hikes and streaming in schools, or the People’s Action Party and its leaders.

Their conclusion: clearly not.

They found that “any attempt to define the OB markers would be fraught with disputes about where the markers should lie, and when and how they should be moved”.

In the end, they felt the best approach was to employ the big P, small p distinction, and open up a green lane for the majority of Singaporeans who want their say on policies but have no intentions of contesting for power.

Some like Ms Chang Li Lin, a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies, hopes the Government will accept the panel’s proposal.

It will, she says, be a “strong signal” that there is now more space for a free exchange of views.

“However, even without this political gesture, there is already a smaller group of people who are using and negotiating the current space,” she notes.

Insight catches up with three of these individuals who have, in their own way, been trying to remake political discourse here.

‘Markers exist only in people’s minds’

Hauled up twice by the police for questioning regarding his political activities, Mr James Gomez remains unfazed.

WHEN Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong chided the Think Centre in 2001 for being “one-sided in its presentation of articles and views”, the group’s founder, Mr James Gomez, cheered.

The Government’s criticism came at a time when Mr Gomez was handing over the organisation to new leaders. “I distinctly remember telling the next team: ‘The Think Centre has come of age to be mentioned in the National Day Rally’,” he told Insight in a telephone interview from Bangkok.

While the public perceived Mr Gomez and the Think Centre to have crossed the political OB markers and thereby invited unpleasant repercussions, the 38-year-old activist saw things differently.

He denied that the centre had crossed any line, and added that he did not feel crushed, embarrassed or afraid. Nor did his friends, colleagues or family members tell him to back off lest he further offend the authorities, he said.

In fact, the centre released a statement rebutting PM Goh’s comments just a day later, saying PM Goh had misinterpreted the centre as being openly critical of the Government.

“To me, the whole concept of OB markers is problematic,” said Mr Gomez. The concept does not exist in law, he noted. “It exists in some people’s minds, but that’s their problem,” he said.

So he is unfazed, even though he has been hauled up by the police for questioning on two consecutive days after a seminar organised by the Roundtable and a Human Rights Day demonstration at Hong Lim Park which the police deemed “an illegal assembly”.

And when he and his comrades ran into walls while organising the Save JBJ rally, they pressed on.

The smooth-talking regional communications manager said repeatedly they study the law very carefully and avoid transgressing it. Yet his actions so far are probably more than other Singaporeans would dare to copy, even if they agreed with his views.

He attributes his courageous streak to his father, a union leader.

“I grew up in a household whose philosophy was that nothing is impossible,” he said.

Mr Gomez is also one of the few civil society activists who decided to venture into partisan politics. He joined the Workers’ Party, and is now an assistant secretary-general of the WP.

“I felt it was the most effective way to contribute to the legislation process,” he said. – NEO HUI MIN

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