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Who is allowed to speak?

‘LAWYERS, because of their training and education and their involvement, often tend to have views on civil liberties, politics and civil society.And I think they should take part in civil society in their individual capacities.

But the law society, as an organisation, should not. Can it really express the will of all its members, which is what it would be purporting to do in politics, and throw its weight behind one or another organisation?

We’ve always looked at politics and expression of those views as something that should be done within the framework of political parties. If you want to do that, join a political party. Don’t use a civil or civic or professional organisation as a cover for engaging in politics.’

On whether there is room for the law profession to play a more active role in civic society

‘I think our libel laws work very well. Under the American system, as long as you come into public life, you’re fair game and anyone can say anything about you, whether or not it’s true. I don’t believe that to be the right system because I feel that if you want to encourage good people to come into public service, then their reputation and integrity must also be protected.

I did hold these views even then, when I represented IHT when it was sued. I was already a government MP. But I’ve taken an oath to defend my clients. The fact that they’ve published an article which proved to be defamatory doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to defence as best as the defence can be put up.

On whether Singapore leaders resort too hastily to suing for libel. Mr Shanmugam had acted both for and against Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in libel cases. In 1995, he represented the International Herald Tribune

I am a nerd so I subscribe to legal news on the Singapore Law Watch… when this came in my reader, I really wasn’t sure what to think about it. This was a stub of a feature article ST did on Shanmugam when he got his “promotion”.

I try, you know. I try very hard not to get riled up about local politics, because I know it ain’t good for my blood pressure, and I try not to blog about it. But certain things really just rub me the wrong way.

Well everyone should already know that the Law Society has been silenced on political matters since the 1980s. Old news. You don’t need to ask my views on it, you would already know. But it is the second part that really puzzles me – maybe Shanmugam has used the wrong words, and his message has come out all wrong. Let’s examine this sentence:

We’ve always looked at politics and expression of those views as something that should be done within the framework of political parties. If you want to do that, join a political party. Don’t use a civil or civic or professional organisation as a cover for engaging in politics.

We take away two lessons from this:

1. If you are not in a political party, you have no voice about the political issues that concern you

2. Engaging in politics is wrong, it is something to be avoided at all costs by Ordinary People

So, okay, we Ordinary People with our jobs and GST rises and transport fare hikes can’t complain about any of it. If we want to do anything, we HAVE to join a political party, because, you know, everyone has the free time to join WP or SDP after we’ve worked 10 hours a day, fed the kids, cleaned the house and worry about how to make the ends meet this month.

Okay, let’s say I do indeed roll up my sleeves and join a political party. What would I get? Disrespect. Not-so-randomly changing constituency boundaries. Police following my every move, or at least the feeling, the climate of fear, that nothing I do is private. License denied for every single thing I apply for, even innocent bike rides. Cornered at the Speaker’s Corner. Called a liar in the national newspaper and not being able to do anything about it. The only place where they might possibly be able to say anything without repercussions is the Parliament, if you ever get that far – which means the entirety of the dissident opinion in Singapore rests on 2 out of 84 people (not counting NMPs and NCMPs). Outside Parliament, there are regulations everywhere on what I can and cannot say, and especially during elections.

Ordinary People, even if they have the time and commitment to join a political party, have already been intimidated by all the things done to opposition party members, and there is no way they are putting everything they’ve worked for at stake just to be able to say something about the ministerial pay hikes. Not that they even get to say anything about it. How often do newspapers report on opposition party members?

So, is the only recourse to having a voice, joining PAP? Let me clarify I am not particularly anti-PAP, nowadays. I admire a lot of things they’ve done. But that does not mean I am able to condone the fact that there is no freedom of speech to speak of, outside the water-tight cocoon of PAP. (And you wonder why, the younger generation seems to have no interest in politics.)

And here I come to my two key points that I want to make about this issue:

Engagement in political discourse is not to be conflated with the practice of politics. Political discourse is not something reserved for the elite, for the select few that have the connections and opportunities to get into the practice of politics, but rather, it is a right given to the entire democracy. Everyone, from the housewives to the academics to the roadsweeper to the students have the full right to engage in political discourse, in voicing their opinions on what matters to them, and what they care about. There is absolutely no ground to declare that in order to obtain this right, they have to go into the practice of politics.

The same right extends to not just individuals, but organisations – all it means is that the entire organisation, or maybe the ones running it, will have to bear the responsibility and deal with the consequences of the statements they make, just as individuals deal with theirs. What sense does it make for organisations to be barred the right to their views, when the ordinary citizen is not? Granted, the statement is stronger when made by an established group of people – I am rather more inclined to listen to a statement issued by the Singapore Medical Association that smoking is bad for me, rather than a single doctor. So, the only possible reason anyone can give to barring freedom of speech for organisations is that they do not want strong views that might influence the public. Which in itself is a morally reprehensible reason, because it suggests one knows they are wrong, and do not want people pointing it out too loudly. Can anyone spell censorship, at this point?

Really, what’s new?


April 19, 2008 - Posted by | Law, Politics | , ,


  1. How’s your blood pressure? =D

    Comment by Agagooga | April 20, 2008 | Reply

  2. We’re all allowed to speak, don’t let the doors close on you.

    Politics is a part of everyday life. Opinions are like hair, everyone has them.

    Comment by celluloidrealitys | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. […] Freedom, Choice and a place for my Voice – Used Brains For Sale: Who is allowed to speak? […]

    Pingback by Daily SG: 21 Apr 2008 « The Singapore Daily | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  4. It’s Shanmugam, not Shanmugaratnam. 🙂

    Comment by Zixian | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  5. Gah, I am sorry. Confused him with the other long unpronounceable name.

    Comment by pleinelune | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  6. sure, everyone can speak. but i am more interested in what has been said then who is saying it. if we are going to give everyone a fair hearing, we need to look beyond the clout, the brand, the titles and even the achievements.

    or there will always be….2 out of 84!

    Comment by siaoah | April 21, 2008 | Reply

  7. or IT will always be….2 out of 84!

    Comment by siaoah | April 21, 2008 | Reply

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