Monday, November 24, 2014

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Myth of Asian values


Lao-Tsé (Image - widodo, Wikimedia Commons)
Lao-Tsé (Image – widodo, Wikimedia Commons)
By Bryan Cheang

In the past, Singaporean political leaders have perpetuated this idea that since we are an Asian society, Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are inapplicable to us. According to this “Asian Values” argument, since we are a Chinese society, we adopt a Confucian social ethic, which is fundamentally different and opposed to those Western liberal ideas.

Lee Kuan Yew famously made this statement: “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries…What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.” He did so in a speech entitled ‘Democracy, Human Rights and the Realities’, in Tokyo, Nov 10, 1992.

To some extent this has influenced the outlook of many Singaporeans, who may approach liberal ideas with caution and believe that they cannot (or should not) take root here. However, I insist that such an outlook is mistaken. I have many arguments against this “Asian Values discourse’, which includes how this may be a convenient excuse to justify authoritarianism.

However, in this article, I seek to show that liberal values of freedom are not exclusively Western, but are actually present universally in many cultures and histories. Since many people think that Chinese philosophy is necessarily anti-liberal or at least not conducive to it, I will use examples from Chinese history to show why there is no good reason for Asian societies to be against liberalism also.

Liberalism
John Locke (image - Wikimedia Commons)
John Locke (image – Wikimedia Commons)
Let me first clarify what I mean by liberalism. By this I refer to the body of thought that places a premium on human freedom and individualism. In short, liberals believe that an individual person is sovereign, and deserves equal freedom with everyone else in society. John Locke, considered as the father of classical liberalism, said that individuals are born with natural rights to life, liberty and property.

The government’s job is thus to protect these rights, nothing more. Liberalism implies restrictions on the power of government because it fears the concentration of political power. Power corrupts; so liberals want to limit government and simultaneously protect an individual’s private sphere of action, which the government should not be invading. In such a society, an individual can pursue his own plans, his own goals, his own dreams and ideas of the good life, so long he remains peaceful and not violate the equal rights of other people. Any action that is peaceful will be legal and allowed.

The word ‘liberal’ can mean many things; in fact I do not refer to the use of the word ‘liberal’ in America. A ‘liberal’ in the US is a left wing social democrat who believes in economic redistribution and progressive taxation. I am using the word liberal in the original sense; it is classical liberalism, not modern social liberalism. Classical liberals are also called libertarians, so as to make this distinction.

Lao Tzu and Daoism

In Chinese philosophy, there are many schools of thought. Though Confucianism is a dominant one, it is by no means definitive. Daoism was also a major ideology in ancient china. Lao Tzu was one of its foremost proponents. An analysis of this will reveal that in many ways, Lao Tzu and his concepts were an early exposition of libertarian ideas!

Lao Tzu worked out the view that the individual and his happiness was the key unit of society. (This is individualism). If social institutions hampered the individual’s flowering and his happiness, then those institutions should be reduced or abolished altogether. To the individualist Lao Tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers.”
Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum; “inaction” became the watchword for Lao Tzu, since only inaction of government can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. This stems from the famous principle of “wu wei”, understood roughly as “non-action” or “non-intervention”. Any intervention by government, he declared, would be counterproductive, and would lead to confusion and turmoil.
Confucius, Tang Dynasty (image - Wikimedia Commons)
Confucius, Tang Dynasty (image – Wikimedia Commons)
The first political economist to discern the systemic effects of government intervention, Lao Tzu, after referring to the common experience of mankind, came to his penetrating conclusion: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished — The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

The worst of government interventions, according to Lao Tzu, was heavy taxation and war. “The people hunger because theft superiors consume an excess in taxation” and, “where armies have been stationed, thorns and brambles grow. After a great war, harsh years of famine are sure to follow.” The wisest course is to keep the government simple and inactive, for then the world “stabilizes itself.”

As Lao Tzu put it: “Therefore, the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quiescence and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves.”

Therefore, we should realise, even if we’re surprised, that there are libertarian currents of thought even in Ancient China.

