20 Aug 2009
Did new Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core in his maiden Parliamentary speech on Tuesday, and in so doing, attracted an avalanche of criticism from PAP MPs who sensed that very essence of their self-serving political philosophy had been given a thunderous jolt?
Viswa Sadasivan’s motion was deemed so threatening, so audacious, that no less a personality than MM Lee Kuan Yew was compelled to state that it was dangerous to allow such high falutin ideas to go un-demolished lest they mislead Singapore.
In tabling his motion on Tuesday, NMP Viswa Sadasivan wanted Parliament to reaffirm its commitment to the principles enshrined in the National Pledge. In his view, this entailed strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of citizenship, and upholding the fundamentals of democracy and racial and religious unity. He admonished Parliament to stay mindful of these tenets when pursuing economic and other national policies.
In his 50-minute speech, Viswa lamented Singaporeans’ lack of freedom to express themselves, the Government’s seemingly unmitigated grip on power, and what appears to be an inconsistent willingness on the part of the authorities to listen to public sentiment that does not suit it.
Viswa said that the country, through the Government, is expected to be accountable to citizens. And this accountability must be visible. People’s views and concerns must be sought and heard, and acted upon. Where the Government cannot address citizens’ views and concerns, it must explain the reasons. Similarly, when citizens challenge the Government on issues and policies, the response needs to come across as being sincere, not intimidating on one hand and callous and cavalier on the other.
In the electoral arena, Viswa advocated a more level playing field, especially in the management of elections and media coverage. He stated that what is increasingly demanded is fairness and justice, not just in form but also in substance.
Viswa also said that the Government should desist from making it difficult, in an unfair and undemocratic manner, for the opposition to gain success -– through last minute changes in electoral boundaries, or a lack of media coverage, or what can sometimes be seen as biased coverage.
In Viswa’s view, it is the duty of a responsible Government to help evolve a political climate that encourages greater interest and participation from the people. If not, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised, resulting in apathy, and worse, cynicism.
On the topic of new media, Viswa offered the opinion that there appears to be a resurgence of interest in engaging in debate of issues in cyberspace, accompanied by a growing sense of restlessness and even helplessness with what is viewed as a traditional media that is aligned with the Government.
He said that there is the perception that the mainstream media tows the Government’s line because it is required to, and that this is certainly not healthy for the Government or the country as it nurtures a “them versus us” climate that could become unnecessarily adversarial.
Viswa, in discussing the Government’s responsibility to the less fortunate, said that our rejection of a welfare state does not in any way absolve an elected Government of the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of a small group of citizens who cannot fend for themselves because of illness or disability.
And on the topic of political participation, Viswa stated in no uncertain terms that from the late 1960s, stringent rules have discouraged active political activism. Detention of political activists under the ISA and media controls have created a climate of fear that inhibits political participation. Over years, this has crystallized into a political culture of apathy and disinterest.
Viswa was of the view that we must consciously and proactively start the process of re-politicisation -– to get people, especially the youth, interested and involved not only in social work but political matters. A good place to start this would be our universities, which have been the traditional base of political interest and activism. Political associations should be encouraged, and campus rallies should be allowed once again.
But perhaps the remarks that drew the most ire was Viswa’s statements concerning race and religion. Viswa said that over the years, we have become very race conscious as a people. In almost everything we do we are asked about our race — starting with the NRIC, and in almost all application forms.
Most controversially, Viswa opined that the creation of ethnic self help groups such as Mendaki, SINDA, CDAC and the Eurasian Association have exacerbated the problem.
Viswa said that the practice of racial categorization and the perception of segregation due to the way the Government collects data about population trends have resulted in an apparent contradiction with the “regardless of race” tenet of the Pledge.
To be sure, Viswa expressed tremendous pride in the progress of our nation and attributed much of it to the PAP Government.
But that did not stop MM Lee from taking Viswa to task in a scathing manner that left no doubt in the mind of anyone who witnessed the debate or who watched the telecast on CNA that the Minister Mentor was going all out to thumb him down.
In Part Two of this series, I will examine what MM Lee as well as what some other MPs said, and discuss just how coherent their views were.