Singapore’s shame

A group of international exchange students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) conducted a protest against the Burmese government at the ASEAN Summit in December last year.

Two of them Pia Muzaffar Dawson & Olly Laughland reveal, in the article below, how they were intimidated and harassed in the most disgraceful manner by the authorities here.

These youths wanted to express their anguish at the killings that were going on in Rangoon, something that millions across the world were doing. How wrong was that? No student should have to go through what they went through just to voice their dissent at a murderous regime.

Now the sordid details of their harassment are out. The only thing that is more stomach-churning is that NUS dares to aspire to be the “Oxbridge of the East.” Does this Government know no shame?

Protest Singapore style

“Protest Singapore style,” so the headline went. “9 protestors, 29 journalists, 2,500 police.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Weeks of planning, secretive meetings, liaisons with the international media, personal struggle and strained friendships, family warnings and relationship crises – all to walk up a busy shopping street in red t-shirts and holding candles. Our quiet vigil in protest against the Burmese junta’s uncontested presence at the annual ASEAN Summit in Singapore caused something of a stir, to put it mildly.

Of course, we weren’t the only people greatly concerned about the situation. Since the violent crackdowns of Burmese civil society reported in October of last year, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have been involved in campaigning, calling for an end to the oppressive regime. But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), currently chaired by what was our host country of Singapore, is crucial to either undermining or legitimising the Burmese junta. However, Singapore had so far failed to condemn the junta’s actions, its high-level business links with the regime proving far too important to jeopardise, to the great displeasure of Singapore’s 30,000-strong Burmese community.

When we found out that the Burmese generals themselves were to be welcomed with open arms into Singapore’s luxurious Shangri-La Hotel, we decided to take action. There were other events planned, including two forums organised by Overseas Burmese Patriots and SG Human Rights, but these were to be held indoors in diluted form after applications to protest outside were rejected. Singapore’s stringent protest laws and total ban on public assembly once again proved to be an effective way of containing and constraining civil society.

Raised on Millian notions of freedom of speech, a vocal student body at Sussex and general discontentment at elite political power, we decided to risk our student visas and bend the rules. Our plan was simple: to walk towards the ASEAN Summit in groups of three (theoretically remaining within the ban on public assemblies of more than four), wearing red t-shirts to mark our solidarity with the Burmese people, and holding candles (since any sort of banner or placard would require a permit).

An innocent statement, we thought, though loaded nonetheless with our disgust at the junta’s regime. But the authorities thought differently, and made this patently obvious in the days preceding our event.

First of all, an email told us, “You are requested to attend a chat with the Provost and the Dean of Students tomorrow morning.” We went along, and spent a good half hour politely deflecting their polite attempts to neuter our efforts. “We don’t want this descending into violence,” said the Provost, drawing on the standard Singaporean truism: speaking out equals violence and chaos; chaos equals a threat to the economy. He courteously passed us a copy of the Straits Times (the state-controlled newspaper), folded neatly to the front page which read, “Singapore will stick to its tough laws governing public protests”. The internet said the same – so did the television, so did the radio.

Chuckling to himself, he opened a large dossier containing page after page of our personal information gleaned from Facebook. Covered in annotations, it told a story of “potentially unlawful behaviour”. Little did we know a group of fellow students had seen our “Stand Up For Burma” event on Facebook and reported us straight to the University authorities, probably in order to attain more all-important points for their own personal records. Nervous laughter followed. “You know we won’t be able to help you if you’re arrested. Student visas are an issue out of our control,” said the Provost (who is also, incidentally, the ex-Deputy Superintendent of the Singapore Police).

Though we hadn’t been explicitly threatened, we left the “chat” somewhat perturbed. Had our plans taken on a life of their own? Were we interfering in areas that were not ours to meddle with?

It got weirder. The next day we were on our way to the forum organised by the Burmese expatriate community in Singapore, when we got a phone call from a friend who was also involved in organising the vigil. “Erm… guys, I’ll be a bit late for the forum,” he said in guarded tones. “There are couple of policemen in my bedroom. They want to have a word with me.” We felt a sudden jolt of anxiety. The police? The magnitude of what we were doing began to dawn on us. “Do you want us to come by your room?” we asked our friend. “Erm… yeah, that’d be good actually,” he replied, straining to conceal the panic in his voice.”

We rushed to his room, our hearts thudding. There we were greeted by two plainclothes police officers with clipboards. Like the university authorities, they warned us that our planned actions risked breaking Singaporean law. Getting arrested in Singapore is a major, major social transgression. Determined not to be dissuaded, we tried to thank them politely for their advice, but without capitulating. They left eventually, having realised that their words were falling on deaf ears. Yet their visit left us shaken, unsure of what measures the authorities would take to prevent our protest from going ahead.

