Lessons drawn from Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement

Bryan Lim

The recent Sunflower Student Movement that took place in Taiwan was initiated by a coalition of students and civic activists who were protesting the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The students were angry that the Agreement was pushed through the Legislative Yuan by the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) without adequate debate and consultation.

The rush was seen in some quarters to be a desperate bid by President Ma Ying-Jeou to leave behind his legacy with the CSSTA before his term ends in 2016. The move seems to have backfired as the majority of the Taiwanese people are not supportive of it, resulting in Ma’s approval ratings hitting an all-time low of 10 percent.

The Sunflower Student protesters occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on 18 March 2014 to put a halt to the CSSTA. The action of the students captured the imagination of the Taiwanese people as well as the international community. Never since the Wild Lily Student Movement in 1990 has Taiwanese students organised themselves in a major protest against legislation they deemed detrimental to the interests of their people and livelihood.

The KMT’s actions bear a disappointing resemblance to the PAP’s where for decades laws and policies have been rammed through Parliament with little debate and scrutiny. But while Taiwanese students demonstrate political maturity and courage to prevent their fellow citizens from being railroaded by a belligerent government, Singaporean students have yet to show such levels of awareness and commitment.

Are our students really that politically apathetic? Do they not feel strongly about issues concerning the high cost of living and foreign workers displacing them? Has complacency crept in or are they simply too fearful to speak up?

To be sure, the stituation has not always been like this. Our students were at the forefront of speaking up for our people and workers in the earlier days of our development. Mr Tan Wah Piow and fellow students at the then Singapore University courageously spoke up on behalf of the people against the PAP bent on crushing workers’ rights.

Through the use of the Internal Security Act and criminal prosecution, the Government has managed to silence generations of students in Singapore. While the PAP revels in its victory over democracy, it has brought up an entire generation of Singaporeans who, for various reasons, shun political involvement and prefer not to speak up.

This will prove Singapore’s undoing as we head into a future where political participation of citizens will increasingly determine the strength and well-being of a nation. It is unhealthy that the younger generation is not aware and does not feel strongly about national issues.

If our students are politically apathetic, it is a sign of weakness of our society. We must change such a tragic state of affairs and the SDP sees it as our responsibility to raise the political awareness if our youths and eradicate the apathy.

In the past, we have actively tried to engage our students but have been repeatedly thwarted by the authorities (see here and here). We will not give up trying to reach out to them because they are our future and the more involved they are in our nation’s politics and the more strongly they feel about democracy, the better off Singapore will be.

Bryan Lim is a member of the SDP’s Central Executive Committee and Head of the Ground Operations Unit.