Do you have to be a politician to change society? When Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister in 1990, he dreamed of creating a “gentler, wiser society”. Four years into his Prime Ministership, Catherine Lim worried that his “gentler, wiser voice” had become quieter than a whisper. She wrote about it. She said that as long as his predecessor’s heavy-handedness continued to prevail, the dream of a “gentler, kinder society” would remain fiction. Her words stung Mr Goh. His press secretary wrote to say that Ms Lim, as well as “journalists, novelists, short-story writers or theatre groups” – in other words, people giving a voice to civil society – should join a political party, get support, and run in the elections to change things. Otherwise, Ms Lim should shut up.
When Vincent Wijeysingha resigned from the Singapore Democratic Party yesterday, he reignited the almost two-decade-old debate: Does change come within Parliament, or does it come from people represented in the Parliament?
Mr Wijeysingha said that with the Democrats, he could contribute to “bread-and-butter policy issues,” but he also wanted to “be of service to the wider cause of… civil liberties”. His announcement on Facebook suggests that he wants to eliminate discrimination against people who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans-gendered. Left unwritten in the announcement were others he has long worked with and probably wants to continue to help: mistreated and abused migrant workers.
We all want a gentler, kinder society. Maybe Mr Wijeysingha wants to realise this dream by convincing society that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or national origin, is just as human, and just as deserving of fundamental liberties (such as the right to the recourse of law) as you and I. Perhaps he wishes to free himself of political party affiliations so that his efforts are not tainted by suspicion that he is merely seeking the vote (and so that his efforts do not cost votes for his party).
Still, could he not have effected change by trying to become a Member of Parliament? Mr Wijeysingha told The Independent that even if he eventually became one, he would be only part of “a small number of non-government MPs (that) does not change the legal framework but rather responds to public sentiment outside”. He also said:
…Parliament (is not) the place where social change is initiated. It is the place where social change is ratified. Social change occurs in the community. When a question arrives on the floor of Parliament, it has already been progressed outside.
Which begs the question – if everyone thought like Mr Wijeysingha, when would Singapore ever have an opposition large enough to challenge the ruling party in Parliament?
But this question misses the point. Of course policy changes are made in Parliament; laws to protect fundamental liberties have been passed all around the world in Parliamentary (or Congressional, or Dietary) chambers. Many countries have at least in law recognised workers’ rights, children’s rights, and women’s rights, among many other rights.
Still, these are rights of the majority. Every voting adult was once a child, almost everyone is, or has been a worker, and roughly half experiences womanhood 1. Protecting the rights of minorities is much harder because the overriding incentive for political representatives is to seek popular support. To protect the minority, especially the vote-less minority, the voting majority has to believe that minorities are just as human, as just as deserving of rights as themselves.
This is not to say that representative democracies cannot respect fundamental liberties. Some enlightened democracies have shown that the opposite is true. Post-war Germany has attempted through its constitutional courts to protect secularism in schools. The Nordic constitutional democracies have reached far beyond majoritarianism to express their peoples’ admirable belief in the equality of humanity.
Singapore too has attempted to respect some fundamental liberties. The Presidential Council for Minority Rights was created to ensure that the law does not discriminate against racial minorities. Yet we have not publicly debated racial discrimination, much less broader issues like gender discrimination, sexual discrimination, language discrimination, religious discrimination – the list goes on.
A few select politicians have led change – like John Stuart Mill who in 1866 became the first Member of Parliament to openly support women’s right to vote. We have to remember that giving women the power of the vote was once seen as an absurdity only a fool would support. So politicians can lead change. But more often in representative democracies, the incentive of the politician is to pander to the majority because that is their key means to survival. Even then, very few succeed in changing things because they lack support. John Stuart Mill had half the population rooting for him though they were not yet voters.
So citizens must take the lead where fundamental liberties for minorities are concerned. The American civil liberties movement had leaders who were activists, not Congressmen or Senators. For more than half a century, no one would listen because they were fighting for the minority. A century later, America has a black President.
These changes have come over time, but they always began with a small quiet voice in the wilderness. The peoples’ representatives usually follow, but rarely before the idea of change had taken root among the majority of the voting public. Mr Wijeysingha’s task is made more difficult because the people he supports are not of the majority and will never be. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered are unlikely to exceed more than a fifth of the population (the popular estimate is 1 in 10). Transitory migrant workers by definition are not citizens and will never have the vote.
Furthermore, Mr Wijeysingha has chosen to help people who carry a social stigma. Parliamentarians who speak out for people with autism, mental illnesses, and single parents are worth celebrating because they champion the causes of a small minority. But the majority can empathise because people with autism, mental illnesses, or people who have somehow ended up raising children single-handedly rarely end up doing so by choice. On the other hand, ultraconservatives use phrases like ‘gay lifestyle’ to insinuate that people are gay by choice, not by circumstance, and also to suggest immorality. Migrant workers, often brushed off as uneducated country bumpkins, are blamed for flooding the job market or for causing the crime rate to soar. As a result, these minorities are hardly people the majority would approve of, much less identify with.
It remains to be seen what Mr Wijeysingha actually does in the coming years given the uphill struggle he faces, but we should keep in mind that change comes at a crawling pace. Change comes quickly only when public opinion reaches a tipping point. This tumultuous period, when everybody and anybody jumps on the bandwagon, is often mistaken as change itself. We must never forget how change only really begins when a small quiet voice speaks of ideas the shortsighted think absurd.
Jeremy Boo contributed to this commentary.
- In 2012, 49.2% of Singaporeans were recorded as female. See Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore’s Demographic: Sex Ratio – Males to Females. ↩