Opposition and civil society must come together for sake of democracy

May 14, 2009

By Chee Siok Chin

Civil society seems to be anxious to avoid sharing the same platform with opposition parties. The reason often cited is that they want to remain non-partisan, that is, not taking sides with any political party or support any political manifesto.

Polite and friendly greetings are exchanged but little substantive conversations transpire when the groups happen to meet.

Why are there such misgivings about politicians or members representing political parties? Could it be that the ruling party has done such an excellent job in their divide-and-conquer tactic? Could it be that many of the NGOs depend on state funds? Could it be that the state media has succeeded in demonising the opposition, especially the more vocal parties like the Singapore Democrats? Or could it be that civil society actors are afraid that their personal economic security would be jeopardised if they are seen working with the opposition?

The answer is probably most, if not all, of the above.

This is unfortunate. In mature democracies, the roles of civil society and political parties are separate and distinct. This is because they operate in open and free political environments. And yet NGOs engage political parties on a wide spectrum of issues, educating and raising awareness among legislators and politicians.

But in non-democratic states, the cooperation between civil society and pro-democracy opposition parties take on a different tone. This is because there is, first and foremost, the need to achieve democracy.

A good example are our cousins across the Causeway. They understand the need for civil society and political parties to come together and the power they synergise when they do.

The Malaysian Government recently announced that it would review the Internal Security Act. This is clearly a response to the Abolish ISA Movement which has the support of opposition parties in Malaysia.

Leading politicians such as Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng, Tian Chua, Elizabeth Wong and scores of other political figures have called for and even lent their support in events that advocate the abolishment of the ISA in Malaysia.

Similarly in the Bersih and Hindraf movements, opposition party members, civil society actors and human rights activists supported one another to stand up to undemocratic practices of their government.

Can such cooperation and broad support materialise in Singapore? Only if there is a committed leadership with foresight.

Rights activists, social justice advocates, youth leaders, etc must not shy away from cooperating, even at the most fundamental level, with the opposition to work on basic issues such as increasing the level of democracy in Singapore.

The SDP has and will continue to reach out to civil society and individuals to engage them on broader issues of human rights and freedoms of speech and assembly.

If we stand segregated, it makes it much easier for the Government to make victims out of us. However if groups come together, even if loosely, the authorities will be forced to respond in more measured tones.

For cooperation to take place, we need to first build trust and confidence among the groups. But before this can even happen, we must take the first step of initiating dialogue.

Towards this end, the Singapore Democrats welcome conversation with any group. It is our hope that civil society at large will cast away their fear and engage in discussions with the SDP over matters of national interest.

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