The stand-off between the protesters and the police a few days ago revealed more than the PAP’s authoritarian ways. It gave Singaporeans a glimpse into how our men-in-blue (MIB) handled a situation that didn’t come with clear, by-the-book instructions.
Take the time when the protesters wanted to hand out flyers to passers-by on the morning of 18 Sept. The officers scrambled to block the activists from continuing on. It was only after some frantic communication with HQ that they were allowed to proceed.
The protesters then positioned themselves at the corner of Upper Pickering Street and South Bridge Road, and started handing out flyers.
“Dr Chee, I have to advise you that what you are doing constitutes an offence,” came the familiar refrain.
“How so?” Dr Chee asked.
“There are six of you here with a common intention and that is not allowed,” was the reply.
“But we are the same people who were at the other corner on the same sidewalk,” Mr Gandhi Amalam interjected.
“But this is an offence,” the policeman insisted with his killer instinct for dud-replies.
After a period of trying to extract some answers from the officer that one could deem as even remotely intelligent, the protesters gave up and passed out the pamphlets in a group of four.
Meanwhile Mr Hassan, the officer in charge of Operation Stop Chee With Stupid Answers, was quickly summoned. He’s the same guy that tried to take the flyers from Dr Chee when the Team was distributing them at Raffles City the Sunday before.
When Mr Hassan appeared, Dr Chee told him that the protesters wanted to distribute flyers at Raffles Place during lunchtime.
Mr Hassan buzzed HQ.
“Yes, you can go to Raffles Place to distribute flyers,” officer Hassan came back. “But how are you going to go there?”
Strange as the question was, Dr Chee obliged, “We’re going to walk there.”
“You have to walk one a time then,” Mr Hassan said.
“Let me get this right. The six of us can go to Raffles Place to distribute flyers which your colleague just told us was an offence, but we cannot walk there together,” Dr Chee tried to sought out.
Mr Hassan tried to look composed as he reached deep to come up with an answer. All the while a younger officer kept whispering into his ear, obviously offering tips and precautions.
After a few seconds, Mr Hassan came back: “If you want to distribute flyers at Raffles Place, I will allow you.”
“But your colleague just stopped us from giving out the flyers in a group of six,” Dr Chee pointed out. “Its obvious that you guys are just making up the rules as you go along.”
“I’ll get back to you,” Mr Hassan replied and buzzed HQ again.
“Dr Chee, your objective is going to Raffles Place right?”
“We will allow you to do that but you cannot walk there. You have to take a taxi.”
There was a momentary silence when Team Empower Singaporeans tried to figure out what in the world possessed our MIB.
“But Raffles Place is just a short walk away,” explained Dr Chee. (For those of you unfamiliar with downtown Singapore, Raffles Place is about 400 metres from Upper Pickering Street.)
“I’m sorry but that is the only way you can go there.”
“Okay, we will only take the taxi if the police pays for it. We’re certainly not paying for it.”
Mr Hassan hesitated. The HQ radio buzzed one more time.
Mr Hassan came back with bad news, “No we can’t pay for it.” But he offered an olive branch, “Okay you can walk there, but you and Ms Chee cannot walk together.”
“Why?” Dr Chee asked.
“Because you might attract people and that would become an illegal procession,” Mr Hassan said. One had the feeling that the poor officer was just mouthing the words and was by now feeling quite silly having to say what he was saying.
“You mean the six of us can walk from that corner to this corner but we cannot walk from here to Raffles Place?” Dr Chee asked.
All these questions were making Mr Hassan confused. Even the activists were getting dazed from all the twists and turns.
In the end, the Team agreed and decided that Ms Chee Siok Chin would go first. But as she was halfway across the road, her chaperons blocked her way for the umpteenth time. A standoff in the middle of South Bridge Road?
Mr Ambalam then shouted to Mr Hassan and co., “I thought we had agreed?”
“Sorry, sorry,” one of the officers mumbled as he ran ahead to tell his female counterparts to let Ms Chee proceed.
Already feeling hot under the collar, Mr Hassan erupted at one of his subordinates when the unfortunate junior officer tried to approach us: “Get back over there!” Mr Hassan tore off his police flak-jacket and stormed ahead towards Raffles Place, without even waiting for Dr Chee and Mr Ambalam.
The distribution of the flyers went ahead without a hitch – after more than two hours of negotiations. Who said that our MIB didn’t have much to do?
Permission to let them sit, over
The competition for the silliest police action was just hotting up.
On the morning of 19 September, Dr Chee and a fellow protester had sauntered to another spot to have a discussion. They were of course accosted by the police (thank goodness it wasn’t Mr Hassan again).
