Protest culture in Singapore — wait, what?

The 2011 Freedom to Love celebration called Pink Dot, which is held annually at Speaker's Corner in Singapore.

Singapore, a “sunny island set in the sea,” is known for many things: economic prosperity, air-conditioning, malls and underground malls linking to more malls. What it is not known for, though, is a stellar human rights record or an active citizenry willing to take to the streets.

In October 2011, a Facebook page for Occupy Singapore sprung up, asking Singaporeans to gather at Raffles Place in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District on October 15 as part of the Global Day of Action. The movement called for more accountability and transparency in the running of government-linked corporations, particularly the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation and Temasek Holdings. In recent years, these two corporations had made huge losses on bad investments made with public money.

It was a demand close to the hearts of many Singaporeans who have been frustrated by the lack of accountability and responsibility taken by the senior management of these corporations. It was also good timing, in a year of watershed elections — when trust and accountability were hot-button issues — which saw the ruling People’s Action Party get its lowest vote share in the nation’s history. People appeared to be more fired up than they had been in years.

But when October 15 rolled around, Raffles Place was left woefully unoccupied. The space thronged with journalists and photographers (and perhaps a number of plainclothes policemen), but no protesters. Although the organizers of Occupy Raffles Place later expressed bitterness and disappointment at the turnout (or lack thereof), it is hard to imagine what they had expected. Protests, public demonstrations and civil disobedience are just not in the average Singaporean’s blood.

‘If I say this, will I get in trouble?’

Thanks to the government and the mainstream media, protests, demonstrations and strikes are often linked in the minds of Singaporeans to violence and unrest. This perception is further supported by the fact that law enforcement authorities often turn down permit applications for events by citing “law and order” concerns that would affect the stability of the country.

Restrictions on freedom of speech and the government’s willingness to make use of defamation suits have also encouraged people to constantly watch what they say. The porous and vague definition of “OB markers” (or “out of bounds markers”) make people unwilling to speak out, just in case what they say gets them into trouble.

The government has also often used Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious society as a justification for the curbing of freedom of expression. Singaporeans are often reminded of the race riots of the 1960s, when violent conflict broke out between the different racial groups, and told that everything must be done to ensure that we never return to such violence. People who make comments of a racial or religious nature can be charged under the Sedition Act, if said comments are deemed to have the potential of creating ill will between different racial and religious groups.

In December 2011, Singaporeans for Democracy submitted an application for a permit to hold an anti-racism rally to address a recent spate of racist postings on Facebook. The application was rejected. When a formal appeal was made, the authorities again cited “law and order considerations.”

Add to all this the belief held by many Singaporeans that we have it good — we have roofs over our heads, food on the table, there aren’t any wars or natural disasters, we have our shopping and our streets are clean. What more do you want? For most people, life is too comfortable to risk the repercussions of speaking out.

Laws, laws, laws

In 2008, around 20 people — children included — gathered outside Parliament House to protest against the rising cost of living in Singapore. The protesters, mostly associated with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), carried placards and wore T-shirts that read Tak Boleh Tahan, meaning “Cannot Take It” in Malay. (The phrase is also commonly used in Singlish, an English-based creole spoken by most Singaporeans.)

Eighteen protesters, including SDP’s Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, were arrested and charged under the Public and Nuisance Act on two counts: for participating in an assembly, and for participating in a procession without a permit. Fines of up to S$2,000 (approx. US$1,588) or jail terms of up to two weeks were meted out.

In 2009 the new Public Order Act stated that “cause-related activities will be regulated by permit regardless of the number of persons involved or the format they are conducted in.”

This effectively means that even a single person could constitute an illegal assembly and be subject to intervention from law enforcement if they have not obtained a police permit for their activity. It is also up to the authorities to define the term “cause-related activity.”

The only areas in which police permits do not need to be obtained before an activity are in indoor venues, and at Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park — a small green space not too far from Singapore’s Central Business District. However, organizers are required to register their names, identification card numbers and contact details with the National Parks prior to an event at Speaker’s Corner.

Non-Singaporeans are prohibited from participating in events and activities related to domestic affairs, even in indoor spaces and at Speaker’s Corner. At the annual Pink Dot (a day to celebrate acceptance of the LGBTQ community), Permanent Residents and non-citizens are not allowed to be part of the giant pink dot formed by all participants at the end of the day and are required to stand behind a cordon.

What do activists do, then?

Despite restrictions, activists often find other ways and means to carry out their activities and push their causes. As the sole outdoor space in Singapore where activities can be held without a permit, activists and campaigners often turn to Speaker’s Corner as an option for public events. Although the turnout will likely be limited to those who have actively made a point of showing up at Hong Lim Park, the benefit of having an event in the park is that there is a certain amount of visibility.

Another popular move is to hold private indoor events where attendance is “by invite only.” Although this greatly restricts the turnout to the number of invitations, and to some extent restricts the potential of new people attending, making an event private means that it will be easier for non-Singaporean citizens to participate.

That said, during investigations over a private forum organized by Singaporeans for Democracy, the police said that having a foreigner speak at a forum without clearance was tantamount to an offense. Otherwise, most activism and campaigning are done online, which makes sense in a country with about 72.4 percent internet penetration and a mainstream media that’s largely owned by the state.

Changing mindsets

Although anyone unafraid of arrest could still stage demonstrations and protests in Singapore, it’s not a move often contemplated, as civil disobedience is unlikely to gain a movement much sympathy in a society bred to consider law and order as sacred.

Many Singaporeans are quick to equate public demonstrations with violence, and are more likely to view an arrested activist as a troublemaker than as a victim of oppression. Stories of strikes in other countries are also often viewed with scorn: What a mess! We should be grateful that this would never happen in Singapore.

And that mindset is the first major hurdle for any activist in Singapore — to convince people committed to not rocking the boat that speaking out is not a form of violence but a right due to every citizen, every day of their lives.

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