The Lost Art of Protest

The last three months have seen at least three ‘protests’ at Hong Lim Park, which has no doubt encouraged some civil society activists and pro-democracy types. They probably think this marks a coming of age for political expression in Singapore. 

But the reality is that the Hong Lim Park protests won’t change anything at all. In fact, if anything it could make things worse.

Protests work only if enough people believe in the cause and are willing to take affirmative action if the Govt does not give in.

When tens or hundreds of thousands of people occupy an airport for months, as they did in Thailand, the Govt has to make a choice– forcefully disperse the protesters, which has grave political consequences– or give in to their demands.

When thousands and tens of thousands of people march on the streets, shouting their demands, the Govt has the same choice– arrest the protesters and make the people more angry, which will cost it dearly in political terms– or offer dialogue and concessions.

Having a bunch of people attend three hours of speeches in Hong Lim Park does not have the same effect. Particularly if half of them are there for the entertainment value only and none of them are repeatedly shouting any demands or slogans.

Whether protests are a legitimate way to force policy change or political change is a separate matter. What is important is that Singaporeans should realize that Hong Lim Park style ‘protests’ will not change anything.

The PAP knows that too, which is why they allow it. 

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11 Responses to The Lost Art of Protest

  1. Kai says:

    Hmm, just wondering… what about the fact that the govt. has backtracked on the 6.9 million population figure in saying that it’s now a “working parameter” instead of an inevitable goal, which only happened after the strong showing of the first population protest? What about creating awareness among the people especially the online community which is virtually the majority of people nowadays? The number of people who show up during a protest may not be really indicative of its influence due to the rapid online transmission of sentiments in our digitally connected populace. This is evidenced by the fact that at present time more than 4000 people have signed the online petition against the MDA licensing regime, despite having only about 2000 turned up at the #FreeMyInternet protest yesterday.

    In the old bygone days when the transmission of information is purely physical in nature such as through the distribution of fliers or the actual acts of protesters on the ground, there would be few if any other avenues of carrying the people’s message across to the govt. to effect change. But in today’s internet age where more and more stuff can be done ‘virtually’, mass protests can arguably be carried out in a digital, virtual environment to reach a huge swath of the general public unimaginable in the times of physical protest when the logistics involved would have been prohibitive. Our own Singaporean-styled Hong Lim Park protests are perhaps examples of such internet-powered protests because they are all supported by huge online presence hidden below the surface. (Incidentally, I happen to read anecdotal comments on FB today from people who say they support the #FreeMyInternet movement and have signed the petition but were unable to attend due to personal circumstances. I guess the freedom of the internet does give people more choices now as to the ways of expressing their views!)

    Just my thoughts after attending the protest yesterday, for I believe that the newfound power of the people afforded by our freedom of (responsible) speech in cyberspace should be safeguarded for our own sake.

    • Thanks for response. I think you may have got the order of events wrong. I recall Khaw saying 6.9M was a worst-case scenario when confronted with public feedback, even before the HLP protests.

      Notwithstanding the above, I understand your point but I think Govt’s will not really move until their position is threatened. Online petitions, in my view, do not have that kind of power to move Govts.

      When whole streets are blocked by mass protests, when whole airports are shut down by mass protests, the Govt has to make an immediate decision– offer concessions, or send in the riot police.

      Online petitions do not force Govts to make such difficult choices.

      And by the way, one does not ‘attend’ protests like one attends a concert or even a political rally. One either protests or one does not. Those who protest chant, picket, block, etc. If you’re not doing such things, you aren’t really protesting.

      It’s sad that Singaporeans think ‘attending’ is a legitimate thing to do at a protest, that such attendance amounts to ‘protesting’ and such attendance can change anything.

      • Kai says:

        Well, I agree with your viewpoint too. Just want to add that even if the govt. is not immediately forced to make concessions by imminent threats of inconvenience, they shall be moved by the *idea* that the voters will remember their sentiments when it’s time to cast their votes! The voters will no doubt be reminded with their sentiments being digitally propagated ad infinitum. (What’s created on the internet virtually exists forever.)

