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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Samizdat and Samizdis!

During the darkest days of communist rule in the former Soviet Union, which fell across Russia and many East European countries, the State exercised total control over what its peoples were allowed to view, hear or read. Like all totalitarian regimes, it feared ideas more than enemy tanks and guns. Tanks and guns it could fight, but not ideas. All ideas are inherently subversive because by its very nature, ideas are new, novel, innovative and therefore challenge the status quo.

In Singapore, the regime is not as totalitarian and the censorship not as total, but to compensate for this, it is perhaps, a lot more sophisticated. Very often, laws and invisible Out Of Bounds markers define and constrict what otherwise would be simple freedom of expression. Also, biased judges who invariably find for the ruling party in every defamation action it files against political opponents, have had a "chilling effect on freedom of speech and democracy". Then, too, the regime is sophisticated enough to pass laws that ostensibly censor something nobody would oppose, such as pornography, then use that censorship instrument to also censor political content, which is quietly done and therefore rides on the back of say, anti-porn measures. Similarly, laws that are ostensibly against say, illegal gatherings or rioters are used against even peaceful political gatherings, thereby tarring both with the same criminal brush.

In communist Soviet Union, therefore, there arose the popular culture of the samizdat, or underground printing and distribution of books and magazines banned by the authorities. Alas, in Singapore, such is not possible as all printers are known and licensed, in this tiny country of about 50 miles across and 40 miles wide. So, Mr Francis Seow's books are not printed or carried in Singapore. And even Dr Chee Soon Juan's innocuous books are hard to come by because they contain ideas, and ideas are dangerous to the ruling party and the comfortable status quo they have established for themselves.

But now, lately, there is the Internet, and websites like Singaporeans For Democracy or TalkingCock.com or Singapore Window, can carry information and ideas that the controlled media in Singapore would not countenance. Albeit, only available to those with Internet access and not the general population.

And with the increasingly cheap personal computer and printer, all of us who own a pc and printer and have Internet access have the potential to become a samizdat publisher. The printing part is easy. All of us who have the will need only hit the Print Button to print an article from SFD or TalkingCock.com or SW or any other site, to obtain a hard copy of that article. Or, to do a little more work, copy and paste the text into a word processor to touch up its presentation before printing.

But what about distribution?

That's the dicey part.

Of course, we cannot expect every democrat or similarly minded Singaporean to print numerous copies of that article for distribution. That would be expecting too much. But to print one, single copy of that article is well within our means. And as for distribution, do not, please, simply pass around that article to your friends and colleagues as it can be dangerous to do so. There are more than 10,000 PAP cadres in our midst, and if you include their families and friends, this could swell to well over 50,000, often in senior positions.

Also, it is expecting too much to ask that a democrat run the risk of offending colleagues and even friends by openly pushing samizdat literature into their unwilling hands. This could ruin office relationships and even friendships. No, the way to do it is to do it in reasonable safety and privacy.

Here, we need only look at the architecture of present day Singapore to find a solution. Some 90% of us live in HDB flats, all highrise. Another 5% or so also live in highrise condos. Only 5% or so live in landed, single home houses.

With 95% of us living in highrises, this means that 95% of us can be reached through our letterboxes, which are grouped into one or two Letterbox Areas, usually situated near the ground floor lift lobby in the void decks of HDB blocks. Since all the individual letterboxes are so grouped together, and residents open their own letterboxes once a day, this allows for samizdat literature to be distributed and circulated within that block of residents.

So, if you deem any article on the Net worthy of samizdisation, please print a hard copy for your neighbours who may not have Internet access or who have not come across these websites. At the top, please write or print the words, "Please read and then drop this randomly into any other letterbox so other residents may read it too." Of course, it would be even better if, like a chain letter, you request, "Please read and if, possible, make two copies and drop them randomly into the other letterboxes in your block or elsewhere." Then you could have a potential chain reaction going. Note that it would be better to do these letterdrops in secret. We thank you for taking the trouble to do it but we would not wish you to get into any trouble. For the average apathetic Singaporean, this is about all we can reasonably expect.

Similarly, for all opposition literature, this samizdat distribution system could work. For example, newsletters like the New Democrat published by the SDP and its new brochure published by its Young Democrats, can have an extended lease of life after reading. It could circulate for some time in the blocks, until an inconsiderate recipient or pro-PAP resident, stops the chain. All that the literature needs is a sticker or prominent exhortation to 'read and pass on'.

And websites like SFD or TalkingCock.com or SW can help by highlighting its 'best' articles or letters for samizdating. All it needs is an icon beside the article and/or the exhortation to "samizdis!"

This could become part of a popular culture of sharing ideas and information, in short, a samizdat culture, in which ideas and news are shared and spread. Right now, only rumours and gossip are making the rounds, because spreading these is not dangerous. A samizdat culture could make all of us part of the circle of knowledge and not just through the gossip mill. It could also point more Singaporeans to the URLs of SFD and TalkingCock.com and SW, as well as providing information to those who do not have a pc.

And for a start you can samizdis this letter.

February 2001