Confessions of a Freedom Walker III: Our march for freedom

December 27, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Chong Kai Xiong         
26 Dec 06

Sunday afternoon, psyched up after listening to Bruce Springteen singing “We Shall Overcome” on YouTube.com, I left early for Hong Lim Park. Along the way, I stopped at a supermarket to fetch two large bottles of water for the journey ahead.

On the train, like a swordsman entering a duel, I continued to play out our opponent’s every move and how I could respond with mental imageries. If the police interrogated me, I knew what to say. If they attempted encirclement, I knew how to escape. If they arrested me, I knew how to explain. In short, I was prepared.

Eventually I was reminded once again how we shouldn’t have to do this to speak up for our rights. But the present is not for us to choose.

Hong Lim Park

At Hong Lim Park, I worried a little. Apart from a group of (presumably) Filipinos, no one familiar was in sight. Shortly after, a pair I met briefly at the vigils appeared but they were equally bewildered.

Has the police intervened already I wondered. The mystery evaporated when we reached the far corner of the park. There two fellow marchers, C P Tan and Teoh Tian Jing, were waving to us.

As we waited for the rest, a number of us started the action by inflating colourful balloons and decorating them with cheerful stickers that read “We have rights too!” Because they didn’t float, we had to mount the balloons on sticks for easier handling. I grabbed one later for the group pictures and hopefully to appear less menacing during our walk. When it was all done, everyone had gathered.

All of us then donned our protest shirts. Most of us wore them instantly over what we came in as toilets were faraway. For the first time, everyone was in bright yellow. “Free to Walk”, “Free to Speak”, “Free to Gather” and “Freedom Walk” our shirts declared silently in red.

Later, John Tan introduced us and our march to the press. We were Singaporeans marching to exercise our last bit of freedom in order to raise public awareness of what human rights are. We were also marching in protest for those who were denied these rights.

With our group pictures taken, we split into 2: one to start from Hong Lim Park, the other from downtown Orchard. I was among the first four to go. Each of us took a stack of flyers and set off.

All this happened under camera surveillance by plainclothes policemen. I could spot about four across the road. But they were not going to frighten us.

Here we go

We proceeded along South Bridge Road toward Elgin Bridge, crossed it and travelled further down past Funan, Penisular Plaza and Capitol before making a left turn after Chijmes.

It was surreal being the centre of attention. Photographers walked along, occasionally moving ahead for frontal shots. I faintly hoped that the four of us, ordinary Singaporeans, would make the pages of Straits Times or Today and inspire our fellow countrymen to stand up for similar causes. (But that was wishful thinking as I soon found out – the attention was only on Dr Chee’s family.)

Distributing flyers was also a first time for me. I was a little apprehensive that no one would take them, or that people would distance themselves thinking we were trouble. Fortunately though, it was just my imagination. Most accepted the papers.

But I wasn’t sure how many actually read the lengthy passages before disposing of them. They were without colour and printed in ordinary typeface.

Along the way to Plaza Singapura at the SMU campus, I took a short history lesson from Monica. She told me that RI and SJI used to be located in the surrounding area.

John Tan went out out of his way to give out the flyers, approaching almost everyone around in less crowded areas. The rest of us were generally contented handing them out to people within our arm’s reach.

Outside the Istana, Tian Jing went up to the guards to pass them the flyers. But his offer was rejected. Apparently, they were duty-bound not to accept anything from the public.

We continued past the Meridien Hotel and Orchard Plaza before reaching CentrePoint where we ran out of flyers. The first leg of the walk came to an end at the Specialist’s Shopping Centre where the rest were waiting.

The police hadn’t stopped us, and it was unlikely they were going to in the heart of Orchard Road. All the worst-case scenarios I prepared for were not going to happen.

Interim

We rested for a good while outside the John Littleā€™s Shopping Centre. Some of the protesters bought food and drinks. I took the chance to remove my shirt underneath as it became unbearably warm.

My special moment of the day came when a little girl ran up to me for a balloon. With all the balloons we had, she must’ve thought we gave them away! She was irresistible. I just had to surrender the one in my hand. Hopefully, she will come to understand the words on her balloon someday and champion for our rights too.

After thirty odd minutes, or perhaps even longer, we got ready for our march to the Queenstown Remand Prison.

The remainder

As I wrote the above, a close friend messaged over the Internet to check on me. He had seen my pictures on SDP’s website. Our brief conversation went on like this:

“I think it’s good to voice your opinion but stay within the law,” he said.

“We did,” I reminded him, slightly agitated.

“I don’t want you to end up like Chee Soon Juan. There are other ways to show opposition. Like say, voting.” he continued.

His words were not entirely unexpected I guess. In fact, I believe many take the same stance. But general elections happen every 5 years!

What are we to do with nonsense shoved down our throats in the meantime? Shout across the echo-less chasm? We need to stand up for ourselves, not just rely on others to do so every 5 years! That is what’s wrong with us as a people.

I recall that one occasion where the same friend dismissed Dr Chee’s actions and repeated the dismal view that protests disrupt peace and should therefore be prohibited.

Short of crying ‘ugh’ in public with flailing arms, I quickly countered how we should be able to hold peaceful protests on Sundays. Unsurprisingly, this was much more agreeable to him. I suspect the same for many others too.

So with this march, I hope to convince Singaporeans that protests need not always involve an exchange of Molotov cocktails and tear gases, smashing of glass or even overturning of cars.

They can be non-violent, peaceful, meaningful and even fun. In fact, I think they ought to be no different from a Chingay procession, complete with song and dance. I also hope to encourage other people to hold protests for whatever they believe in.

