The following is written in solidarity with my friends from within the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) who intend to speak out against the proposal to grant voting rights and directive positions to men and individuals who identify as men. As a non-member of AWARE, I fully understand that the organisation does not have to take my views into consideration but I hope that as part of civil society and as a woman who identifies as a feminist, my views can contribute to the larger part of the conversation that should continue to take place beyond the EGM that will take place on 26 November 2016.
Gender justice, and the empowerment of women and non-binary persons
Indeed, we have gone a long way in achieving gender justice and the empowerment of women and non-binary persons compared to many decades ago. However based on my interactions with women and non-binary persons, especially those who live on and beneath the margins, more needs to be done.
Women and non-binary persons who belong to the working class due to their personal backgrounds and circumstances, and those who continue to face discrimination and violence for who they are and who they choose to be, need a voice and a champion to fight for a safer and more egalitarian space to exist. Although I certainly do not think that AWARE is and should be the only entity responsible for this, the organisation is recognised by the mainstream as the entity that campaigns for gender equality through its work to raise awareness to issues faced by women and non-binary persons and to call for changes to policies that have led to gender inequity and marginalisation. It is the organisation that many would approach in times of need.
As it stands, we have a society that is still not progressively educated about the notion of gender justice due to the fact that attempts to facilitate public understanding of the concept may have been coming from a certain place that have failed to forge identification with the discourse over the years. The culture and system in place is still far from being egalitarian, and patriarchal values continue to have a strong hold over the larger part of the society, especially among the marginalised. The scale is certainly tipped in a way that does not benefit many women and non-binary persons.
Therefore all of us who consider ourselves advocates, including AWARE, needs to focus on reflecting about the way we advocate and then find ways to reach out to those who have been beyond our reach and who do not find our messages accessible. We need to realise that we may be speaking in languages that alienate and disempower them, resulting in the lack of motivation to be part of the larger discourse to achieve greater gender justice and empowerment for themselves and others. We need to be more inclusive, diverse, and sensitive toward the situations and needs of those we mean to advocate for and with.
Including men in the discourse
Personally, I cannot emphasize more about the need to include men in the discourse towards achieving a more egalitarian society. In recent years, more men have publicly identified as allies and have made initiatives to participate in the discourse in various ways.
However we must not confuse the need to include and encourage the participation of men with the need to grant them the institutional right to influence the advocacy direction in a women’s organisation that campaign on issues faced by women and non-binary persons. The way I see it, this is a well-meaning but simplistic “solution” that brings about unintended consequences. Symbolically, it might lengthen the longevity of the patriarchal idea and practice that men hold a right to decide on matters concerning women, which is definitely not something that a women’s organisation should be encouraging. I strongly believe that there continues to be a variety of ways to involve men in the discourse towards achieving a more egalitarian society. As allies with a genuine understanding of how allyship functions, I do not think that they would be in a rush to say “Let me be a part of the decision making process of how we can make things work for you.” They would be more aware of the fact that one of the first steps in becoming an ally is to recognise the need for a space where women and non-binary persons get to hold on to their agency on how to deal with issues that exists in their lived experience, which is an important part of the process to foster empowerment.
Of course, this is not to say that men are not affected by the gender stereotypes and expectations that patriarchy imposes on them. We just need to recognise that patriarchy sets the condition for men to exist as the dominant gender and we need to recognise that in order to be equal stakeholders in the discourse, the power scale between genders need to be on a relatively equal level. As mentioned earlier, this condition has yet been achieved, hence there is a need to bring about agency and empowerment within and among women and non-binary persons, especially the ones who live on and beneath the margins first to talk about issues concerning them. Let the priority be on this for now.
Growing up in Singapore, I have always been informed that we should always request for a proof of identity should any police officers approach us. As an early childhood educator, I have sat through educational talks by the police on their profession, and they have said the same thing to students in schools I have worked with and that is – police officers carry a card that identifies them as police officers, and to avoid being victims to impersonators, we should always ask to see the police identification cards. Thus, I was deeply troubled when I heard that two of the investigating officers who had searched Soh Lung’s residence, did not have their police identity cards with them. One of them, Inspector Diyana, had even claimed that she had left her badge “in the car” when she was questioned. The video can be viewed here.
Puzzled, I spent 2 evenings searching for information on whether plainclothes police officers are exempted from carrying their identification/ warrant cards or badges. I found an article dated September 27, 2010 in which the police spokesperson had said:
I have also found a recent article informing the public about the new features on the police warrant cards aiming to prevent identity fraud and impersonation, published on Channel News Asia’s website. The article ended with the following:
Most importantly, good ol’ Google led me to the Singapore Police Force’s Facebook page. On it, I found this old post dating back to June 15, 2011:
Well I am not sure whether police protocols regarding this issue has changed but from what I have found so far, anyone who claims to be part of the Singapore Police Force do have to present their warrant cards when requested by any members of the public. So why were the two officers allowed to conduct a search of Soh Lung’s residence without their warrant cards?