In Murray Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought, it is said that:
“Taoist thought flourished for several centuries, culminating in the most determinedly anarchistic thinker, Pao Ching-yen, who lived in the early fourth century AD, and about whose life nothing is known. Elaborating on Chuang-Tzu, Pao contrasted the idyllic ways of ancient times that had had no rulers and no government with the misery inflicted by the rulers of the current age. In the earliest days, wrote Pao, “there were no rulers and no officials. [People] dug wells and drank, tilled fields and ate. When the sun rose, they went to work; and when it set, they rested. Placidly going their ways with no encumbrances, they grandly achieved their own fulfilment.” In the stateless age, there was no warfare and no disorder:
Where knights and hosts could not be assembled there was no warfare afield — Ideas of using power for advantage had not yet burgeoned. Disaster and disorder did not occur. Shields and spears were not used; city walls and moats were not built — People munched their food and disported themselves; they were carefree and contented.””
How about Confucianism then? Well, it is erroneous to see it through authoritarian lens. Roderick Long here in his excellent piece demonstrates how Confucianism is anti-authoritarian and non-coercive, and actually favours voluntarism and liberty.

Universal

In every civilization and culture, there are really two narratives: one of freedom and liberty, the other of coercion, domination and oppression. In Western societies and states there have been serious regressions to totalitarianism and illegitimate coercion of people, and even in non-western societies, there have been developments and acceptances of individual liberty and constitutionally limited government. Did you know that the first ever recorded word for “freedom” is “ama-gi”, an early Sumerian word?

How about Islamic culture and theology then? Surely Islam is incompatible with liberalism, given all the authoritarianism we see concentrated in Muslim countries? Once again there is nothing within Islam that should forbid the peaceful pursuit of individual ends (which is what liberalism espouses).
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, has written numerous books which include “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”. In an article on Huffpost, his views were further explained and communicated; those interested should read him carefully. What this shows me is that religion need not (and should not) divide us, all religions can come together and affirm the principle of liberty, which will in turn allow the peaceful pursuit of various religious ends.
It is thus highly misleading to see one civilisation as having a “monopoly on the ideas or the practice of liberty”. There is nothing intrinsically Western or European of the philosophy of freedom and individual liberty. The principle of individual liberty and its restrictions on state power and promotion of civil liberties have always been found in the histories of different civilisations. They were gradually developed over time in different places – through the perennial clash between tyranny and freedom – and came to greatest fruition in the Enlightenment; that they first flourished most in the West doesn’t make it an intrinsically Western notion.

So yes, as Singaporeans, there is no reason why we’re so Chinese and Eastern (or whatever) that we can’t accept the common-sensical liberal tenets of peace, voluntarism and freedom.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Singapore activists speak about their police interrogations

Source: Singapore Rebel

A police investigation is not something that most civil activists would look forward to. It is an annoyance and an intrusion. But given the State's liberal enforcement of our many illiberal laws, such a prospect can never be totally discounted.

In the wake of the police interrogation of Han Hui Hui, former lawyer and ISA detainee Teo Soh Lung had written a brief guide on what to do when one is summoned for police investigation.

Her views are further expanded here by other human rights advocates and filmmakers who had spent hours on the interrogatee's chair. Some were eventually prosecuted, others were not. Their experiences and advices offer snapshots on the extent of police powers in Singapore, and some methods by which activists can use to overcome their fear of isolation and prosecution.



Seelan Palay

Describe your role in civil society: Activist, Artist, Video/Filmmaker

Years active: From 2004 to present

How many police interrogations have you undergone? I believe 7-10

What were the nature of the investigations? Flyer distribution, assembly without permit, screening of political film

How did the police serve the notices? Hand delivered to my house

Total number of hours under interrogation? Each time is about an hour

Have you ever been formally charged? Yes

How much fine did you pay? I did not pay the fine

How many days of prison time did you undergo? 12 days

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line? 
Every single time they arrest and charge us for "illegal assembly and/or procession", especially the way they surrounded and forcefully arrested us during our Tak Boleh Tahan march from Parliament House.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work? 
I answered almost every question by citing that I was only excercising my constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly. I believe this is a good way to answer and remind people/authorities about those rights, and to avoid any incrimination through the questions that the police ask you. 

