Stage protests in ballrooms? Really?

Singapore Democrats

During the appeal in the High Court last Friday, Dr Chee Soon Juan pointed out that it was ultra vires (beyond the power) of the Constitution for the PAP to ban all demonstrations and protests as Article 14 clearly guarantees citizens the right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Not true, Deputy Public Prosecutor NorAshikin Samdin rebutted, “They are free to do a demonstration in a hotel ballroom.”

The Appellants did a double take and looked at the DPP to see if she was pulling the judge’s leg. To everyone’s shock, she kept a straight face.

“That’s like telling someone he can go take a swim in his own bathtub!” Dr Chee shot back and pointed out the obvious: “And besides, there’s a big difference, a hotel ballroom is a private place. We’re talking about a public protest.”

For a moment, the judge’s eyes seemed to roll as if agreement with Dr Chee.

If Ms Nor really believed what she uttered, then Singapore is in a much sorrier state that we ever imagined. Protest in a hotel ballroom? Why didn’t anyone think of that before? And while we’re at it we can serve crumpets and tea to go along with our speeches and chants all accompanied, of course, by piped-in Richard Clayderman pieces.

But this episode really encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Singapore today. Our finest in legal minds cannot tell what a public demonstration should be. They’ll come up with intellectual contortions that would give one a brain sprain just to rationalise PAP policies. 

What is worse is that Channel News Asia carried a brief, very brief, report of the appeal and quoted the DPP’s remarks about protests in ballrooms while leaving out all of Dr Chee’s submissions regarding the unconstitutionality of the ban on protests and how Singapore’s judiciary needed to pay attention to international standards of human rights. (Read Dr Chee’s submissions here.)

Through the decades, the PAP has depended on such writing – it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called journalism – to dumb down the Singaporean society.

Sure, the PAP has it good because, with such control, Singaporeans don’t talk back. The party has complete control over the public’s mind. The question is, is this good for Singapore?

Has the lack of political space dulled our ability to think for ourselves? Has the control made us intellectual cripples? Is this why the PAP has had to resort to bringing in foreigners to do what it says we are unable to do? (Frighteningly, even if we answer this last question in the affirmative, we don’t know what to do about it.)

Freedom of speech and citizens gathering together in public assemblies do more than just fulfill political standards. They serve very practical purposes. The obvious one is that they keep governments on their toes and prevent the state from ramming policies down the people’s throats. For example, when the SAR administration tried to introduce the GST, Hong Kongers filled the streets by the hundreds of thousands and forced government to back down.

But there’s another important, albeit less obvious, function of free speech. It sharpens society’s wit. It drives the intellectual appetite of the people and questioning minds are what keeps society at the edge of invention and, therefore, progress. 

Through decades of docile existence, however, where it has been ingrained not just in our minds but indeed our psyche that protests are dangerous and inimical to our nation’s well-being, we now find ourselves like playdough, flattened, kneaded, squeezed, pulled apart, lumped back together – all with the response of a cold, dead fish.

We find ourselves at the mercy of a small coterie of ministers – told to shut up and be grateful even when their policies work against the majority.

Yes, let’s start organising protests in hotel ballrooms. Why not, we have everything else defined for us, haven’t we? Why start thinking for ourselves now? And perhaps when these demonstrations get posh enough, the PAP will start listening to our demands and bring about reforms.