Sunday, June 3, 2012

Blue Pill or Red Pill?

I delivered this speech on 2 June 2012 at the ‘That We May Dream Again’ Event.

Click here for the link to the YouTube video clip of my speech.

How many of you have seen ‘The Matrix’, the movie with the handsome Keanu Reeves as Neo and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus? [1]  

In the Matrix movie, Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills: a blue pill and a red pill.  This is how Mopheus explained the choice to Neo:

I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole? 
Let me tell you why you're here.
You're here because you know something.
What you know you can't explain,
but you feel it ... … There is something wrong with the world.
You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. 
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  

Credit: Christian Mes, Law School Memes

I kinda felt like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the Rabbit Hole, when I read Teo Soh Lung’s book, and when I began to find out what happened to those who were arrested on 21 May 1987.

‘Prequel’ to Operation Spectrum

Straits Times article published on 22 May 1986
But let me tell you what happened exactly one year before.

On 22 May 1986, the Straits Times reported that the Law Society of Singapore was strongly critical of the Government for proposing new laws which would curb the freedom of the press.  Teo Soh Lung was head of the Law Society Committee which prepared the critical press statement.  The Law Society was concerned that the proposed new laws would restrict freedom of speech. The Law Society’s public objections to the proposed laws attracted much attention. 

But despite the controversies, the proposed new laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in August 1986.  After all, there were only 2 opposition MPs out of 79 seats in Parliament.

Was the Government unhappy with the Law Society for speaking against the proposed new laws?

A few months later in 1986, the Government proposed yet another set of new laws, this time aiming at the Law Society.  One of the proposed new laws was to remove the Law Society’s right to offer comments on matters affecting law, unless asked by the Government to do so.

Again, Teo Soh Lung headed the committee under the Law Society to review these proposed new laws aimed at lawyers.  About 400 lawyers met and passed a resolution for the Law Society to call on the Government to withdraw its proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act.  However, despite the strong objections, the proposed laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in October 1986. 

So a very peculiar situation thereby arose in Singapore. The Law Society is, by law, not allowed to speak up on law, unless invited up the Government to do so.  This restraint on the Law Society remains to this day.  The Law Society cannot speak, unless spoken to.  

Then, in the early hours of 21 May 1987, Teo Soh Lung was arrested and detained under ISA.

Do you think her arrest was expected or unexpected? 

For Soh Lung, it was completely unexpected.  She had been watching Miss Universe the night before. 

‘All Power Has Legal Limits’

Soh Lung and other detainees appealed to the Court against their ISA detention orders. [3]

In the course of dealing with Teo Soh Lung’s appeal, the Court of Appeal declared that all power has legal limits. The rule of law demands that the courts should be able to review the Minister’s decision to detain anyone under ISA. The Minister did not have unlimited discretion. 

This was wonderful news to the detainees.  The detainees would have the Court’s protection against abuse of the ISA.

What happened next?

Within one month, the Government drew up new laws to take away the Court’s power to review the Minister’s decision to detain a person under ISA.  The proposed new laws would completely reverse the effect of the Court of Appeal’s judgment a month ago.  These new laws were voted on by Parliament and become law in January 1989.  Henceforth, if the Minister decides to detain a person under ISA, he has no obligation to explain his decision to any Judge.  This is still the case today. 

Strange?  I think so.  The Government acted with lightning speed to amend the Constitution and the ISA, to cancel the effect of a Court of Appeal judgment. 

Credit: Jared Nash, Law School Memes
The Singapore Constitution

In Singapore, Parliament can enact or amend ordinary law with the support of a simple majority (i.e. more than 50%) of elected MPs. 

As for the Constitution, it cannot be amended unless with the approval of two-thirds of elected MPs. 

However, throughout the history of Singapore, there has never been more than a handful of opposition MPs in Parliament.  That being the case, it would not be terribly difficult to get the requisite majority needed to amend the Constitution or to change laws. 

In fact, since independence, there have been some 40 acts of parliament to amend the Singapore Constitution.  Our Constitution has been amended loads of times.

Can it be right to constantly amend the Constitution or to keep changing the laws?  What are the limits?

We have seen how quickly laws have been proposed and voted through by Parliament.  This is because our system is one where the ruling party has, at all times, held an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament. 

I don’t think it is just about amending or abolishing the ISA.  Ultimately, the ISA is but a tool.  As with any tool, we also need to consider he who wields the tool.  We need to consider the entire system under which we operate. 

So under our present system, how is the use of powers checked and balanced?  Who checks and balances powers?  Who can we rely on for protection against unjust use of powers?  The Courts ?  Opposition MPs ?  NMPs ?  NCMPs ?  Mr Brown perhaps ? 

The ‘One’ Who Shall Protect Us

But I know The One who can be our Strong Protector. The One is in our midst here.  The One I speak of is YOU and ME: Citizens, Ordinary Citizens who are not afraid to Speak Up when things do not seem right. 

A strong civil society with an active citizenry is a powerful counter-weight against any wrong use of powers.  They know the power of our combined voices.  Which is why much efforts have been made, and will continue to be made, to control our freedoms.   

Friends, for too long, we have been afraid and too silent.  But let us not be afraid or silent anymore.  Let us embrace our whole humanity – we are people who think and feel.  And we CARE and we WILL speak up against wrongs and injustice.

Let us re-activate our minds, quicken our conscience for rights and wrongs, restore our voices and reclaim our freedoms.  Let us bring active citizenry back to its rightful place in our society.  Our minds, our heart and our voices in active citizenry - that is our best safeguard against bullying. 

The Choice

Let me come back to what Morpheus said to Neo. 

Here is the blue pill. Here is the red pill. 

Take the blue pill – forget the hard truths, remain in Oblivion and dream about illusions.

Take the red pill - know the truth, leave your detention cell, and dare to dream about a new future. 

Do you not want to take control of your life? 

Do you not want to shape your own your future? 

You need no longer be slaves to fear.  Freedom is at hand. 

Take the red pill and take your place in society. 



[1]  In Greek mythology, Morpheus is the God of Dreams, responsible for the dreams of people.

[2] The complete dialogue between Morpheus and Neo is fascinating.  Click here for the dialogue transcript:  Click here for a clip of this pivotal scene from the movie.

Me with Chng Suan Tze
[3] Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs [1988] SGCA 16.   

Me with Teo Soh Lung

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