Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Disobedience for Justice

A good response to a recent article by the Straits Times that stated Civil Disobedience has no place in Singapore.

Disobedience for Justice
by Benjamin Cheah

I managed to read Sue-Ann Chia's article in today's Straits Times, titled 'What place does civil disobedience have in Singapore?' In it, she attempts to argue that civil disobedience has no place in Singapore. I use 'attempt', because all I see are fragments of arguments.

Civil disobedience is the act of peacefully disobeying a specific law, in the hopes that it would be amended or abolished, and so benefit the people in the name of justice. Justice, in this case, means equal treatment to all people, regardless of personal factors that are irrelevant and/or out of their control. By doing so, the innnocent would be protected, the guilty punished in proportion to his crime, the future criminal deterred, and the good rewarded.

Chia said that she is 'not advocating civil disobedience'. She argues there is no need for civil disobedience because a new government could be voted in. In addition, civil disobedience could mark the start of a slippery slope towards anarchy. Finally, civil disobedients in Singapore do not have much support amongst Singaporeans. These three 'arguments' fail to demonstrate that civil disobedience has no place in Singapore, not because of their incoherence, but also because they are fundamentally flawed.

Chia's overarching argument is that civil disobedience 'defeat(s) the purpose of having democratic elections. This argument presupposes that there are, in fact, democratic elections . This is hardly the case.

'Democratic elections' presupposes that elections are free and fair, with no political parties receiving inherent advantages or disadvantages. With respect to Singapore, the existence of Group Representative Constituencies distort democracy, by enforcing homogenisation at the expense of minorities, as Yawning Bread has shown. Goh Chok Tong himself has admitted that GRCs were established primarily to allow junior Members of Parliament or candidates to be assisted by senior ones -- in other words, to let junior candidates piggyback on the success of their seniors. In doing so, the People's Action Party puts more MPs on its bench than the opposition parties, because the Opposition is smaller, and possesses fewer skilled and popular candidates and less resources, and so is forced to fight an uphill battle in every GRC. The media plays up coverage of PAP events, and relatively little attention to Opposition rallies. Simply counting the number of articles and estimating the length of each article covering each party will reveal the media's lopsidedness. This, in of itself, throws the concept of democratic elections in Singapore into question. I will state that elections in Singapore are not democratic, in the spirit of the word.

Even if the issue does not cover Singapore, and assuming that elections in Singapore were democratic, what about non-democratic countries? The fall of communism in Poland and East Germany, and later the whole of the Union of Societ Socialist Republics, was not brought about by peaceful democratic elections. As History students will tell you, there was a confluence of factors, most notably peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Eastern Europe. The protests mobilised the former Soviet citizens into taking action against the regime, by giving them a chance to participate directly in politics for the first time in generations. The dictatorial communist governments were felled by civil disobedients, not the ballot box, because elections, had they existed, were rigged to favour the Communist Party. Chia has failed to consider this case, weakening her argument.

Because elections in Singapore are not democratic, and that not every country is democratic, the underlying assumption underpinning Chia's argument has fallen, and with it, her entire case. We cannot simply re-elect another government if we so happen to disagree with some of the laws it chooses to enforce, because the system tilts the odds in the government's favour. Coupled with opposition parties that are too small to possess real power in Singapore's political arena in the near future, and the fate of every foreseeable election is sealed. Consequently, the unjust law remains on the books in the indefinite future.

Even assuming that democratic elections exist in Singapore, Chia's argument still falls. The assumption that underpins her argument is composed of two sub-beliefs: the new government would be perfectly willing to change the law, and that the issue at hand can wait until polling day.

The law in question could be a political hot potato, perhaps something along the scale of Singapore's Section 377A, in which case the new government would not touch it of its own accord, lest it loses votes. Chia believes that, just because the government refuses to change an unjust law, the opposition would naturally call for its change in order to win public suppoer. That is not true. The Worker's Party, for instance, has remained ambivalent on Section 377A even during the height of the debate on it. If the Opposition refuses to change the law, even if it means a chance of being voted into power, than argument by election will fail.

That is even assuming that the issue can wait until the next election, because a law or ruling could well harm the country for a long period of time. Consider, for example, the American war in Iraq: if the war were unjustified, it would make more sense to stop the killing now, instead of waiting for a thousand, or even a hundred, casualties between now and voting day. When time is of the essence, then people have to act decisively, without undue delay. Civil disobedience is the ultimate impetus against a slow-moving or unmoving government, because it reminds the government that is representative of the people, and draws its power from the people. Should the democratic government lose the support of its people, as broadcast through civil disobedience, then it will not be the government in the future. It is this impetus that prods bureaucrats and politicians into action.