After this failed attempt, the police force resorted to more insidious means. An undercover policeman was installed at our planning meetings. We each received anonymous text messages clearly concocted by a novice police officer trying to sound young and hip. “Yo heard fm law fac guy police gonna take realie tuff action 2day on asean protest… dude has gd frend in police who knows some higher ups.. better tell those goin 4 protest 2 b real careful… looks like the cops here ain’t jokin… laterz.” We got emails warning of “rising anti-foreigner sentiment” in Singapore, and links to internet forums full of posts condemning our plans.

On the wall of our Facebook event, there was even a cleverly constructed anonymous attendee (creatively named “Nigel Chomsky”) who attempted to delegitimise our advocacy of non-violent protest by saying things like, “For once Singaporeans, DISSENT!!!!! Hell, we can f*ck the policing bastards.” His profile, again hastily invented by some novice policeman with no conception of what “anarchism” actually means, had pictures of a burning car and a hooded demonstrator hurling a Molotov at riot police. His “About Me” section said, “The system’s fucked up. So I set it right. I dissent.” Although in retrospect these efforts at surveillance and infiltration seem laughable, at the time they were enough to make us feel like our every move was being watched, as if we were in some kind of Orwellian dystopia.

As if these warnings from various authorities were not enough, we were also being chased up by story-hunting journalists who had got wind of our plans. Protest, sadly, is big news in Singapore. And the Singaporean web forums were buzzing with lively discussions about what we were proposing to do. “I think we should deport these ang-mos [local slang for “white people”],” one angry user said. Another countered, “NUS, good try, you have my support! NUS you are not wasting your time as you are brave to step out to do so. This is just the beginning, I hope to see more of such movement. Bravo, NUS! Keep it up!” Singaporean friends and strangers contacted us with messages of support. At the same time, a few members of our group were even contacted by lawyers and university authorities their our home countries, warning that participating in the protest would mean automatic expulsion from their degree programmes back home.

What had started as a simple idea, with which we’d become involved through a series of chance encounters, had now snowballed into an event of massive significance, in which an unprecedented number of different people seemed to have a stake. And this was not without effects on our personal wellbeing. We were double-locking our doors at night, unable to sleep. We were constantly looking over our shoulders, and trying to brush aside the threats and doubts that seemed to assail us from all angles. Within our group itself, the pressure was taking its toll. We became embroiled in heated arguments about the right thing to do – and even whether to go ahead with the protest at all – severely testing our friendships with each other. We were tense, scared and doubtful of our own capabilities. The claustrophobia proved too much for many.

The day came, our group whittled down to just nine. We approached the venue with trepidation, not knowing what awaited us at the top of the escalators as we emerged from the underground station onto the street. We were met by scores of journalists, photographers and film crews, far outnumbering our diminutive assembly. Upon sighting us they swarmed, cameras flashing, questions shouted, dictaphones thrust to our faces. “What would you say to the Burmese junta if you could be at the ASEAN summit today?” “Are you not scared of breaking Singapore’s strict anti-protest laws?” “Do your parents know you’re here?”

They followed us as we walked towards the venue of the summit. They were present when we encountered the police, and when we dispersed without incident. And so it was that the message of our simple, minimalist protest achieved a degree of publicity unthinkable in the UK, making the front page of Singapore’s national newspaper as well as countless other media channels throughout Asia. And the next day, emboldened by the fact that we were not arrested, a group of fifty Burmese residents in Singapore staged another anti-junta protest outside the Summit – an event of far greater political significance.

Our protest was controversial. It may have offended some. But in the following weeks, it became clear to us that our protest had not taken place for no reason. What may have begun as a basic attempt to publicly criticise the Burmese military regime, in an environment where it enjoyed an unacceptable level of impunity, quickly escalated into a question of how Singaporean society understands itself: how it is disciplined, how it relates to “external” interference, and what its fundamental values are. It served to crystallise national debates around public dissent, legitimate authority, the treatment of minorities, and regional diplomacy.

And from our point of view, the lengths to which the authorities went in order to try and stifle our political action really demonstrated to us how much we cherish those civil liberties we’ve always taken for granted in the UK, and which have been rapidly eroded under the Blair government. On a personal level, we ended up with sturdy friendships and a new awareness of what we were prepared to do for a cause we believed in.

Pia Muzaffar Dawson and Olly Laughland are former international students at the National University of Singapore. This article was written for student magazines in the UK.

Read also: Interview with student protestor by The Campus Observer

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