08 November 2005

Solidarity Vigil Review

The Solidarity Vigil for Nguyen Tuong Van was organised by Think Centre and the Reach Out Campaign and held at Asia Hotel on 7 November. For today, I have no comments on the death penalty - readers already know my views through the discussions at Singabloodypore. Instead, I'll give a review of the vigil, which will serve as an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this campaign/movement against capital punishment.

The Ticket

The vigil for Nguyen follows a different format from Shanmugam's vigil in September this year. Instead of a flower child and hippy poet procession-cum-performance reading session, this month's event is a soapbox parade of opposition politicians and civil society activists.

When you have a diverse group on the same campaign, giving speeches at the same event, the ticket is expected to show some unity and discipline. That was lacking, however. Signs of trouble first showed themselves when JB Jeyaratnam began to speak after Alex Au's introductory fact-laying. The veteran politician (the first opposition member to win a parliament seat after Independence), a fiery orator, never warmed up, giving a hestitant and sententious speech.

That is not a problem. The problem was with how his fellow panellists and fellow campaigners on the ticket showed their utter boredom during his speech. Au took off his spectacles and buried his face into his palms, while Anthony Yeo propped his jawbone with a hand. At least the ticket was not further disgraced, as Dr Chee and a Brother from the Catholic church sat attentively, looking and listening to the speaker.

When you're on the same ticket, even looking at your watch while another speaker is giving a speech is taboo, as any greenhorn campaign manager will tell you.

Message Discipline

Chee, Yeo, and the Brother stayed on message. They had just one point to make in their speeches (The Burma Question, the psychological harm to the family of the executed prisoner, the stand on the Catholic church on the matter), and delivered that one point to its conclusion. Contrary to public impressions of Dr Chee as an out of control slanderer of authority figures, the real loose cannon of the night was Nguyen's lawyer, Ravi, who had too many points to make and many more irrelevant points as well, including frequent jibes at the Nominated Elected President, SR Nathan.

There is a place for all things, and a vigil to drum up support for opposition to the death penalty is not the best avenue for politicking or political comedy - something that Jeyaratnam and Chee understood. One wished Ravi had paid attention to the lack of politicking by the two opposition leaders, who went before him.

Unity of Message

This simply means that for a properly organised campaign, speakers on the same ticket cannot afford to contradict each other. Yet, we have

Alex Au: I read a lawyer's account on the internet that the jury system was abolished shortly after Independence because Singaporean citizens were reluctant to convict a member of their peers, if it meant execution.

Jeyaratnam: That's not true. I was a prosecutor during that time and I assure you Singaporean juries never made adverse verdicts - that is to say, finding a clearly guilty man innocent because it would mean the capital punishment. That claim about reluctant Singaporean juries was first made by Lee Kuan Yew in order to justify the abolition of the jury system.

Yes. The poster boy of the internets shows the power of online research... Having contributed to several academic anthologies on the construction of gender, Au forgets to apply the same discourse theory to the lawyer's account he finds on the internets, and also neglects to put proper footnotes and citations for the statistics in the handouts for the audience. Plain embarrassing to have someone on the ticket to correct you like this, really.

Then, we also have, during the Q&A session, Ravi trying to blame everything on Nathan. He would've gotten scot-free and the audience none the wiser had not this exchange taken place:

Ravi: Why does Nathan, upon being nominated (audience laughter) - sorry, elected - as President, refuse to grant clemency to any of the over 100 criminals on Death Row during his tenure?

Jeyaratnam: Constitutionally, the President can only issue a clemency after being advised by the cabinet, which has to be advised by the Attorney-General.

Ravi: That's the elected President, yes? Who has less power than the ceremonial President? (audience laughter) All his predecessors, as ceremonial Presidents, managed to grant clemency to several criminals! So Nathan...

Jeyaratnam: Actually the ceremonial Presidents also could only issue a clemency upon the advice of the cabinet and the AG.

Clearly, one of these men here is wildly uninformed and wrong about how the presidency works. One is a lawyer of over 50 years. Another is a laywer who is currently petitioning the President for clemency for Nguyen. The horrors, the horrors! Ergo, no message unity.


For a campaign organised by a political group, there is clearly insufficient organisation per se, little coordination, little preparation. Just requiring the speakers to submit their points to each other for vetting would've prevented all this.

JB Jeyaratnam was lacklustre during his own speech. He had very little to say about the case itself, admitting at his opening statement that he is unfamiliar with the details of Nguyen's case, and what he had to say was put forth in tortured syntax that - given his reptutation as an orator - disappointed the audience. Yet his best contributions were as a fact-checker, to rein in the excesses of the claims by Au and Ravi...

One would've expected Think Centre to place Jeyaratnam as one of the last speakers, instead of being the second speaker. That way, he would've had some inkling of the case by the time he was due to speak...

Thankfully, the final speaker, Madam Letchumi Murugesu, Shanmugam's mother, gave a touching and sincere speech on the futility of the death penalty and its nihilism. She is the true poster child of this campaign, not Nguyen, and not Shanmugam. Think Centre and the Reach Out Campaign would do well to realise this.

Special mentions

Au, the so-called "founding father of the Singaporean struggle for gay equality", made the worst fashion faux pas ever for the vigil. In an event with dozens of video cameras by major news organisations (including Reuters), the dapper man wore a shirt with checked patterns. The rest of the panel, being much more media-savvy and fashion-conscious, wore solid colours. Au will be known as the Hypnotist or Mr Moire due to his satorical choice.


Anonymous said...

er, one correction. The solidarity event wasn't organised by the Think Centre, but by a loose grouping of concerned, non-partisan individuals.

akikonomu said...

The loose grouping of people helping out to organise the affair seemed to hail from TC. You didn't notice TC was doing a major recruitment drive after the talk?