Chong Kai Xiong

Describe your role in civil society: Not sure what to write here

Years active: from end 2006 to present

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 
5 in total in connection to the following events:
- 10 Dec 2006 Human Rights Day Walk,
- 16 Sep 2007 IMF/WB anniversary walk,
- 15 March 2008 TBT rally/walk from Parliament House (arrested)
- 9 August 2008 TBT National Day
- 12 Jan 2009 MOM Protest (arrested)

What were the nature of the investigations? Arrested twice. Questioned for participation in assembly or procession without permit for four times and once for “criminal trespassing”.

How did the police serve the notices? By registered mail and by coming to my doorstep.

Total number of hours under interrogation? 1 to 1.5 hours each time.

Have you ever been formally charged? Yes, thrice.

How much fine did you pay? Approximately $3500

How many days of prison time did you undergo?  None

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line?

Arrested outside MOM for “criminal trespassing” even though I was standing on public pavement, shared with loads of pedestrians; obstruction of procession and forcible removal of placards during arrest (TBT protest) without proper reason given.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?

- Meet with your peers and seek legal advice.
- Keep calm and firm and don't let anyone goad or guilt trip you. Know you have done nothing wrong and it is the police that has to justify their actions.
- Do not volunteer information for whatever reason. It will likely be used against you or your peers in court.
- Do not make self-incriminating statements, or statements implicating others.
- Refuse to answer where possible.
- Check through the printout of the recorded statement given by the investigation officer. Make sure your words have been accurately recorded.
- Ask for a copy of the statement; if the police refuses to hand you one, manually copy the questions and answers down.

Tian Jing
Years active: 2006-2010 

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 3 interviews

What were the nature of the investigations? Illegal Assembly without permit, illegal procession, attempted procession

How did the police serve the notices? Letter by hand
Total number of hours under interrogation? 30 minutes to 1 hour

Have you ever been formally charged? Yes, 1 charge

How much fine did you pay? $1000

How many days of prison time did you undergo? None

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?

There is no need to answer anything in the investigation, there's no obligation. Just say no comments.

Rachel Zeng
Describe your role in civil society: I work on human rights issues and in recent years, I have been focusing on the campaign against the death penalty. I have also worked on issues pertaining to G8, (conducted a protest outside the Japanese embassy in 2008), ISA, Burma, freedom of speech and assembly, the atrocities in Sri Lankan, LGBT rights (as an ally), among others.

Years active: From 2008 to now.

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 2

What were the nature of the investigations?
Disributing flyers outside Liat Towers (on the case of Yong Vui Kong) and selling Once a Jolly Hangman during Freedom Film Festival at the Substation.

How did the police serve the notices?
For the first case, they sent the notice to me thrice - personally, by registered post, and via normal post. In the second case, the Investigating Officer (IO) came personally to my flat and served it to me in person - at about 7.15am in the morning.

Total number of hours under interrogation? First case - about an hour; second case - close to 2 hours.

Have you ever been formally charged? No.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line?

I was told by the IO in the first investigation, "I am the one doing the questioning" when I repeatedly asked him why he was asking me certain questions which I felt were irrelevant. This might not be out of line, as he did try to maintain his cool but I just wanted to put this down anyway.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?

Before investigation - read up on the particular act that you are investigated under, and identify which clauses you have violated, and which ones actually protect you. If you can, bring a copy of the act along for reference in case you need to challenge the IO. Always inform fellow activists that you will be investigated, and if possible, do not go alone. Also, if the stipulated date and time of the investigation is inconvenient for you, feel free to change it.

During the questioning - ask the IO if you will be able to get a copy of your signed statement, and if the answer is no, establish an agreement to take down notes of the questions and answers. If they aren't rude, be nice about it, but maintain the stand that you must have some sort of a record for your personal reference. During the questioning, keep your answers short and clear. If the questions are irrelevant, just say so. Just be frank, and don't need to lie, and be confident about your answers. Get out of it as soon as you can, and do bring a jacket if you are at Cantonment Police Complex.

Martyn See

Describe your role in civil society: Documentary filmmaker, blogger

Years active: From 2005 

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 6 interrogations

What were the nature of the investigations? 
Making of a political film 'Singapore Rebel' and organising a private indoor human rights forum featuring foreign MPs

How did the police serve the notices? Mostly by calls to my mobile phone, and once via registered mail.

Total number of hours under interrogation? About 11 hours over 6 sessions.

