Like Mandela, time to forgive

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By Tan Bah Bah

Singapore will celebrate its 50th year of independence next year. In typical Singapore style, the government will pull out all stops – short of dressing up the Istana in red and white neon – to make sure it will be the best ever and most memorable national birthday party in the country’s history.

Such celebrations, however, are meaningless if even one citizen cannot take part. A society does not consist of only people who think, talk and act the same way and agree on everything.

In the struggle for independence – the half century of which we will happily mark in 2015 – different parties, forces and personalities have fought the current ruling party to win the hearts and minds of earlier generations. The People’s Action Party was never the only party which had popular support.

White was not the only colour in the political landscape. Besides the men in white, others came in different shades.

There were the Barisan Sosialis, the Workers Party, the Singapore People’s Alliance, United People’s Party and the Liberal-Socialists, representing various groups of interests and political leanings. Even while the PAP was dominant or monopolistic, the WP under J.B. Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong and his Singapore Democratic Party were present in Parliament. Remember also that at any one time, there has always been a central core of 25-30 per cent anti-PAP voters who either had voted against the party or spoilt their votes.

At different times, Singapore has had its share of political exiles and detainees who had problems with the authorities. Some of the more well-known earlier exiles or dissidents included the likes of Chia Thye Poh. The later ones would be Tan Wah Piow, Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong.

Tan was arrested in 1974 for unlawful assembly and rioting in his University of Singapore days and then accused in 1987 of being the mastermind behind a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Chia, a Barisan Sosialis MP, was detained for conduct prejudicial to the stability of Singapore and spent many of his detention years in Sentosa. Francis Seow, a former Solicitor-General, Law Society President and Workers Party candidate, went into exile in the United States after being embroiled in lawsuits brought against him by Lee Kuan Yew. And Tang Liang Hong, who stood for election in Cheng San GRC on a WP ticket, was accused of being anti-Christian and anti-Muslim and was sued for defamation by several PAP MPs. He left for Australia.

All exiles are or have been Singapore citizens (whatever the current status of some of them over the years). Year by year, there is less and less reason to keep these Singaporeans out of their country.

Many young Singaporeans do not know these exiles. In fact, quite a number are really not interested. The effects of depoliticisation had its peak when the PAP was so dominant in the 1980s that the party even toyed with the idea of transforming itself into a national movement. The idea was to allow the party to govern the Republic without the dissipating distraction of contentious politics, a theme which was to reappear in a statement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (“I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them… how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?”).

There is no need to “fix” anything.

Singapore should open its doors to its exiles. In a supreme act of forgiveness, the late Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years years in jail and could not attend the funeral of his mother, prevented untold bloodshed in South Africa. Instead of seeking revenge for the apartheid programme, he sought reconciliation with his erstwhile Afrikaaner colonial masters.

Younger Singaporeans also have to be told the complete unadulterated Singapore story. As it is, local think tanks and tertiary political and history departments operate with large chunks of blank spaces.

Most important of all, it is about making every Singaporean count in next year’s celebrations. US President John Kennedy flew all the way in 1963 to the then West Berlin just to declare “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”).

Let Singapore’s sons come back and join the bigger family in celebrating the once impossible dream that one day “We are all Singaporeans”.