To redeem the pledge

Social change activists are often perceived as trouble-makers. This happens not only in Singapore but all around the world. However, this wrong perception is even more egregious in Singapore because Singaporeans have forgotten or suppressed their own local tradition of activism. The mistake is thus prevalent and stubborn. To unearth the history, theory, and practice of Singaporean activism, the news magazine New Naratif interviews former student activist TAN Tee Seng and civil rights activist Jolovan WHAM in their podcast series Political Agenda.

In the interview, New Naratif’s THUM Ping Tjin referred to a theory of activism propounded by Bill Moyer. This is not the beloved American political commentator. This Bill Moyer (without an ‘s” at the end of his last name) was a United States social change activist who influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and James Bevel to focus the Chicago Freedom Movement on open, integrated housing. Inspired by the Quaker philosophy of non-violence, Moyer distilled his experience from organizing many campaigns into his Movement Action Plan.

The theory describes four different roles played by activists in successful campaigns. The Advocate communicates with the people whom Moyer called “the powerholders.” The Helper provides direct social services to the people in need. The Organizer brings people and resources together to multiply the effects of the campaign. The Rebel sees the problem or injustice and makes a commotion to force change. Ideally, the same person plays all four roles, but this is rarely the case as the roles demand different temperaments and aptitudes.

New Naratif’s Kirsten HAN lamented during the interview that Singaporean activism is weakened by its own internal divisions. The Rebel accuses the Advocate of hobnobbing with the powers-that-be. Usually working behind the scenes, the Organizer charges the Rebel of seeking publicity for its own sake. The Helper, faced with immediate needs, ignores the Organizer’s spreadsheets and timelines. The Advocate condescends to the Helper. What everyone needs to do, says Han, is to unite behind the campaign goals in order to confront the powers that preserve the status quo.

Throughout the interview, the older activist TAN Tee Seng is especially impassioned about free speech and civil rights. Little wonder for he was one of the activists detained without trial by the government in 1987 on the trumped-up charge of being Marxist subversives. He is rightly indignant that the founding promises of the country have been so betrayed. Every Singaporean schoolchild knows the National Pledge, which they recite at the beginning of every school day, but how many take seriously the daily oath “to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality”? When activists take the Pledge at its word, why do these grown-up children brand them as trouble-makers?

Singapore’s National Pledge has the distinction of being penned by a literary man, whose short stories garnered the attention of E. M. Forster and George Orwell. S. Rajaratnam wrote short stories about rural life in India and Malaya, and the stories were deeply concerned with social and economic justice. He would go on to become Culture Minister, and then Foreign Minister of the newly independent country, and later, Deputy Prime Minister. In the process he gave up his fiction writing. What the governance of Singapore gained, the literature of the nation lost. NYC-based Singaporean writer Manish Melwani reflects on the moment in history when Singapore was part of the Non-Aligned Movement and the fiction of S. Rajaratnam was making trouble for the oppressors, in a talk first given at the 3rd Singapore Literature Festival in NYC last October, and now published for the first time in SP Blog.


Jee Leong Koh



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8 Responses to “To redeem the pledge”

  • Boh Kia See:

    In order to redeem our pledge, it is necessary to get rid of the PAP. The PAP, in short, has betrayed the pledge that all Singaporeans recite. Now the pledge is considered an ‘aspiration” which should act as a guide for actions and policies. Nothing is further from the truth. This pledge has a hollow ring to it. It was seeded by the previous PAP who looked after the people. Those people have long gone and the current PAP simply looks after itself.

    All the pioneer PAP leaders who went into politics with the view of serving Singapore, were retired by the Trait*r PM to create conditions for a dynasty. The clown his son is doing that now. If they succeed, there will be no place for you or your children–only the elites.

    Opposition parties should plan their strategy well and co-operate on the ground. This requires maturity of the leaders of those parties which I think we have in Singapore.

    So the first step in the recovery of Singapore is to remove the PAP. Make the pledge the basis of all public policies and practices to make it real.

    So spread the work–remove the PAP at the earliest opportunity.

