Saturday September 15, 2007
Getting message across
Insight: Down South
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
In a country where public protests and demonstrations need police permits, young Singaporeans are finding ways to get around this, without contravening the laws and confronting the authorities.
FACED with prohibitive rules against protests, young Singaporeans with grievances to air in public are adopting creative ways to do so without getting into trouble.
It is tricky business in a country where public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. It is almost impossible for anyone to address an outdoor crowd unless it is officially sanctioned.
Despite some loosening up in recent years, the authorities still crack down on any outdoor display of dissent.
Activists last week organised a protest that wasn’t really a protest against a new annuities policy.
It was a rather ingenuous idea: Go shopping at a particular mall at a certain hour – dressed in black. Since there was no rally or speeches or banners, no laws were broken.
Predictably, the turnout was poor with no more than 30 people responding, outnumbered by plainclothes policemen and newsmen.
They got away with it because it was not big enough to pose a threat to the government. In fact the scale was almost laughable to people abroad who are used to mass demonstrations.
Its passive nature has, however, gained it a measure of public acceptance that could serve as an example of non-violent dissent a la Singapore in future.
It was not confrontational or anti-government and had a limited objective of opposing a single policy. Participants were advised not to argue but disperse if ordered to do so by the police.
A respected blogger, redbean, said it could be a good way for people to register their views without having to lay on them with the full weight of the law.
“It is a civilised way by a civilised people to make their point, in a polite way, as the issues are not life threatening or deserving of a violent protest,” he added.
Last month another innovative protest happened, and it had nothing to do with the government.
A handful of Singaporeans assembled at a public park with Japanese anime figurines such as the 5-inch tall Ultramen, robots and monsters and some placards.
Real-life police, who obviously did not find it amusing, met them, but did not break them up.
The ‘anime’ fans – or rather, the armful of toys - were protesting against a clampdown on Internet downloading of anime material by Singapore animation distributor Odex.
Like most other similar events, it was not reported in the local press but posted with pictures in various websites.
The police, who had four anti-riot vans at the scene, filmed the event and took down the particulars of the fans. It was a victory of sorts for youthful expression.
“The police didn’t stop us from what we wanted to do. But their being there was enough to intimidate,” the organiser said.
Others are using all the legal channels they can think of to voice their public unhappiness.
Singapore has progressed significantly in the area of higher education during the past decade. Some 52% of Singaporeans have, or are getting, a university degree, half of them in foreign universities.
The result is an increasingly well-informed people with high technical skills but who are also more individualistic and divided. Lee Kuan Yew’s national consensus, if at all alive, is a lot thinner.
Leading them is an authoritarian government that tolerates only the scantiest of organised criticism. Critics who are too outspoken are told to form a political party to take it on.
A Speakers Corner that was designed to allow dissenters to make public speeches had understandably faded away.
It wasn’t anything like London’s Hyde Park, from which it models after, since speakers must register with the police and loudhailers are not permitted.
With the mainstream media strictly regulated, Singaporeans who have alternative or critical views are using their wits to get around the obstacles.
The Internet is, of course, the most effective (two thirds of homes are web connected) so the more creative of the lot are saying their pieces in the forms of videos, filmlets, organised statistics, poems and songs.
Others put up online petitions.
Most are aware of the legal boundaries and generally strive to stay within them, although at times the less experienced live close to breaching them.
Last year demonstrators also used coloured clothes to show their unhappiness.
They were supporting a popular blogger, Mr. Brown, whose column in a daily newspaper was terminated because an article had apparently displeased the government. Some two-dozen supporters rallied public wearing brown clothes.
“No organised cycling”
The opposition Workers Party which has benefited from an injection of younger blood with fresher ideas attempted to hold a cycling event at East Coast Park as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.
The authorities disallowed it, saying it was potential for “public disorder and unruly behaviour.”
It is not certain if it was a victory for any one. The ruling People’s Action Party was later forced to cancel its own “night cycling’ event –purportedly because of poor response.
It probably didn’t want to be accused of double standards.
The impact of all these actions on the government is little more than a mosquito bite.
The ‘Wear Black” protest flopped because it was aimed at the Internet-savvy, English-educated class, which is, by and large, concerned only with studies and careers.
To succeed, observers believe it has to take place in the housing board heartland where the masses live – not at Orchard Road.
It needs the broad participation of the Chinese- and Malay-speaking “heartlanders”, a virtual impossibility since most are non-surfers.
And rallying them outside the Internet is impossible without inviting a crackdown.