Perhaps SPF could enlighten us here on this matter rather than releasing a joint statement with the Elections Department (the informant of the case) over the alleged breaches of Cooling-Off Day regulations, which in my humble opinion, should not have been done in respect of the neutrality of SPF as an institution when investigating claims made by the informant, i.e., the ELD.
News broke on Friday that the Elections Department (ELD) had lodged a police report against Teo Soh Lung, Roy Ngerng, and The Independent Singapore (TISG) for their posts made on 6 May, which happened to be the Cooling-off Day for the Bukit Batok by-elections. My personal understanding of the regulations for this ridiculous day is that it does not apply to anyone else except for political parties and their advertising platforms so it was rather puzzling as to why the ELD had found fault with Soh Lung, Roy, and TISG.
Here’s what I gathered from the ELD’s website:
“The eve of Polling Day is designated as Cooling-Off Day, a day when election campaigning is prohibited. This 24-hour campaign silence period is to give voters some time to reflect rationally on issues raised during the election before going to the polls.
There are some exceptions to the prohibition of campaign activities on Cooling-Off Day:
a. Party political broadcasts on television;
b. Reports in the newspapers, on radio and television relating to election matters;
c. Approved posters and banners that were already up, and lawful Internet advertising that was already published before the eve of Polling Day;
d. Books previously scheduled for publication;
e. The transmission of personal political views by individuals to other individuals, on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet, telephone or electronic means; and
f. Such activities or circumstances as may be prescribed by the Minister.
The above exception list, other than party political broadcast, also applies to Polling Day.”
1. Roy expressed his support for Dr Chee on his personal FB and blog;
2. Soh Lung expressed her support for Dr Chee on her personal FB;
3. TISG, while being a political news site, is not affiliated to any political parties, and should be accorded equal immunity status as mainstream media.
Do correct me if I am wrong, but I do not see how Roy, Soh Lung, and The Independent Singapore contravened the regulations of Cooling-off Day.
I am also deeply troubled by the last line of point number 3 of the ELD’s press release which reads, “The two individuals – Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng – also regularly engage in the propagation, promotion, and discussion of political issues.”
Doesn’t the government and their departments regularly engage in the propagation, promotion, and discussion of political issues through the media, education system (especially through the use of history textbooks), and other online and offline platforms too?
Really, what is so wrong about anyone engaging in political discussions, or expressing opinions that are critical of the official narratives on a regular basis? In my opinion, these actions symbolise active citizenry, and all of us do hold the right to form and express opinions even if they are not complementary to the actions and narratives of the government. If Soh Lung and Roy were singled out because they “regularly engage in the propagation, promotion, and discussion of political issues,” then we have an issue here – our freedom of political expression is at stake.
Therefore as a concerned citizen whose taxes go into funding the existence of the ELD (I mean, we don’t get a choice do we?), I am asking the ELD this question “Is there a political motivation to clamp down on the expression of critical views through this act of singling out some notable individuals for the slaughterhouse?”
I hope that ELD can clarify here because even after reading their press statement and the regulations for Cooling-off Day side by side for the 50th time, I still remain baffled by and filled with questions for their action.
One of the things that has disturbed me in the post-election discussions is the lack of acknowledgement of the role that fear still plays in Singaporean politics. Many, even opposition supporters, have come out and attacked those who say that fear was an issue in the 2015 election.
My feeling is that fear is something that permeates the entire political system in Singapore, both at a conscious and subconscious level.
At the most extreme there is the fear that one’s ballot is not secret. Anyone who is educated and knows people who scrutineer elections or who reads reliable independent sources, knows that despite many fears, one’s individual ballot is anonymous. It seems unlikely in the extreme, and completely technically unfeasible for the government to track down how even just one citizen voted. For evidence and arguments that your vote is secret see, for example:
While one’s ballot may be secret, unfortunately the fear that is not is a pervasive amongst the population of Singapore. My personal experience of this came the day before the election, when in my local Cheers I asked the attendant who I know very well, how she was planning to vote in the election. This woman was, to me, the epitome of the difficulties faced by the Singaporean working class: she worked two minimum wage jobs (an office assistant daytime weekdays, and Cheers in the evenings) yet she clearly could not afford basic dental treatment as many, possibly most, of her teeth seemed to be missing. When I asked her how she would vote, she said “Well my ballot isn’t secret, so I guess I will vote for the PAP.” We discussed it, and I ended up showing her Maruah’s video about ballot secrecy ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=2&v=S9SfvJn2uGM ) . She was impressed with the celebrities on the video reassuring her, and she said “OK. My ballot is secret. I will vote for who I want.”
