Yawning Bread. October 2007

When warnings go unheeded




Containing dissent is getting harder for the Singapore government. The problem has been creeping up gradually, but it has taken the Burma crisis, motivating a surge of protests by Singaporeans and expatriate Burmese alike, to show how things have changed in Singapore. The old kneejerk policy of the government to ban every attempt at using the public space to make a point is becoming unworkable.

To be credible, bans must carry the real chance of enforcement. But what if enforcement is seen as carrying too high a price?

More and more attempts to protest, every one met with bans

As it is, there seems to be more and more attempts to organise outdoor protests, demonstrations, marches, vigils and whatever-you-might-call-it. Some organisers apply for a permit, others don't bother. Every one is met with refusal and if one still carries on, with police interception.

In yesterday's edition of 'Today' newspaper, it was reported that the police has banned a proposed 'Peace Concert for Burma' co-organised by the Substation, a centre for the arts, and Timbre, an outdoor cafe. Timbre is located in an enclosed courtyard adjacent to the Substation, and regularly holds music events. The only difference between this event and others would be that candles would be lit and a minute's silence observed.

Even so, the police statement said, "Political and 'cause'-related events are assessed to have a higher potential to stir emotions and controversy; an outdoor concert may lead to law and order concerns."

The "stir emotions" excuse is similar to the one used to explain the ban on a cycling event that had recently been proposed by the Workers' party. I don't have to say how vacuous that excuse is.

A month earlier, the police had banned another idea from the Substation: to hold an outdoor fair comprising stands by various civil society organisations. A similar permit application the year before was also refused.

Just a fortnight ago, students from 3 universities across 4 campuses organised a Peace Vigil over the Burma crisis. At the Singapore Management University, the 4th October gathering was supposed to take place in the open ground-floor foyer of the library building. Hours before it was to begin, the police phoned the Dean of Students, warning him that such an outdoor event would be illegal. The vigil was then hurriedly moved into the library itself.

Over at the Kent Ridge campus, their vigil had to be called off altogether. It's not clear what transpired, but according to the campus magazine The Ridge, "the proposal was rejected" -- by whom was not made clear.

More and more bans, some met with defiance

Some organisers abide by the bans, but others increasingly challenge them through some degree of civil disobedience. Sometimes, it's direct defiance, other times, the police ban is met with circumvention.

Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan mounting a one-man protest outside the Istana. Source: Singapore Democratic Party

Chee remains in place despite rain. Source: 'Today' newspaper.


In the same edition of 'Today' newspaper as the story of the Timbre ban, is a picture of opposition politician Chee Soon Juan holding a one-man protest in front of the Istana. He and 3 others had mounted a similar protest a few days before, but were arrested because they violated a hitherto unknown rule that said there should not be gatherings of more than one person outside the Istana -- yes, you heard right: one person. A week after posting bail, Chee went back to the Istana to set up his one-man protest. Perhaps the government would now promulgate a new rule to say there should not be gatherings of more than zero persons outside the Istana?

In August, the government leaned on the Botanic Gardens to ban a mass picnic organised by gay activists who had asked participants to show up wearing pink. Over 100 people showed up anyway -- for their private picnics -- wearing pink nonetheless.

A few days later, the police warned the gay organisers of a morning jog that jogging would constitute an illegal assembly and that they risked arrest. 40 joggers showed up anyway, most with their pink T-shirts. The police spoke to the organisers and videotaped the group. The joggers jogged anyway -- as individuals who happened to know each other.

Later the same month, when the demonstrations in Rangoon were starting up, 30 40 Burmese in Singapore chose to use white as their T-shirt colour. As a show of support for their compatriots in Burma, they marched from Orchard metro station to Peninsula Plaza, the social hub of the Burmese community here. The police intercepted them, took down their ID details, warned them that they would be investigated and videotaped them. The group continued marching anyway, all the way to the intended destination. They were later called up for interrogations, and warned that if they repeated something like this, they would be deported home.

At the time of writing, their cases are still not closed. They may well face prosecution for an illegal assembly, or public nuisance, or any number of possible offences from our statute books rich with possibilities.

The Burmese community had been under surveillance by the police for a long while.

In April last year (2006), some of them up a large picture of Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point for their water festival celebrations. In April this year, the police tried to pre-empt that and told the organisers not to repeat it. Despite this, they put up another picture of their heroine one more time. Would the police like to be seen hauling away a picture of her? That would make a great story for the world's press.