      • Kai says:

        I see you’ve just added a couple of paragraphs about the more traditional, physical methods of protesting as we see happen elsewhere such as in the Western democracies. To be honest, you’re right that I’m indeed a tame Singaporean not used to more physical or disruptive methods of protesting. When I ‘attend’ protests, I loudly cheer on the speakers when the points they make resonate with the audience, and I put my name on petitions that matter to me to be counted, as number represents strength.

        I point out that within our Singaporean context where assembly for protests is only legal within the perimeter of Hong Lim Park, it might not be much more effective to stage the more disruptive ways of protesting you’ve mentioned — not unless you can bring the picketing, blocking, etc. to more immediate areas of concern to the govt., say, in front of the parliament. But that would be illegal in Singapore and would certainly land you in jail, and would be short-sighted to achieving our long-term goals such as protecting our fundamental constitutional human rights to free speech. So these more traditional means of staging a protest might not be worthwhile in Singapore given the legal constraint and the small playground we have. Even our pre-eminent street activist Martyn See would only post videos of him harassing plainclothes policemen within the confines of Hong Lim Park, I must say, an act for which he was greatly admired. Haha!

    • Thank you for your comments. As I said at the end, this piece is not about whether protests are a legitimate way of achieving policy or political change.

      However, I will point out that protests are not a ‘Western’ thing, as you seem to think. Nor does legality have anything to do with it. For example, Bersih 2.0 was definitely illegal, and carried out under the very real threat of isa arrest in Malaysia.

      People protest– legally or illegally– when issues are important enough to them, when they feel they must change things.

      Strongly worded letters, or Internet petitions, are not the same.

  2. Pingback: Daily SG: 10 Jun 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  3. SaneNotSaint says:

    Singaporean style of protest is mostly state or mummy who teaches in sunday’s school approved way of resolving differences. In that kind of situation, the unhappy citizens are mostly out talked, out argued and out maneuvered by well groomed civil prosecutors or ministers.

    Chua Mui Hoon, on Sunday, wrote about that. She called that being civil.

    Hard-hitting, yet civil

    “When citizens criticise the country’s institutions or the Government’s failings, we must do so without eroding the collective values that bind us as a nation. Our irritation with specific individuals or organisations should not blind us to the importance of maintaining civility.”

    You have been defused

  4. Ape do agree that staging a protest or more likely the case, a rally, at Hong Lim Park is unlikely to make our government back track on an implemented policy immediately. However, ape wouldn’t think that it is totally ineffective.

    Like what Kai mentioned, such an event could create greater awareness among the population.

    Ape would also add that, depending on the turnout and how the rally proceeded, it could also set an OB marker FOR our government. The case of 6.9 million. If we take it like ‘oh ok’, you can guess perhaps our population may exceed 8million by 2030. But seeing such negative response, the policy makers may think twice and keep close monitoring and take great pains to justify the need for more.

    Ape for one, would not wish that our government take IMMEDIATE u-turn just because there was a massive turnout for protest or rally. If they do that, it could mean that whatever policy that invites such reprisal, the policy came out shoddily. Or whatever immediate change to the policy also cooked up hastily and shoddily.

    Raise our voice and be heard, we should. Don’t expect immediate change for it could be changed for the worse.

  5. SaneNotSaint says:

    In certain matter, the government will compromise if the people rattle the ground – civilly – loud enough. But where it counts the most, sitting on the negotiating table with them will unlikely change anything.
    Point is, the apex of power will always have the final say.

  6. Norm says:

    Protests definitely not just a Western thing. Look at the anti-nuclear protest in Japan last week and the ongoing protest against authoritarianism in Turkey. Thousands have taken to the streets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and even mainland China (e.g. Wukan). Not to mention the whole Arab Spring.

    Singaporeans too kiaxi. Focused on material things and generally apathetic about “principle” issues. The weather doesn’t help.

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