Have you ever been formally charged? No.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line? 

During the 'Singapore Rebel' investigations, my video camera was confiscated, but at no point did I surrender my mobile phone, so it came as a shock when friends informed me that they were called up by the police to attend questioning over my case. 

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work? 

Civil activists under investigation need to be mentally prepared. Other than M. Ravi, lawyers will not be forthcoming. Audio-visual recordings are prohibited in the interrogation room, although you can bring your mobile devices. When summoned, ascertain with the police the exact law under which you are being investigated. In the interrogation room, take your time to formulate replies but keep them short. Don't be afraid to answer "I don't know", "no comment" or "I don't remember". Bring a notepad. Officers tend to be professional and cordial in cases involving civil rights, but do avoid being lulled into providing unnecessary information.

Leslie Chew

Describe your role in civil society: Observer

Years active: from 2011 to 214

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 1

What were the nature of the investigations? Accused of sedition

How did the police serve the notices? No notice. Direct arrest and detained for around 44 hours before bail is allowed. Then forbidden to travel out of the country for 3 months while they take their own sweet time to decide that they have no ground to charge me for sedition.

Total number of hours under interrogation? Over 30 hours.

Have you ever been formally charged? Not for sedition.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line?
Seizing all the computers and data storage devices in my parents' home including my elderly father's work computer "for investigation".

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?

1. The police are not your friends.
2. Smile, keep clam and be friendly, but do not trust them one bit. No matter how friendly they pretend to be, they are not your friends.
3. Keep your answers short and sweet.
4. Do not volunteer any information. I repeat, they are not your friends.
5. Anything you say, even innocently, can and will be used against you. Once again, they are not your friends.
6. There is no coffee at Cantonment.
7. On the bright side, if arrested, it is a good opportunity to get any medical conditions you have treated for free.

Lynn Lee

Describe your role in civil society: Documentary filmmaker

Years active: From 2008.

How many police interrogations have you undergone? Two

What were the nature of the investigations? The Internal Affairs Officer (IAO) said they were investigating allegations of police brutality made by 2 SMRT bus drivers. I had interviewed the drivers and posted segments of the interviews online.

How did the police serve the notices? They came to my house. They also asked to confiscate my harddrive, computer, laptop and mobile phone.
Total number of hours under interrogation? 2 hours + 9 hours (parts of the second interview involved police taking apart my laptop and examining data in it; they also examined my mobile phone).

Have you ever been formally charged? No.

The AGC sent me a letter informing me that they had decided not to prosecute me, despite finding that I was in contempt of court. I had no idea when I was being questioned, that the IAO was investigating me for contempt. I had always thought they were investigating the SMRT drivers' allegations of police brutality.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line? 
The IAO said they were investigating the SMRT drivers' allegations of abuse. But they kept asking me lots of irrelevant questions about whether I championed any "causes". The police superintendent sent to confiscate my laptop and mobile phone was not from the IAO (which is supposed to work independently), but from Bedok branch. When I asked him to justify why it was necessary to take my things, he said I should just let them "seize first" and lodge a complaint later!

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work? 
Take notes. Write down all questions and answers. Write down the name and rank of the people questioning you. Bring a sweater, wear comfortable shoes and bring your own water. If you wear contact lenses, bring eyedrops and your glasses. I realised when I was being interviewed, that my eyes felt really dry after six or seven hours. Give short, truthful answers. Don't ramble. Take your time. If you feel that a question is irrelevant, say so and decline to answer. If you can't remember, say you can't remember. Read and re-read your statement before signing it. Don't be afraid to ask for amendments if something is wrong. Be polite but assertive. And finally, make sure some one you trust outside is monitoring the situation.

Jolovan Wham

Describe your role in civil society: Migrant workers' rights


Years active: 2004 to now


How many police interrogations have you undergone? 2
What were the nature of the investigations?  One for protesting without permit and one for organising a protest which foreigners participated

How did the police serve the notices?  First one they conducted the investigations on the protest site, 2nd one they called. 


Total number of hours under interrogation? Both were slightly over an hour

Have you ever been formally charged? No.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line?  
For the first case, filming me without permission as we were being interviewed.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?
Keep answers really short and to the point. I am not so seasoned in handling police but I refuse to sign the interview statement if I can't have a copy of it.

