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Finally there is some hope for freedom of expression

Unless the fickle finger of fate intervenes in a dastardly manner, tomorrow evening will witness a function in Bangkok that will bring great credit to Singapore and Thailand and will shame Vietnam.

On the surface, the event is innocuous.

Entitled “Prelude to the post-Lee Kuan Yew era”, it will take place at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and will feature two Singaporean lawyers speaking about the recent history of their young nation.

No big deal you might think, but you would be wrong.

The FCCT’s first speaker, Tan Wah Piow, was president of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union in the 1970s, and like most student activists the world over he was a bit of a sh*t stirrer.

He gave histrionic speeches about the “class struggle” between the “labouring proletariat” and the “ruling class” – the kind of heady stuff many young folks, myself included, applauded at the time.

But in those days, Singapore’s then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was at the peak of his power and at his most intransigent when it came to tolerating critics.

So Tan was arrested for agitating workers, fostering strikes and other Bolshie nonsense of the sort that Lee himself had embraced two decades earlier when supporting strikers in the post office and on the docks.

Swiftly convicted, Tan spent eight months in the clink and then fled into exile, eventually settling in London, where he became a practising lawyer and continued lobbying for a more open society in Singapore.

In 1987, he was bizarrely accused by Lee of masterminding a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore government.

Twenty-four of Tan’s alleged co-conspirators were arrested, one of whom was another lawyer, Teo Soh Lung, who was also jailed. She will be the other speaker at the event tomorrow evening.

So two of the most wanted people in modern Singapore’s history will be given a platform to expound their views on the rights and wrongs of their nation’s government.

It is wonderful. It is more than wonderful, it is absolutely fabulous. As the blurb for the event states, Tan and Teo will address the “theme of the abuse of law in a country which is democratic in theory but sacrifices its most democratic citizens to the whim of its rulers”.

It adds that this abuse “began in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, and continues not only in Singapore but in Thailand and elsewhere”.

Indeed it does, and nowhere else does it continue more than in Vietnam.

And strange as it may seem, not long ago, two other speakers, with far less a provocative history than Tan and Teo, sought to give a similar talk to the FCCT about Vietnam’s abuse of democracy and human rights.

However, Vo Van Ai, president of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, and his deputy, Penelope Faulkner, were prevented from doing that when Bangkok, under pressure from Hanoi, denied them entry.

Ai had his visa, obtained a week earlier, revoked at the last minute, while Faulkner was dragged off a Bangkok-bound plane in Paris before she could depart.

The Thai foreign ministry then had the affrontery to claim that it attached “great importance to the principles of freedom of expression and diversity of views”.

However, it continued, the government’s long-standing position did not allow people “to use Thailand as a place to conduct activities detrimental to other countries”.

So Ai and Faulkner could not tell the truth about the repression of pro-democracy activists in Vietnam – an issue over which the United States Congress has just issued a stern warning to Hanoi.

But perhaps now, after allowing Tan and Teo to speak on this subject about Singapore, and after having also allowed pro-democracy advocates from Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar to do the same, things will change.

Clearly there can no longer be grounds for denying peaceful advocates of freedom of expression and multi-party democracy in Vietnam to speak out ever again.

Contact our Regional Insider Roger Mitton at



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