Chia highlights the argument that civil disobedience is the start of a slippery slope towards anarchy. But this is a very poor understanding of 'anarchy' and 'civil disobedience'.

The whole notion of civil disobedience is to peacefully disobey a law to make a statement, in order to effect a change in law and so better align the current legal system with the principles of justice. It is, in effect, the people talking to the government with a loudhailer turned to the highest volume. Anarchy, on the other hand, means an absence of government. Civil disobedience is based on respect for the ruling power, so much so that civil disobedients would not resist arrest, capture, or punishment. Anarchy, however, views all governments as essentially harmful, as they take away human freedom. It is that respect that bars civil disobedience from degenerating into anarchy. It is not impossible to embody, as Martin Luther King and Gandi have demonstrated. Dr. Chee Soon Juan and his fellow demonstrators, in fact, have never resisted arrest when the police showed up. Anarchists would prefer to resist arrest, because the police is viewed as an extension of the State, and thus as something to be resisted and eventually destroyed. It is this divergence of ideology, demarcated by the notion of respect, that stops civil disobedience from becoming a slippery slope towards anarchy.

If anything else, civil disobedience is designed to promote the cause of justice. Wong Kan Seng has disingenuously said that civil disobedience 'does violence to the rule of law'. But that is because the rule of law has failed, and the existing system refuses to change it. From its perspective, there is no point in expending time and resources to change a law that people do not pay attention to, because it would merely divert attention from other issues, or could help ensure that the system stays in power. Consider the example that Chia has raised: the black civil rights movement. Following the election of 1876, a series of laws were passed, suppressing the rights of African Americans. Collectively known as the Jim Crow laws, they legalised racial discrimination, exploited minority races, and disenfranchised most African Americans. The system was henceforth maintained by white voters and white Presidents, with the latter needing the former to either enter or remain in office, even if they were racists. Blacks and other minority races had no legal means of combating such an entrenched system; they had to act against the law in the name of justice. Civil disobedience thus provides a powerful avenue to mobilise a disenfrancished population, and to channel them into taking constructive action.

The essentials of Chia's second argument is that civil disobedience undermines the rule of law. But the law must adhere to the principles of natural justice. When the law fails, it must die. For it to live on is a smear on the justice system, for the principles of natural justice are not upheld. When the government refuses to admit justice into the legal system of its own accord, it is the perogative of the people to embody the sword of justice, and cut down anything that hinders the progression and execution of justice. If it entails violence against the law, then so be it: laws can be re-written, but justice cannot.

Chia's last argument is painfully ludicrous. She states that civil disobedients must be 'good judges' of the 'right circumstances' and 'causes (that) will take off'. In Singapore, Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore Democratic Party, the most prominent civil disobedients in Singapore, have failed to accurately judge the proper conditions for the use of civil disobedience. Therefore, it is implied, civil disobedience has no place here.

Civil disobedience is a controversial, high-stakes political tactic with its time and place. Just because the Chees and the SDP have failed to show adequate judgment, in Chia's opinion, does not show that civil disobedience has no place in Singapore. It simply means that the conditions do not yet exist, so anyone seriously considering civil disobedience must first realise these conditions -- if at all possible. Just because civil disobedience may have no place now does not show that it will never have a place in Singapore.

The principle behind civil disobedience is that breaking the law in a peaceful, physically non-violent way would eventually lead to a great deal of social good. This good is expressed in the modification of the existing system, so that it would treat people more fairly, no longer act against the people's conscience, or otherwise rectify an existing wrong. The case against civil disobedience must demonstrate that civil disobedience will do more harm than good.

Chia's contribution to this: civil disobedience violates the principle of democratic elections, and could lead to anarchy. But as I have already mentioned, when the electoral system has failed, when the Opposition refuses to change the law even if it were the next government, or if the issue is time-sensitive, there exists a case for civil disobedience, either to minimise and prevent existing and future harm, or to right a wrong. Furthermore, the principle of respect stands between civil disobedience and the slippery slope to anarchy, reducing the ability for civil disobedience to do more harm than necessary. Therefore, Chia has failed to make the case against civil disobedience.

When justice is insulted by the law, civil disobedience is a powerful tool to erase that smear, as it provides an impetus for governments to act and gives an avenue for frustrated and repressed citizens to act. In my opinion, it should not be used when legal ways are sufficient, such as a letter-writing or petition campaign, because of the higher costs a civil disobedience campaign entails. To draw an analogy, it is akin to using a machete to cut a loaf of bread. You can do that, but why bother when a bread knife is at hand? On the other hand, if you need to hack through a thick jungle, a machete is infinitely superior to a bread knife. Like every tool, civil disobedience has a time and place. If one wishes to discard it, one must prove that it is harmful, outdated, or otherwise inefficient. It should not be discarded on faulty arguments alone.