Bread. September 2006
Who owns the street?
It was supposed to be a lively, yet thought-provoking carnival, filling
the Substation, its grounds, and bursting out onto Armenian Street.
The police killed it.
The Substation Street Party 2006 was meant as an all-day, all-night event mixing art with civil society. Although it never got to the final planning stages, I was given the image of a fair with buskers, mime artistes, rock bands and others performing amidst booths put up by various non-government organisations (NGOs) set up to inform the public about their concerns. The latter would include the vegetarians, cat lovers, fair trade activists (i.e. people who believe that even workers in poor countries producing Nike shoes, iPods, etc, should not be exploited in terms of their wages and working conditions), activists for autistic children, Mercy Relief (a disaster relief NGO) and many others. People Like Us would be there too.
It would be entertaining, fun and yet educational. Increasingly, people see the connection between art (and even entertainment) and social purpose. An early example was Sonny Bono and Bob Geldof's 'Do they know it's Christmas?' (1984), a hugely successful project to draw attention to and raise funds for fighting famine in Africa.
The Substation wanted the event not just to be big, but to be public and accessible. For that, they conceived of closing off about 150 metres of Armenian Street, a low-traffic road. Its closure would affect very few other buildings along that stretch, especially on a Saturday. But that meant they had to liaise with the police.
Anticipating that the police would be ridiculously cagey, the Substation was prepared to put the NGOs and activists indoors, while the arts performances would be in the garden and on the street, in order to draw people into the building.
Despite this, the authorities demanded that every organisation that would have a booth on the day of the event had to provide, within 48 hours, a list of things that would be displayed at the booth. That's not all. For each item, the NGO had to declare what text would be on it, be it a T-shirt, a poster, a banner, a postcard, a CD or a pamphlet.
Almost the NGOs felt this was utterly unreasonable. What right do the police have to vet speech?
In practical terms, it was also impossible to comply with, since being volunteer organisations, short on manpower, a typical NGO arranges its booth and decide what goes into it, at the last minute. This is true the world over. The NGO might also change the look of the booth as the day goes on, based on feedback about what catches the eye of passers-by.
And so the event was called off. On the right is the statement issued by the Substation.
We may not be conscious of it, but doing something in a public space is very different from doing it in an enclosed space. In a public space, what goes on is understood as being of a civic nature, celebratory, for the public interest. In an enclosed space, it is marked in our mind's eye as something more for aficionados.
In a public space, people are less inhibited about wandering in and interacting with the participants. They know immediately that the event is meant for everybody. In an enclosed, indoor space, there is a subliminal sense of trespass, of a need to be invited, and even then, there is the feeling of being a client or mere visitor. On the street, everybody is equal.
Humans are very good at grasping spatial significance. That is why we know exactly when to hang out a rainbow flag from our windows, and why we'd be disgusted to see beer advertisements adorn the front of a courthouse.
It's not as if we never close streets in Singapore. Every August 9th, we do, for the National Day parade. Around Christmas, we close Orchard Road. For Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, we close New Bridge Road. Every night, Smith Street in Chinatown and Boon Tat Street near Lau Pa Sat are closed to allow food vendors to set up tables for al fresco dining. Even Armenian Street was closed for Kuo Pao Kun's funeral in 2002. Kuo was the founder of the Substation. For the funeral of former Deputy Prime Minister S Rajaratnam, quite a number of downtown streets were also closed earlier this year.
However, excepting perhaps the 2002 occasion, all other occasions involving street closures are for government-initiated purposes. The National Day parade is obviously one, while the closure of the food streets, or the main roads for Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival are initiated by the Singapore Tourism Board in their attempt to inject "life" into our streets, kitschy though the results may be.
By this pattern, we can deduce that the police, who are the licensing authorities, see government-initiated events as legitimately of public interest, while citizen-initiated events are imposters.
More than that, going by the way they demanded that every single word, comma and question-mark displayed at every booth should be submitted in advance for vetting, they saw the citizen-initiated Substation Street Party as subversive. Why this degree of suspicion? Are citizen's concerns as expressed by NGOs at their booths, or as sung by buskers in their songs, necessarily a threat to the State? To public peace?
It would seem so, by their reaction. Their paranoia must have been particularly heightened when so many NGOs decided to do an event collectively.
But this begs the question: Who owns the street? (I use "street" here to mean the public space in general). I may be stretching it, but the behaviour we've seen may reveal that the government thinks they own it, and the citizen may only encroach with their reluctant permission. Moreover, the job of the police is to serve the government and its interest, even if that interest includes the spurious claim that the government owns the public space.
I would contest that model of thinking. Public space and the street belongs to the public, and the job of the police is to juggle the competing claims of the public on that common space. Sure, there is the interest of traffic and circulation. Sure, there is the question of noise and disturbance. But there are also other public interests such as political awareness, social action, civic celebration, and artistic expression.
A city with only smooth-flowing traffic, with red, amber and green lights changing silently and robotically is a city without spirit. The Substation and its participating NGOs wanted to show us all new possibilities. The government saw that as threat, even as they keep calling on Singaporeans to be "active citizens".
© Yawning Bread