While this story has a happy ending, the message of the story for me was that fear of being ‘fixed’ for how one votes is still a pervasive part of the consciousness of Singaporeans.
I am also a JC teacher, and in class during the week of the elections we had a discussion about the elections. An international student raised the issue of gerrymandering, and asked why Singaporeans – meaning the other students in class – don’t challenge the government’s gerrymandering and campaign for an independent electoral authority. The locals in the class – the vast majority – fell silent, and then slowly fumbled together an answer: we focus on other issues because if you challenge the government you risk getting ‘fixed’. That was the local student’s consensus. The international student’s response was “Well that is a practical reason, but it isn’t an ethical reason. You should do what is right.” The class fell silent.
The last story I want to share is of actual candidates in the Singaporean elections. I know people involved with several opposition parties, and the stories I hear from them is that in the hours and days just before nominations close one of their biggest problems is candidates pulling out at the last minute. The reason given is almost always the same: it is not just a personal fear of being fixed, but a pressure from family members and close friends who fear that the candidate will compromise the future of themselves or their extended family. This was express eloquently in the maiden speech of He Ting Ru, Workers Party candidate in the 2015 election. She said that one of the biggest challenges she faced in her decision to run was the fact that her friends and family had worried about her getting ‘fixed’ – again her words:
“When I decided to run for Member of Parliament, many of my friends and family were extremely worried. They asked me about the impact it will have on my family, my career, whether I will get ‘fixed’.” http://www.wp.sg/he-ting-rus-rally-speech-jalan-besar-rally-3-sep/
For me, these three stories – of voters, of students, of candidates – and their fear of being fixed, tells you a lot about the deeply constrained choice that Singaporean’s made in 2015. Fear shaped who they voted for, fear shaped the fact that they did not speak up against many of the systematic injustices of the system, and fear has meant that many good people are too scared to run as candidates, constraining the choices that people have at the ballot box. The fear of being fixed is a very real part of Singaporean political life.
About the writer: None. The guest writer would like to remain anonymous due to the climate of fear (seriously!).
Singapore Democratic Party’s rallies became more interesting in this general election, and that was largely due to the fact that Dr Chee Soon Juan has made a return to the arena of electoral politics after being barred from contesting in, or speaking at any election rallies for the past 15 years. People were curious, and they came from different parts of Singapore just to hear him speak. He delivered well enough. His charisma, confidence, intelligence, and sense of humour draw the crowd into his speeches. What is most surprising to most I have spoken to however, is how ideological and rational he can be at the same time.
“Is this really the man they call a psychopath?” asked a friend of mine who has never been into anything political, after he attended SDP’s lunchtime rally on Monday, and who in the last elections voted for the People’s Action Party (PAP) because he couldn’t care less. “We need someone like that in Parliament to wake the PAP MPs up from their comfortable slumber. I actually don’t care if he can run the country or a town council but if he is in Parliament, I think he will be a voice for Singaporeans,” he added.
Working on the ground as a volunteer for The Online Citizen, I interviewed some who attended the rallies, and their impression of the man who was once labelled “a cheat, a liar, and a psychopath” has greatly changed. One of the attendees, a man who I spoke to at SDP’s third rally, went all the way to Commonwealth from Toa Payoh just to see Dr Chee in person. He said “Now you have social media, they cannot anyhow call him anything they want anymore.” He also remarked that Dr Chee sounded ideological and rational at the same time, and it will be great having him in Parliament to question flawed policies.
“They have matured as a party, and their alternative policies sound very matured and rational. They really put a lot of thought in their speeches and proposals. They do think about people who are not well to do. Things are getting more expensive now and we struggle to live. It is good to have someone understand this,” said another.
Interestingly, such views are also being shared on Facebook, especially in response to character assassination by PAP candidates Lawrence Wong, and Sim Ann.
“They have no substance in their offer to people, so they have to attack SDP and Chee Soon Juan. Comeon lah, there is the Internet now, and people do not believe in what is published on the Straits Times anymore,” said *Sheila, a friend’s friend, on her Facebook status.
“Thank you Vivian Balakrishnan for making me curious about SDP’s alternative policies. If he did not mention it right, I will never know that there is actually an opposition party out there that has been developing policies even though they are not in government. Wow I am impressed even if the policies are not perfect!” declared *Fahmi, a former classmate of mine. Fahmi was previously from Young PAP, but had resigned due to some personal reasons.
