In the past few months, Singapore’s political landscape has witnessed an enthusiastic and passionate involvement of the people in the discussion of our nation’s future.
There have been calls on the social media for the Government to re-think its implementation of the Population White Paper, in the face of the increasing strain placed on existing infrastructure and the social fabric by unbridled immigration. The strong popular opposition to the paper culminated in two successful protests at Hong Lim Park, where disgruntled citizens campaigned against flawed government policies.
It is unfortunate that the protests – a milestone in post-independence Singapore – received scant coverage in the local press. Pro-government elements attempted to cast a xenophobic spin on the event; a man dressed in punk holding up a placard reading “Singapore for Singaporeans” was singled out in social media as the face of the protests.
If not protests, then what?
But what do we make of the burst of protests held at Hong Lim park? Are they good for the country or will they cause chaos (as the PAP has often said they would)? In the first place, what are protests?
A protest is a statement or action expressing disapproval or objection to particular events or policies, usually with the aim of influencing public opinion or government policy.
In the Singaporean context of authoritarian one-party rule, the people are often powerless to prevent the implementation of policies or enactment of laws which are detrimental to the well-being of the nation. The limited political space and state-controlled mass media combine to severely limit debate and dissemination of alternative political views, as well as deny the people legitimate channels to air their grievances.
The Government does not welcome such a development. Government bodies and ruling party officials have, in recent months, written to several bloggers and website threatening legal action unless articles/comments were removed. The Media Development Authority required major news websites to post a $50,000 bond.
It is clear that in order to influence policy or demand government transparency much would have to depend on getting the message across to the masses directly. But to do this we first need our fundamental civil liberties restored.
What the Constitution says
In the past, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) activists were prosecuted under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act and the Miscellaneous Offences Act when they spoke in public canvassing for electoral support or when they held small peaceful protests. Interestingly, similar activities conducted by pro-PAP groups were not prosecuted.
In 2009, amidst a changing socio-political landscape which saw activists championing rights and freedoms, the Public Order Act was enacted to give the authorities arbitrary powers to crack down on civil and political activity, including provisions to allow the police to stop and search protestors, deny them entry into areas gazetted as “special event” areas, and issue pre-emptive “move-on” orders to prevent demonstrators from gathering at a rally site.
These authoritarian measures run contrary to Article 14(1) of the Constitution of Singapore which states that every Singapore citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, and the right to form associations. They infringe upon our fundamental civil rights and liberties, leading to an oppressed, voiceless and acquiescent populace.
The Constitution is the citizens’ main safeguard against an repressive Government. Laws that limit our fundamental freedoms should be clear and concise, without contradicting the Constitution.
Disruptive and dangerous?
In most functioning democracies, peaceful public protests, rallies and assemblies have always been an established approach to unjust and hastily implemented policies which are inimical to the public’s interest or when urgent action is needed but not forthcoming from the authorities.
On 29 July 2012, a 90,000-strong crowd gathered to protest in the streets of Hong Kong against the government’s proposed pro-China education curriculum. This was followed by another protest in September 2012 attended by 40,000 peaceful demonstrators, comprising mainly parents with their school-going children in tow. No injuries or deaths were reported. The government subsequently scrapped plans to introduce a mandatory civic education subject.
In December 2012, thousands took to the streets of New Delhi after a medical college student was gang-raped and sexually assaulted. The peaceful protests by civil society groups and citizens in Delhi as well as nationwide paved the way for a fast-track court specially set up to ensure that justice would be delivered to the perpetrators swiftly.
Closer home, on 8 May this year, an estimated 120,000 gathered in Kuala Lumpur’s Kelana Jaya Stadium in a show of multi-racial solidarity to protest against the results of Malaysia’s 13th General Election, which returned the ruling party to power amid allegations of electoral fraud. No injuries or deaths were reported, and more of such peaceful mass protests are planned, leading up to a proposed finale in Putrajaya, to pressure the Malaysian government to adequately address these allegations.
These are just some examples of people power carried out by citizens, peacefully demanding answers and swift action from their governments.
Singaporeans, for the sake of a open and democratic country should also exercise our political rights to safeguard our own interests. Peaceful protests, like those we saw in recent months, provide us the means to hold the Government accountable and to ensure that laws and policies are enacted in the people’s interest.
Jagwinder Singh is a member of The Young Democrats