Singapore exile and former student activist, Tan Wah Piow, met with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed on Thursday and invited him to speak at an upcoming conference on democracy next year.
The meeting with Tan, along with Singaporean historian Thum Ping-tjin, was reportedly facilitated by well-known Malaysian activist Hishamuddin Rais.
Dr Mahathir, who is serving his second stint as PM, has accepted in principle to speak at the conference, pending his availability, his office said. The event is scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur early next year.
The group also presented Dr Mahathir with a copy of a document titled “People’s Charter for Southeast Asia.” No details were made available on what the document contained.
The meeting with the activists, which are believed to include Singaporeans Jolovan Wham, Sonny Liew and Kirsten Han, lasted 80 minutes. They discussed Singapore-Malaysia ties and the recent Pakatan Harapan electoral victory in May.
Tan, who is part of a group called the Forces for Renewal of Southeast Asia, said he was “grateful for this open, democratic space that Tun Mahathir’s government has now opened” by leading an opposition alliance to victory in May. Tan added that Malaysia was now “a beacon for many struggling for democracy not just in Singapore but also in other parts of Southeast Asia.”
“I hope the May 9 polls can influence Singaporeans,” Tan told the media after the meeting, when asked if the Malaysian election results would have any influence on Malaysia’s southern neighbour..
“Malaysia has pointed the way to Singaporeans that change is possible and not frightening,” he added. “As far as I’m concerned, the most important things that Tun Mahathir brought about through his victory is this positiveness and aspiration for a freer society.”
Singapore has been continuously ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since independence in 1965. Its no-nonsense, authoritarian rule, especially under the late Lee Kuan Yew, saw opposition leaders, civil activists, journalists and more, charged, jailed or paraded in the media to discredit them.
Tan himself was the target of such government actions in the 1970s, when he was a student union leader.
He fled the country in 1976, he said, after discovering a plot by the government to have him enlist for National Service, which is compulsory for all Singaporean males 18-years of age, with intentions to do him harm once he was in the military.
He was also found guilty of a rioting incident which he said was made-up by the authorities to implicate him.
Currently living in London, where he has been since his self-exile, Tan was also accused of being the “mastermind” of a “Marxist conspiracy” to topple the Lee Kuan Yew government in 1987.
In that incident, 22 social activists were detained, some for several years, under Singapore’s draconian Internal Security Act. The detainees accused the government of torture and of concocting charges against them.
Several government leaders, including the current deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and former Attorney General, Walter Woon, have said they do not believe the charges against the 22 were credible.
Tan’s citizenship was also revoked in 1987.
Dr Thum, himself subjected to a 6-hour interrogation by Law Minister K Shanmugam during a Select Committee hearing into online “fake news”, was asked what he thought the Singapore government would think of their meeting with Dr Mahathir who is known to be a critic of the authorities here.
“I think they will be very concerned,” the Oxford-based historian said, “not because I met with Dr Mahathir, but the fact that the prime minister is prepared to share his views about democracy and to enhance the development of democracy in the region.
“And that Malaysia is now shining this beacon which is probably stealing the limelight from Singapore. I think that’s what worries them. Singapore is becoming (an) outdated, archaic society with its dominant party controls.”
Mr Tan and Dr Thum were also panellists at a discussion in Johor several weeks ago, on the topic: “Can Singapore do a Malaysia?”
In that forum, both men cautioned that the circumstances in Malaysia which led to the opposition alliance victory were quite different. Tan said then that the same happening in Singapore was “mission impossible” for now.
Opposition supporters and those who want to see a more pluralistic parliament are nonetheless hopeful that the Malaysian experience will spill over here.
The opposition parties earlier this year held several meetings to forge an alliance, which they want former PAP stalwart Dr Tan Cheng Bock to lead. Discussions on this are still ongoing.