In a discussion with some friends, there was a general consensus that Dr Chee is a changed man. I beg to differ. He is not a changed man, but society has changed. The Internet has widened our perspectives, and we now have access to information that has made the content of the mainstream media seem whitewashed and censored to the benefit of the ruling party. Social media has played a big role in this general election, and the ground has somewhat shifted thanks to the victory of the Workers’ Party (WP) in the last general election. Although many are still apprehensive about voting against the PAP, there is a growing group in the electorate who are open to the idea of giving their vote to parties who are contesting against the PAP. Will we see more colours besides white and specks of blue in Parliament after 11 September?
Well, let the people decide.
*Names have been changed, as requested.
On Sunday, 6 September, Mr Goh Chok Tong reportedly said that if the opposition loses the election, they can still participate in Parliament, thanks to the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Scheme (NCMP).
“Let’s say they lose the election – they don’t have to run the town council. Their voice can still be as strong as before in Parliament. So in fact…they are more free to write more great speeches, to make more great rhetoric in parliament,” he said.
For a layperson, this sounds like a good deal. However, does this reflect the reality?
The NCMP in short, is the “best loser” of an election. Before Parliament dissolved on 25 August, three of the “best losers” from the last general elections, Yee Jenn Jong and Gerald Giam from the Workers’ Party, and Lina Chiam from Singapore People’s Party, were granted the seats as NCMPs.
Like an elected Member of Parliament (MP), the NCMP is allowed to pose Parliamentary questions, and engage in Parliamentary debates to present their views.
However while an elected MP is allowed to vote on all matters, the NCMP can vote on matters except for anything regarding amendments to the Constitution, Supply or Supplementary Bills, Money Bills, motions of no confidence in the Government, or removing the President from office.
Therefore, the NCMP do not have the same rights as an elected MP in the Parliament.
So in view of what is stated on the Constitution of Singapore regarding the power of an NCMP (see below), Mr Goh’s simplistic description of the power that an NCMP holds, is seriously misleading.
I wrote the following to Today on 4 August 2015, in response to two letters regarding unequal benefits for single and unwed mothers that were published on Today. Since my letter was not selected for publication, I am posting it here instead. Interestingly, the writer of the second letter responded to his critics with this letter, published on 6 August 2015, saying that his letter was “perhaps satire, but in bad form”, and he apologised for it.
While I respect everyone’s right to hold and express opinions, I am appalled by the attitude expressed in the letters, “Unwed mums did make choices that led to their situation” (Aug 1) and “Unequal benefits for single unwed mums a matter of deterrence” (Aug 3).
Both letters contain statements that not only support the continued institutionalised discrimination of women based on their marital status, but call upon society to blame women for not falling into line with the status quo. The writers have also failed to see the need for social inclusion or the need for all children to be treated with equity, and have patronisingly insisted that marriage is the only way one can legitimately have children, or engage in sexual activities.
First of all, the role of men seemed to be lacking in their arguments. They seem to have excused the men who have found it right to pack up and leave the women whose children they have fathered, and instead blamed women for finding the courage to take up the responsibility to bring up their children single-handedly.
Secondly, not all unwed mothers are single. Although it is still not very common in our society, there are couples who choose not to go down the path of marriage, but are still committed to one another as well as in their roles as parents. Besides that, there are some same-sex couples who may choose to have children, but due to the fact the same-sex marriage is currently illegal in Singapore, they are seen as single and unwed parents. Does the society then punish children from these non-conventional family units, because some hold contemptuous views against the decisions made by their parents?
In addition, what about women who have made the decision to adopt? It is legal for single and unwed women to adopt, so why should they not be included in the incentives provided by the system?
We should not dictate what women can or cannot do with their bodies and lives, or insist that marriage is the only option for every single member of society who wants to have children or even just sex. We should also reflect upon the way our system seems to hold those who do not fall into line with the status quo hostage through institutionalised discrimination, while at the same time demanding them to contribute to the country’s economy through holding down jobs and paying taxes.
Finally, premarital sex and having children out of wedlock are not crimes, nor are they immoral. The “threat of inequality” as a deterrent to prevent unwed women from engaging in premarital sex and having children, is grossly authoritarian, sexist since men are rarely held to the same standards, and the imposition of patriarchal values on women who deserve the freedom to choose what they do with their bodies, their sexualities, and their reproductive lives. We should become a more inclusive society that favours equal opportunities and incentives, over discrimination.
Screenshots of the letters, for archival purposes: