Civil rights activists in Singapore attracted about two thousand people Saturday to a pro-democracy rally — the first event of its kind to take place in the tightly controlled city state.
Addressing the crowd in Chinese, English and Malay, speaker after speaker denounced the ruling People’s Action Party to enthusiastic applause.
The rally is to show support and raise funds for the country’s most prominent opposition politician, Joshua “J.B.J.” Jeyaretnam, who faces ouster from Parliament. He holds one of only three opposition seats in 93 seat Parliament.
“You should be using the whip to tell the government where to go and how to go,” Jeyaretnam told the cheering crowd. “The state has become … a monster.”
It was the first time a civil rights group has organized such a large political rally openly critical of the government.
Police initially denied the activists a permit to hold the rally, but relented after organizers agreed to hire their own security guards to maintain order.
Jeyaretnam told his supporters there are several “casualties” of the people having given up their power. He said these include the people losing power in the parliament, the constitution, the judicial system, the trade unions and the press, which he said are all controlled by the government.
The crowd burst into enthusiastic applause and cheered when he told them the Singapore press “is a national disgrace.”
The event might be a sign of greater freedom of expression in a nation that has traditionally had little tolerance for dissent. But Jacob George, one of the event’s organizers, said Saturday it’s too early to tell.
The People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965. It has won widespread praise for turning a malaria infested, poverty-stricken tropical island into one of Asia’s most stable and prosperous nations.
“The fact that the government has given permission to do this is significant,” said Zulkifli Baharudin, an independent member of Parliament.
But few Singaporeans have dared speak poorly of the PAP in public — a situation that may be slowly changing with the opening last September of a “Speakers’ Corner” in a public park.
Some in the crowd told The Associated Press that they were not at the stadium to support the opposition, but were there to hear what they had to say.
However, a 31-year-old man, who identified himself as Mathen, said he was at the stadium to rally for Jeyaretnam.
“We need an opposition in Singapore,” he said. “The government can’t fool all of us.”
Evelyn Martin, a 25-year-old bank teller said an opposition was needed because “the government was not always right.”
The crowd chanted “J.B.J.” in support of the opposition stalwart.
Jeyaretnam will lose his seat in parliament if he cannot pay hundreds of thousands of dollars he owes in defamation lawsuits brought by senior government officials and their supporters.
He was recently declared bankrupt — a status that officially bars him from Parliament. He’s appealing the ruling.
To help pay for his bills, activists on Saturday are selling T-shirts, stickers and autographed copies of a book of collected speeches by Jeyaretnam.