The really interesting event was the petition signing outside the Burmese embassy. It was organised by Chee and his Singapore Democratic Party, and took place over a few days at the end of September 2007. The police showed up, of course, and tried to tell people to leave, droning on that those who were there were "being investigated." They also stationed themselves at the entrance to St Martin's Road, where the embassy was located, in an attempt to warn off anyone intending to walk up the road to the petition-signing table. Despite this, many people, Singaporeans and Burmese alike, insisted on walking in and joining the group milling around the embassy gates. They lit candles and posted messages of outrage on the metal gates. They were quietly challenging the police to arrest them in the same way as the regime in Burma. There's a YouTube video of it here.

The old way isn't working

There was a time when Singaporeans always took heed of police warnings. Much of the government's policy was built on the assumption that a warning would suffice; people would disperse when met with uniformed and even plainclothes officers. The authorities wouldn't need to be seen actually arresting ordinary, conscientious people, beating or hosing them. Publicising the occasional arrest of Chee Soon Juan and other opposition leaders would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the average Singaporean.

But now a number of factors are at work undermining this easy solution.

Firstly, a new generation of Singaporeans have grown up, some of whom have not internalised the fears of their parents. It first became evident in 2006 when after well-known blogger Mr Brown was penalised by 'Today' newspaper for writing a column the government took offence to, a flash mob of brown T-shirts was organised.

Secondly, the rise of digital media, giving individuals pathways to global attention, enables them not only to publicise their causes, but also to publicise any mistreatment by the state. Bans and clampdowns now carry a bigger cost to the government.

Thirdly, a new generation of reporters, even in the mainstream media, are much more sympathetic to the various causes espoused by their peers. They see these events as legitimate news, and will chafe at attempts, which no doubt continue to exist, to keep such news off the pages. Over time, there has been an increasing degree of reportage of such protests, and in less slanted ways.

This is related to a grave, existential problem faced by all traditional media: how to sustain relevance in the digital age. In Singapore, that dilemma is compounded by an additional problem: how to serve the government and still maintain credibility. That circle cannot be squared. However, the government tries to make the right noises at least for foreign consumption, and claim that our media are genuinely free. Once the government has made such a claim, insincere though it may be, it will nevertheless come back to haunt them. Journalists and editors will try from time to time to take them at their word, and test the boundaries. Action -- people inundating the police with applications for outdoor events or people defying bans -- and publicity will mutually reinforce and embolden each other.

Fourthly, the demographic change that Singapore is undergoing is also a factor. We have already seen how the 50,000-strong Burmese community is able to organise over an issue that is close to their hearts.

As we take in more and more foreigners, they will bring their concerns with them. As well, they will bring their habits of speaking out and protesting, for they have not been domesticated the same way that Singaporeans have. 

Expatriate women staging a demonstration over the Burma crisis in Singapore. See http://www.instablogs.com/gallery/SIN10209281000. Picture source: AP

Imagine one day a huge scandal or political crisis in China. Wouldn't the large expatriate Chinese community in Singapore want to voice their feelings? When Chinese citizens are marching in the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu or Shenyang and defying the Chinese government, let's not imagine they wouldn't also be marching in the streets of Hong Kong, New York, Sydney.... and Singapore. Then what?

And if foreigners can demonstrate in Singapore, why can't Singaporeans march?

Inflexibility raises risk of overreaction

Against these trends, the Singapore government appears to have no fresh ideas. They still seem to be guided by a singular impulse: the culture of protest must not be allowed to sprout.

However, their tools are getting less and less effective. Police bans and warnings are less heeded, yet actual arrests will entail a higher price in bad publicity. This at a time when Singapore needs, more than ever before, to be seen as a first-world country, and is taking in ever more foreigners with different political expectations.

Sooner or later, policy needs to change. The longer it continues, the greater the danger that one day, the police will overreact in an attempt to single-mindedly enforce the instruction from the top and a wave of bad publicity and public outrage ensues. Singapore's international image suffers a body blow and our economy gets hit indirectly.

In a way, that would be just history repeating itself. Dictatorships, often fond of inflexible rules, often out of touch with the people, stumble into such situations all the time. 

Yawning Bread