Peaceful protests can be a force for good

Singapore Democrats

    A massive and peaceful Bersih rally 2.0

The idea that public assemblies equal chaos has been deeply etched in the minds of Singaporeans. Such tumult, we are told, leads to violence and the eventual ruin of the country. Anyone who attempts to exercise his or her right to protest must therefore not only be penalised by the authorities but must also be censured by fellow citizens.

The effect has been resounding. Singapore is a graveyard when it comes to protests which are still taboo in Singapore.

This may slowly be changing, however. The recent Bersih Rally held in Kuala Lumpur opened the eyes of many Singaporeans.

We saw ordinary Malaysians gather in the streets of their country’s  capital to press for election reform and none of them looked like the rabid, violent anarchists who are just out for some window-smashing and rock-hurling.

They were aunties and uncles, teachers and students, professionals and workers who wanted to express their political unhappiness over the system. They were people very much like Singaporeans who attended the nightly rallies with such enthusiasm during our own GE in May this year.

Even the daughter of Malaysia’s long-time ruler Dr Mahathir Mohamed, Marina Mahathir, took part in the rally. Here’s how she described what
she saw:

But to me what was most important was that Malaysians proved two things: one, they can assemble together on a common cause peacefully and two, therefore showed that they are a mature people.  The fact is that there were all kinds of people there, young and old, all races and religions and all classes and creeds. I bumped into many young people, the children of my friends, who had come to see what it was all about and decide for themselves what to think about the issue.

Hers was not an isolated case. Everywhere one turned, the participants were peaceful, some even in a festive and upbeat mood. A Singaporean who had observed the rally up close had this to say in a post on The Online Citizen:

The gathering of people of different races, religions, classes and creeds for a common cause was in fact reflective of their growing maturity as a people. The Bersih movement seemed to have a far greater unifying effect among the rakyat…

But ideas and ideals can never be stopped by despotic actions, as one Thomas Chai pointed out in a direct tweet to the Prime Minister: “Beneath this YELLOW there is an idea, Mr Najib, and ideas are bulletproof.”

This is what a peaceful protest looks like

Of course the Malaysian government, unused to such boldness, did everything it could to demonise the protesters. In a reportedly leaked memo published by the New Asia Republic, the Malaysian authorities had given instructions to portray the rally participants in as bad a light as possible.

Issue: BERSIH 2.0

By most accounts, the Bersih 2.0 protest on July 9 could turn out to be massive and will certainly go beyond issues of fair and free elections. With over 100 political, NGO and right groups could be joining the “March for Democracy”, we expect them to champion a slew of issues ranging from inflation to Teoh Beng Hock and Lynas.

The protest, if not countered, could undermine the government, the economy and national security. This note sets out the policy guidance and the do’s and don’ts in managing the issue.


  • Label the rally as “perhimpunan haram” or “illegal assembly”, and that the people behind Bersih are trouble-makers and going against the Constitution and the law to gain political mileage.
  • Since DSAI (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) is already “out of the race” for premiership, he has to resort to street protests because PR can’t win GE13 through ballot boxes. He is seeking a “short-cut” to Putrajaya via undemocratic and unconstitutional means. Remind people about his Sept 16 bluff.
  • Create anxiety that Bersih is working for the interests of foreign elements, who are out to destabilise the country.
  • That BERSIH is not bersih (clean) after all as it is an illegal group out to create havoc.
  • Use the meeting to reinforce the branding as “perhimpunan haram”, that Bersih is an unlawful organisation and the perpetrators are out to create chaos.
  • KDN, which has jurisdiction over all print media, needs to exert its authority in ensuring the press toe the line.
  • The soundbytes in our favour MUST come from across the country and across the ethnic lines. The soundbytes should not just be confined to the Malays or those residing in the Klang Valley.
  • Media to highlight stories of how businesses, retailers, tourists, shoppers, motorists and ordinary people will be affected.
  • Friendly bloggers and cybertroopers will continue to be mobilised.
  • Reinforce the view that public sentiment is NOT with Bersih and the opposition.
  • Send a strong message that the government is full control of the situation, that it will not tolerate trouble makers and those who undermine the rule of law.

Read the full memo here

The propaganda had an impact. Many Malaysians bought into the notion that the rally partcipants had indeed caused mayhem and that their actions brought shame to the country. Not true, Ms Marina Mahathir countered:

There are also some people claiming that the world now has a bad impression of Malaysia because the foreign media (and the local media for that matter) reported only about the teargassing and water-cannoning. I think people are confusing the government with the people. Yes, the world now has a bad impression of the Malaysian government because it has handled this whole issue so badly. They don’t have the same impression of the Malaysians who stood up for their rights and their cause…I know that I’m on the right side.

Lee Kuan Yew with protesters in 1955

PAP not much different

Back in the 1950s, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had organised and participated in public assemblies when he was in the opposition. He and his PAP colleagues were at the forefront of organising street protests against the British colonilaists.

Unfortunately after it came to power, its true colours emerged. The PAP Government started cracking down on protesters, portraying public gatherings as inherently evil and their participants as destructive hooligans.

In a video prepared for the Asia Pacific Economic Conference held in 2010, the police enacted scenes of a protest where participants carried placards calling for democracy.

This is what the PAP wants you to think

The protesters are then shown to resort to mindless violence, throwing projectiles and even fire-bombs at the police. The police then step in and heroically save society from the bad guys. Watch the video
here. (The relevant portion starts at about 3:20).

The video’s sole purpose is to frighten Singaporeans and demonise freedom of assembly.

Autocratic governments will always try to paint protesters as troublemakers out to ruin the country. But there are many intelligent citizens who know that freedom of speech and assembly are basic rights necessary for a functioning democracy. They are what allow citizens to hold their governments acountable.

When good, decent and right-thinking people take to the streets to demand that their government listen to them, they can be a tremendous force for good.

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