Central Orchard

Without any sign of police intervention, we marched out in greater numbers. Well, as far as local protests go anyway. Earlier, we took special care to walk in fours in order to sidestep the law. Our walk was even broken up into two partly because of this. (The other reason being, walking 8 km in a day was no small feat for most of our over-pampered city dwellers.)

It was a sight to behold, both for me as a participant and the Christmas shopping crowd I would wager. There’s something innately exciting about moving in mass. I got so exhilarated that at one point, I told Ms Chee, who had walked up to me to see how I was doing, that I felt like waving the national flag (for the first time in 15 years). Monica’s son and Dr Chee’s eldest daughter ran around tirelessly to give out their share of the fliers. Recognizing that children are in general more charismatic and that people may be more likely to accept strange-looking papers from them, I quickly passed all of mine to Monica’s son who took them unbegrudgingly. Children are fascinating like that. They do not question and push responsibilities around as much as we do.

We made another stop outside Wheelock Place to pick up a few more people and for more group pictures. When we were done, we broke up again. Mrs Chee and her children together with a couple of others left to take transport while the rest walked on. I got myself a new stack of fliers.

Tanglin Shopping Centre

The road got progressively less crowded as we walked toward Tanglin Mall. There were hardly any one on the street by the time we hit the turn at Orchard Parade Hotel. I saw the last of my fliers and so did the others.

Outside Tanglin Shopping Centre, Mr Gandhi noted that was where Select Bookstore was (and still is).

Select Bookstore is a quiet and cosy little store on the 3rd floor. I went there twice specially to get Dr Chee’s books after spotting them at SDP’s rally in Woodlands earlier this year. They are not sold elsewhere I believe, except by the man himself. The reason behind this, I was told, is that no other dare to sell them.

I bought the books to provide an indirect donation to SDP for their uncompromising support for our political rights and to support the store for carrying such books.

I also wanted to read what interesting things our well-known heretic had to say that our government would prefer us to not hear at all. Plenty in fact, in a well-argued and less angry manner than our mainstream media would often portray. Personally, I think this is why the books are literally banned. They are both critical (of the government) and persuasive.

We continued past Tudor Court before stopping at Tanglin Mall for another break. Some of us went for the toilets. I looked around in 7-eleven and got some mints to suck on.

On the road again

The final part of the walk took us through Tanglin Road.

I still keep a copy of our fliers as a souvenir. A glance through the lower portion reveals the following: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…”

During a certain discussion on a private forum, I was met with ridicule for supporting the freedom of speech as if it mattered. In a manner typical of worldly-wise elders talking down to naive juniors, my older friend wrote: “Young people and the freedom of speech.”

I was tempted to exploit my administrator privileges to censor and cut his argument short just to demonstrate succinctly one practical implication of the right to free speech. Namely that, without free speech as a right, you can be easily gagged by the powerful. If ignoring is not an option and credibility is at stake, it is simply more convenient for them to silence than to properly refute. It matters not one bit if you are correct and have powerful supporting evidence.

With the freedom to question and criticise publicly, the government for example is forced by law to defend their policies publicly and rigorously. They cannot escape with explanations that seem plausible to the less knowledgeable but dubious to the well-learned. In such situations, we want experts to speak out and in the process educate us. The freedom allows them without fear of prosecution. This has to be a good thing!

We made our way through a great part of Tanglin Road uneventfully. There was no one around save us. The day was coming to a close without incident.

Then almost without warning, Uncle Yap caught up from behind to alert us of the large group of plainclothes policemen that had appeared at the back. We immediately understood what it meant and quickly broke up in anticipation. It was our first real encounter with the police for the day. They’ve now come undeterred because we were alone. Because no one else was looking.

They went straight for Mr Gandhi who was walking slightly ahead and surrounded him. He was exceedingly calm and composed, paying no great attention to our government agents which made them look all the more silly and redundant. One of them informed him about the law that we were breaking.

“We advise you to disperse”, he said.

But we were already rather scattered. Mr Gandhi stated the obvious and the police who, visibly stumped, could find no better reason to stop the march backed off.

We moved on not batting an eye, without skipping a heartbeat and never once slowing down as their cameraman filmed on at close distance. When his camera found us, Tian Jing and I would wave at it cheekily. We even began to joke about and take pity on the poor agents who had to walk with us, and on a Sunday to top it off. Unlucky.

Regarding illegal assemblies and that seemingly arbitrary limit of 4 people, I couldn’t help but wonder as I walked what the police would say to a family of five (say Dr Chee, Mrs Chee and their 3 children) walking together in our shirts. Just imagine telling the family they constitute an illegal assembly. The absurdity is profound. (Come to think of it, maybe 4 was chosen because most families are of that size or smaller.)

A moment later, much to our amusement, Ms Chee’s grey car drove past, flashing its light and tooting the horn as if it were cheering us on and mocking the remaining policemen with defiance. In any case, it helped to lighten up the atmosphere that grew a little dreary from much walking.

Finale

The police left completely as we neared the end of Tanglin Road. By then the streetlights had came on. Before long, the sky was completely dark. At a junction, we turned right into Margaret Drive. With a sudden urge to visit the toilet, the petrol station way behind us and no bushes to hide behind, I began to panic a little.

But fortunately, Murphy’s law didn’t kick in. Familiar blocks of flats soon came into view. We were now very near the end! Tian Jing got excited and began running. I followed suit, my slight fatigue notwithstanding. “Don’t let Gandhi be the first,” he said. As we passed Priveen, he too broke into a run at Tian Jing’s suggestion. Just before our final turn into Jalan Penjara, we overtook Mr Gandhi and sped up the gentle slope.

With a common love for dramatic finishes, our little team of three lined up shoulder to shoulder without a word, running together like brothers in arms. Playing to the tune with a stroke of humour, I raised my balloon by its stick and started swinging the thing like our victory flag…

Our 8km march thus came to an end.