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  • RDB:

    What does NYC stand for? Uncommon abbreviation must not be left to be unknown.

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    The Powers that be carry out what a BASTARD claim that man “ARE NOT EQUAL” in his slitty & Evil eyes…

    What is that again in the pledge??? “to build a democratic society based on justice and EQUALITY”…my foot is tickled pink when the pledge is mentioned

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  • problem of a pliant parleement:

    our original pledge emphasized, regardless of race, language or religion.

    then lky clown said we needed a race based president who is malay.

    but lky clown put in place an INDIAN.

    who broke the sanctity of our original pledge? lky clown.

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  • Start On Wrong Foot:

    “Social change activists are often perceived as trouble-makers. This happens not only in Singapore but all around the world.”

    This starting statement is simply untrue. Activism is an integral part of democracy and is a accepted norm in western developed societies.

    So it should be best amended to
    “Social change activists are often perceived as trouble-makers” to the establishment in Singapore. “This happens not only in Singapore but” in autocratic governments “around the world.”

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  • rukidding:

    Singing to the same tune as..we are sillypore !

    “This is my Cunt Twee”

    “This is my farts”

    “There is no future ,…there are No Friends.”

    Chorus: ” We are sillypore,…we are sillypore”

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  • A 5-Star Story・物語《五つ星》:

    Singapore Flag anyone?:
    January 22, 2019 at 12:29 pm (Quote)
    “Red” stands for universal brotherhood and equality of man. “White” symbolises pervading and everlasting purity and virtue. The “crescent moon” represents a young nation on the ascendant, and the “five stars” depict Singapore’s ideals of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality.


    You need to be re-educated – fret not, we’re not sending you off to Sinkiang to join the million plus Uyghur ‘students’ -told the truth (about the the background) behind the design.

    You see, Ah Chye was a very pragmatic (short guy; Cantonese have a saying:「矮仔多計」) fellow. The flag design was all about appeasements, nothing more.

    We were, still are, a vulnerable small island surrounded by bigger, much bigger & menacing neighbors, and they don’t come any bigger or more menancing than Indonesia, especially during the very explosive & racially charged turbulent Sixties when that country was in the deepest throes of turmoil & never ending upheavals.

    So, he started with THEIR national flag:
    RED top half, WHITE bottom half
    to make the over 200,000,000-strong country led by the newly installed young general Mr ‘Pancasila’ Soh Har Toh happy.

    Not satisfied with pleasing only the Indomie-munchers, and because there were THAT OTHER biggy to our north and others which are Islam-majority, Ah Chye then added the symbol of their beliefs:
    the CRESCENT

    Having taken care of that, he still felt ‘something’ missing
    - because to just have a moon crescent on an entire piece of cloth would inevitably (mis)lead others wrongly into thinking we might’ve fallen to the Mooseman hordes and adopted their religion as our national belief as well -
    but he couldn’t quite put his finger on where the ‘problem’, the missing jigsaw, was.

    In came – to his rescue – the wisest of them all wise men:
    the venerable, inimitable peerless GOH KENG SWEE!

    Keng Swee-hya•慶瑞兄
    as all party cadres adoringly addressed him back then,
    then pointed out:

    “Like Mao & CCP or not, China is going to become big again today and reclaim its historical role in this part of our world, if THE WORLD it whole self, by which time, like the rest of the world, we may have to pander to its every whim & fancy, even if we may abhor such a thought.”

    That quip, intended or otherwise, was, for his shorter (in both stature & status) comrade, unlike the dumb & daft, stubborn & obstinate anglophile Harry of peranakan roots, was enough to give him his eureka moment, and being one not given to procrastination, promptly & without more prompts from our nation’s first & only true sage, sprang into immediate action, made some checks & enquiries at the national library as well as Kim…

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  • HarderTruths:

    Don’t bother – no use to anyone.

    Has it helped anyone here to repeat it or remember it?

    The only mantra in $G is ‘money talks bullshit walks’

    That is why FT will always win – they know exactly what to do.

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