Saturday, April 17, 2010

Protecting minorities and their rights in Singapore

By Charles Tan

I find some opposition parties and politicians in Singapore generally reluctant to comment or speak up on minorities issues. While minorities may traditionally be drawn along religious or racial lines, this narrow definition overlooks other neglected groups or communities in the country.

In Singapore, there certainly exists varied minority groups that are still unfairly portrayed and cast into stereotypes. Their welfare has been neglected by the PAP Government and their presence ignored by the media. They include (but are not limited to):

a. racial or religious minorities,
b. homeless people,
c. sexual minorities,
d. poorly paid and low-skilled migrant workers.

One possible reason that the Opposition has stayed silent on minority issues is its focus on the "mainstream majority". By positioning itself as a "middle of the road" opposition and appealing to the "average man on the street", it believes this stance will strike a chord with most voters.

While this may appear to be a tactical and viable electoral strategy, it is troubling and short-sighted in many respects. By tiptoeing and failing to address concerns of minorities, opposition parties make three erroneous assumptions:

One, that the majority may be reluctant to cast its vote based on minority issues. Or the opposition may believe that Singaporeans are threatened by these issues. This fear can be attributed to the success of the PAP in depoliticising society. Laws prohibiting critical debates on racial and religious issues also play a part in stifling debate and dissent.

For example, the PAP's rhetoric is that gays and lesbians are not deserving of equal rights or that according them such rights would invite public backlash. Yet, in not taking a stand on minority rights, opposition parties fail in discovering how people feel about minority issues. They also squander away an opportunity to educate the public on these concerns.

Two, that focusing on minority concerns will dilute the message, or messages, intended for the mainstream majority or that such a focus would divert public attention away from pressing socio-economic issues. While this reasoning appears reasonable, it places an unwarranted emphasis and belief that the general population will only vote on issues that intimately affect them.

This perception does not take into consideration the fact that the electorate's outlook may be influenced by their sense of empathy for others. It fails to account for voters' sense of justice or compassion.

It must be remembered that majorities do not live in isolation, away from minorities. Most people have come into contact, or are likely to know, someone in a minority group.

Three, that opposition parties stand a better chance of being elected into parliament by representing only the middle ground. It also gives them a more authoritative voice since the middle ground is symbolic of the whole. This positioning however defeats the purpose of the opposition which acts as a check and balance against PAP.

Since minorities are discriminated against, it is also their rights which needs most protection. Therefore, speaking up for minorities becomes a matter of principle.

There are practical and ethical reasons for opposition politicians to be more assertive in voicing minority issues. To take a safer middle path is to play into the prejudices concocted by the PAP. An opposition that alienates and abandon those who need most protection from the state and predatory market forces is to consciously relinquish its responsibilities.


Charles Tan is a member and the ex-president of the Young Democrats. He is presently studying in Australia.

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