By the way, the police had decided to wear their civilian clothes after photographs of uniformed and menacing-looking police officers ringing around the activists were embarrassingly splashed around the world.
Dr Chee, pointing to some steps, said, “We just want to sit there.”
Officer: “Let me get clearance first.”
The two activists looked at each other. The feeling was not one of surprise for nothing the police did could surprise them anymore. It was more a sorry feeling for the officers who were made to undergo such silliness by the MIW, aka PAP.
The two protesters moved forward and reached the steps. They were immediately held back by two officers. “We just want to sit here,” Dr Chee repeated.
“Let me just get permission first,” the officer matched.
“You need to get permission for us just to sit here?”
“Okay, sir, you can sit here,” said the officer obviously quite happy to get the all-clear from HQ.
The people behind
To be sure Mr Hassan was not the bad guy. He’s probably a stand-up bloke and a straight shooter. He and his colleagues were just placed in an impossible situation and made to look like fools.
On the very first day when the standoff first began, Mr Hassan and co. were obviously told that the group must not be allowed to proceed to Parliament House at all cost.
But the Team suggested that they would walk singly to the venue. Oops! No instructions on that one. Mr Hassan initially said okay.
The protesters than started walking whereupon someone must have hollered through their earpieces “No! No! Stop them!”
Mr Hassan quickly ran up and blocked Dr Chee who by then had walked several metres to the corner of North Canal Road and South Bridge Road.
Ms Chee Siok Chin, a little faster on her feet, had stomped a hundred metres ahead. Initially some of the male officers were trying to stop her but when someone shouted that policemen were trying to handle Ms Chee, the MIB scrambled for cover and were quickly replaced by WIB.
At the stand off, Dr Chee repeatedly asked Mr Hassan why they were not allowed to proceed.
“You had announced that you were going to have a rally at Parliament House. I cannot allow that,” Officer Hassan said.
“And why is it an offence to have a rally outside Parliament House?” Dr Chee enquired.
Mr Hassan’s lips started to move but no words came out. He gave up.
“Tell me the reason why we can’t have a rally outside Parliament and if it is reasonable, we will accept it and will disperse immediately,” Dr Chee insisted.
“Dr Chee, I cannot allow you to proceed,” the officer repeated.
“Yes, I know that. What I want to know is the reason why. Why don’t you call your superiors and then tell us the reason? We’ll wait.”
He and his colleagues seemed to radio back but apparently didn’t get any help.
His superiors, nestled in their air-conditioned offices couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give their poor colleague an answer. As a consequence, Mr Hassan was left to stand stoically and face the crowd.
Using psychology on a psychologist
Throughout the standoff, Mr Hassan and his female counterpart were probably given instructions to use psychological warfare to wear down Dr Chee and Ms Chee.
At every opportunity, they would summon up their sweetest tone and tell the Chees: “Are you okay? I know you are very tired. You must miss home very much. Your family must miss you too. Why don’t you go home and get some rest? Just give us the word and we’ll get a taxi for you.”
Extremely sugary but a tad amateurish.
On one occasion, Dr Chee was bent over getting some respite when Mr Hassan approached him and repeated the we-care-for-you-so-much-that’s-why-we-want-you-to-go-home lines.
“Thanks, I’m okay. You guys should be the ones going home. Why do you insist on doing all this?”
“We’re just doing our job.”
That opened the floodgates. “No you guys cannot always hide behind this excuse. I may except that kind of talk from my four-year old when she tells me that her sister ‘made her do it’. But coming from a 40-year old who can discern right from wrong, that is not acceptable.”
By now, the journalists who were milling around surrounded the two clearly enjoying the exchange.
“You see, our local reporters tell me the same thing every time I ask them why they do what they do,” Dr Chee continued. “It is no longer good enough to say that you are just doing your job.
“If your jobs say that you have to write lies and prevent citizens from knowing the truth, and you the police stop citizens from speaking up, then you have a moral duty to tell your masters: ‘No I will not obey you any more.’ and have the courage to quit.
“Remember, all of us have to answer to God at the end of the day. Fear God, not Lee.
“Let me not go on anymore. But when you have a quiet moment just before you go to bed or when you are saying your prayers, think about what I just said.
“Now please let me rest for a while in peace.”
Mr Hassan never asked Dr Chee how he felt or whether he wanted to go home again.
The 72-hour standoff threw up some gems that underscore the point that exam-smart technocrats that the MIW love to recruit in the civil service (including many of our ministers) may be good when standing orders are clear and when all the instructions have their i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.
But when confronted with a situation that requires cognitive adroitness and flexibility, the entire machinery grinds disastrously into dysfunction.
And we’re just talking about six people armed with only ‘Democracy Now’ T-shirts.