Shafi'ie                                                                                                                                                            
Describe your role in civil society: 
I did what needed to be done. I did not sign up with a volunteer corp of sorts so there was not any "assigned" roles but I was with sghumanrights, Free Burma Campaign Sg, SADPC and other occasional group actions.

How many police interrogations have you undergone? There are too many for me to recall at this moment.

What were the nature of the investigations?

To "assist investigation" on events like:  giving out flyers in public to raise awareness on issues, being in candlelight vigils, wearing a tshirt with a certain design, peaceful protest following the announcement to increase public transport and costs of utilities that would take place simultaneous with the increased salaries of the ministries.

How did the police serve the notices? Once by hand, at night. Others by mail, occasionally coupled with phone calls.

Total number of hours under interrogation? I cannot recall the exact number at the moment.

Have you ever been formally charged? Yes.

How much fine did you pay? I was billed $1,600 in one case. In another, it was $5,000. In the latter, it was technically defined as pay costs to the AGC (Attorney-General's Chambers) and not as fine.

How many days of prison time did you undergo? 7 days.

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line?

To agree or disagree is entirely human. To express sentiments peacefully is naturally human too, and these were most often made out of genuine concern. Getting into legal trouble for doing so is not characteristic of a society that proclaims to be democratic.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work?

1. Read the Constitution to understand your legal rights and the legal technicalities relevant to your situation. You would be surprised that most officers do not have knowledge about the Constitution.

2. Be firm but civil and courteous in interactions with the police. Be respectful (as you ought to fellow human beings) but firmly state your rights. Know what you stand for and remind the officer that you are not a criminal. However, if the officer is outright rude or threatening despite you being respectful, do not hesitate to lodge a complain.

3. Keep a record of what was said during the investigation. Bring a pen and paper to take down notes. You will be asked to counter-check and sign against your statement as typed in by the officer but the copy will not be given to you. Therefore, the notes you take down will be your own copy.

4. If you are being monitored and followed, try to verify and confirm that you are indeed being followed. If so, take pictures of the culprit as record. Inform others around you. Monitor and follow the culprit.

5. As in everything, always remember to pause and reflect. To fight systemic injustice is only half the battle, to grow as a better person is the other half. Always be motivated by love because it nourishes no matter what you have to go through. In this way, you win even when you lose. Never succumb to hate because it is blinding. The greatest tragedy is to embody the injustice you set out to stop.

Jaslyn Go
                                        
Describe your role in civil society: Civil activist, and now a member of SDP

Years active: From 2007

How many police interrogations have you undergone? 3 or 4 (can't remember)

What were the nature of the investigations? Illegal assembly, protest

How did the police serve the notices? 
First notice was served at almost 10pm when two male officers banged on my door very loudly. I reprimanded them and later lodged a formal complaint with the Investigating Officer (IO). Subsequently, letters were discreetly thrown into my house even though my door was open and I was at home at that time. After I did not respond to these notices, they were delivered via registered mail. 

Total number of hours under interrogation? Not more than 2 hours each time.

Have you ever been formally charged? Yes, twice.

How much fine did you pay? 
First charge was $900 for each offence - total $1,800 (for illegal assembly and protest). Second charge was $600 (for illegal assembly).

How many days of prison time did you undergo? None

Cite one aspect of your experience in which you feel the authorities were out-of-line? 
During the interview at the Bukit Merah Neighbourhood Police Post, I had wanted to write down the questions but the IO said that would take up too much time. So he suggested that he would allow me the time to write only after I had answer the questions. But after the interview was over, he refused to let me do so.

What's your advice for activists undergoing police probe for their work? 
Know your rights and be assertive. We need not be rude, but if you feel the police have crossed the line, lodge a formal complaint.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"I Already Bought You"

"The work wasn’t what I expected it to be. It was totally different. I would wake up to start cooking, then cleaning, washing clothes, and then cooking again. No rest, there was just no rest… Because she kept yelling, I cried and asked to go back to agency, but madam said “I already bought you"
— Farah S., a 23-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, Dubai, December 7, 2013 

One of the harrowing stories from this latest report from Human Rights Watch on migrant workers in the UAE: http://www.hrw.org/node/129797/section/2