Complaints Choir saga: MHA’s last minute flip-flops must be challenged

January 29, 2008
Singapore Democrats

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It is important to not forget that rules governing society apply not only to citizens but also to authorities. In Singapore, the disregard for such rules by the state has been shown up again and again. The latest manifestation was over the ban of the Complaints Choir’s pubic performances.

It was revealed that permission for the group to sing at various public places including Vivo City, the Esplanade, and Speakers’ Corner was rescinded the day before the performances were to be conducted.

In any other civilised society, the police would have been sued. Imagine the logistical preparations that would have to be cancelled, not to mention the hours of practice gone to waste.


Then again, a civilised government would not have banned a choir. But this is Singapore. Here, the police have absolute power and never has to account for anything.

Ostensibly, it was that there were foreigners within the choir that prompted the police to do the about-turn over the permit. But wait a minute. The choir has been practicing for weeks and the police had known that there were non-Singaporeans in the group. Yet, strangely, they chose not to do anything until the day before the choir was scheduled to perform.

But foreigners regularly perform in Singapore, don’t they? What’s the difference this time?

Apparently, the song mentions public policies like the CPF and foreigners cannot comment on, or in this instance sing about, such matters.

But then someone in the choir pointed out that the Media Development Authority had approved the lyrics. (Singapore must be one of the very few places on modern earth where the state still vets the lyrics of songs sung to the public. It’s beyond pathetic.)

If the authorities had known the content of the songs and that non-Singaporeans were going to be singing it, why did they wait until the very last minute to ke-belakang pusing?

To be sure, this is not the first time that the police, or more precisely, the Ministry of Home Affairs has pulled off such a stunt. In 2007, it rejected a permit for Professor Douglas Sanders to speak at a forum after initially saying okay. (See here for details.)

In 2006 it did a more damaging U-turn. Prior to the WB-IMF meeting meeting in September, Singapore had agreed that NGO representatives who were accredited with the World Bank could participate in the meeting. But just days before the conference, the Government changed its mind and refused these people entry.

The decision sparked off a firestorm. One that raged on but received little attention was within the cabinet itself. The SDP understands that foreign minister, Mr George Yeo, was livid with the decision to ban the NGO representatives as he had, during the negotiations, agreed that they could attend.

It was the home affairs minister, Mr Wong Kan Seng, who stepped in and vetoed Mr Yeo’s decision. Big loss of face for Mr Yeo, no can do. And so the two faced off.

After an almighty altercation and intense pressure from the president of the World Bank, the decision was reached to allow some of those accredited to come in.

Too late. The NGOs decided to return the slap by boycotting the meeting.

The incident is revealing on two counts. First, it gave an indication of how not-in-charge the Prime Minister was.

Did Mr Lee Hsien Loong know about the Foreign Ministry’s agreement to let the NGOs attend the meeting? If he didn’t one has to ask why, given the prominence of the conference. If he did, then why did he flip to agree to ban the NGOs from attending and then flop to allow some of them in when pressured? Just who is in command?

Second and more relevant, how do you work with a government that makes up its mind only to change it at the last minute and, worse, refuses to give an explanation?

The Ministry of Home Affairs must not be allowed to continue running this place like a fiefdom. When it says no, it better have a good reason. And if it changes its mind at the last minute, it must be ready to pay compensation to the organiser.

If the Government can take liberties with agreements it makes and with answers it gives to public applications like the Complaints Choir, then one shudders to think what it does behind closed doors with our CPF funds and reserves.