What I took away from 2 May
May 6, 2009, 1:40 pm
Filed under: From the blogs, Singapore

(From Siew Kum Hong’s blog)

Prof-SiewKumHongA lot has been said and written about the AWARE EGM last Saturday. And by now, I’m sure everyone has seen videos of the key moments on YouTube. So I’m not going to get into the familiar details of what happened that day.

Instead, I’m just going to post a few thoughts from the EGM, and also talk about some aspects that I have not seen mentioned.

Affirmation of values

First and foremost, I walked away from the EGM proud to be Singaporean. I saw the result as an affirmation of the values that we hold dear (openness, transparency, inclusiveness, diversity and secularism) and a rejection of those that, well, we should not (dishonesty, non-transparency, exclusiveness, intolerance, divisiveness and oppression/bullying).

While I do not see the EGM as a watershed or a pivotal moment signalling any sort of significant change in Singapore politics (as at least one journalist has tried to posit to me), it does stand as a milestone marking some sort of progress towards a more active and passionate civil society. The willingness of all these people to stand up and be counted, to invest all that time and effort for a cause that they believed in, gave me hope that Singaporeans are not as passive or apathetic as we are often said to be, and that it really takes the right cause to spark us into action.

Importance of passion

My second point relates to the fiery passion demonstrated by so many folks in the audience. Some have sought to portray this as a shameful lack of civility, as a disgusting show of rude bullying tactics, as a terrible indictment of the supporters of the so-called old guard (I prefer “original members”). I beg to differ.

To begin with, I question whether these critics (well, those who are not supporters of the ousted Exco) were even there at all, to see for themselves what had happened. Did they see the way that the ousted Exco had started the meeting? Did they understand the context that contributed to this atmosphere of anger?

It was clear from the outset that the ousted Exco was trying to create a tilted playing field. When I arrived just past 11am, and tried to take the escalator from the 3rd floor to the 4th floor, three of the ousted Exco’s supporters blocked the escalator, claiming that I was not allowed to go up. I was a little taken aback, and proceeded only when a volunteer for the original members told them to let me pass because it was a public area and they had no right to block me. This came on the heels of another of their supporters, who had greeted me on the 3rd floor with a big plastic smile, and then furiously whispered “SKH! SKH!” into her radio as I passed her.

Was all this necessary? Was there a need to play these sort of games?

It did not get better when the meeting began. I was the lightning rod that first drew their ire. Jenica Chua had already been informed earlier that I was a legal advisor for the original members — and yet, when a member of the audience (a VIP as designated by the Josie Lau exco, whom none of us recognised) specifically asked for me to move to the associate members’ section, Josie Lau simply ordered me to move. She even directed security to escort me out of the ordinary members’ section (either to the associate members’ section or out of the hall, I can’t remember which). My wife later told me that she was worried about the security guards forcibly manhandling me.

It only got worse, when the meeting got underway. The mics on the floor were not switched on. Whenever an original member got to a mic and tried to speak, the sound person would deliberately shut down that mic. It was no accident and not faulty sound — it was a deliberate attempt to prevent us from speaking.

Those who are familiar with the law and practice of meetings will know that points of order have precedence, and whoever is speaking has to yield the floor to someone making a point of order. But with the mics switched off, it was impossible to raise a point of order properly. Even after the lawyer from Rajah & Tann said that the mics should be switched on, this was not done properly or consistently. When folks on the floor protested, the ousted Exco’s first response was to threaten ejection from the hall, even though it is established law that the chairperson’s right to eject members may be exercised only upon repeated, severe disorder, not as a first resort.

That was how the entire meeting started. What sort of note did these heavy-handed tactics adopted by the ousted Exco strike? One of the leading legal textbooks on meetings states that the effect of a fair chairperson is often under-estimated. I would certainly say that the ousted Exco was not interested in conducting a fair meeting in accordance with the rules governing meetings, but only a meeting on their terms.

Faced with this, with a hostile chairperson seeking to exercise her powers in an unfair manner, what was the floor to do? The floor’s only weapon, only response, is its voice. And in this case, we used that weapon to full effect. To do otherwise, to be as meek as these critics seem to want us to be, would have played into the ousted Exco’s hands.

Those who criticise the behaviour of our supporters miss the point. They overlook the nature of such EGMs, which are invariably contentious affairs with emotions running high. They buy into the myth of an orderly debate, which simply does not exist when the ground rules are unfair and stacked against one side. They ignore the important role of passion in advocacy, blindly emphasising rote obedience of rules while missing the positive aspects of passionate advocacy.

So no, I will not apologise for the behaviour of our supporters. Instead, I am proud of this rare display of passion in public discourse. Indeed, I only wish that we see more of such passion in future.

Planning, planning, planning

This article in The New Paper says it all: these unsung heroes provided the platform for all the speakers to shine. The amazing work of folks like Alex, Serena, Ching-Wi, Jolovan and Schutz made the result possible. I salute them.

Their planning was immaculate. Thanks to their immense efforts, we did not have to worry about logistics at all in the lead-up to and during the EGM. I also believe that the early arrival of our supporters paved the way for our success. We were able to occupy the seats nearest to the stage, which also turned out to be nearest to the only mic that was switched on throughout the entire EGM. This proximity to the stage and to the mic probably allowed us to neutralise Josie Lau’s advantage as the chairperson.

Passion vs passiveness

I’ve already mentioned the passion exhibited by our supporters. In stark contrast, the supporters of the ousted Exco were surprisingly passive, preferring to clap furiously whenever the ousted Exco spoke (regardless of the substance of their comments) instead of taking to the mic. Few of their supporters spoke up, and of these, too many failed to make the most of their time on the mic. Some of the more bizarre speeches of the day came from their supporters.

More surprisingly, so many of their supporters seem to have left early. I cannot confirm this, but it felt like they had started leaving even before the results were announced. And when the members voted to remove the ousted Exco from office because it looked like they were not coming back, there were only two objections — presumably because their other 700 supporters had left by then.

I cannot explain why, although Alex Au has speculated on this. But I did haer that their supporters arrived in buses, and did not seem to really know what was going on. So perhaps they had been bus-ed in, having been simply told to vote, without much more. If that was true, then no wonder they did not speak up.

Thank you

Finally, I want to thank the ladies who came to me for advice just after the AGM on 28 March. I got involved in all this because of them, and I am glad that I did. It gave me a ringside seat to everything that happened, and I would not have missed it for the world. I’m only happy to have had the chance to contribute to their success in some small way.

And of course, I have to thank every woman and man who turned up to be counted, for affirming those values that Singaporeans hold so dear. Without you, nothing would have happened. With you, everything becomes possible.


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