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We bring you the fourth and final installment of Confessions of a Singapore protester by Gandhi Ambalam.
In 2002, on May Day, Dr Chee Soon Juan and I were bundled into a waiting police van in front of the Istana, not for holding our proposed People Against Poverty (PAP) rally but for simply addressing reporters and cameramen who had gathered there prior to the event.
On 16 September however, maybe due to the large presence of foreign media personnel who had descended on Singapore to cover the WB-IMF annual meetings, the police did not stop us from going into the police post to register ourselves, a requirement to speak at the Speakers’ Corner.
After the long process of registration over, we managed to make our way through the ‘sea’ of cameramen, eager supporters and spectators where a few of us addressed the huge gathering at Speakers’ Corner.
I was later told, with photographic evidence, that the police had earlier gone round the park demanding particulars of those who had come for the rally and instructing them that the event was illegal and that they shouldn’t be in the vicinity. Most relented but a few brave ones asserted their rights and refused to leave the place.
If we were not getting the support from Singaporeans, as is always claimed in the controlled local media, why not let the people attend the rally?
Soon after the speeches were over, we decided to proceed with our plan to march on to Parliament House. As we came down from the table that was our platform, the police both in uniform and plainclothes, surrounded us and prevented from going further. An officer, using loudhailer kept warning the crowd to disperse, as the march was illegal.
A policeman in dark T-shit, claiming to be a supporter maneuvered his way through the surging crowd to link arms with us! Later, when his true identity was exposed he quickly disappeared and never showed up throughout the 72-hour unintended standoff at the park.
As the crowd began to thin in the afternoon, the police presence became more visible and confrontational. But we stayed calm and were determined to standup to authoritarianism and bullying.
As the night approached, we were happy to note that there were still some reporters and supporters seated on the sidewalk. A member of another opposition party and a candidate in the recent elections had spent the whole day and night with us, with his occasional outbursts at police highhandedness whenever we made attempts to continue with our march. I want to thank him for his enthusiastic support. It was most heartening.
I hardly slept that first night. At the outbreak of sunlight the next day, the surrounding was quiet with less traffic, since it was Sunday. My daughter brought my medicine and the Sunday Times. The insignificant write-up in the paper was not only hostile but a total distortion. The report said the standoff had ended on the previous night!
I was aghast with such a blatant lie, deliberately printed with an ulterior motive to prevent the public from coming to Hong Lim Park to see firsthand something that they had never witnessed before.
It was on the second day, as I was making my way back from the washroom when I was stopped by a young lady who introduced herself as Gayle Goh. She said she wanted to interview me for her blog. I obliged.
In the meanwhile someone had brought The New Paper whose account and almost half-page picture of the previous day’s event was most revolting, to say the least.
This concerted attempt at disinformation by the mainstream media called for immediate action. As we were updating constantly our website from the ‘democracy corner’, we also put out an article exposing the ‘lies’ spewed by the local papers on our standoff.
But we were told by well-wishers and supporters that the Internet is swamped with write-ups, podcasts and videocasts put up by independent observers. This boosted our spirits in our determination to defy unjust laws through nonviolent and civil disobedient actions.
It began to dawn on the police that we were determined to continue our standoff. We told the senior police officers who were trying to persuade us to give up and go home that there were only two options: One, allow us to continue with our march that could be over within a couple of hours and everybody can then go home. Two, we would continue our protest until after the prime minister’s opening address to the WB-IMB meeting.
If there was a pluralistic media and free and fair elections in Singapore, there would hardly be a need for protesters like us to campaign for freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.
It’s time for the authorities to realize this fundamental truth and make changes to the system to let the people have their say in their future.
After the successful and unprecedented standoff at the ‘democracy corner’ in Hong Lim Park, I’ve come out more determined and steadfast in my belief of nonviolence and civil disobedience.
I hope to see more people attending the Empower Singaporeans seminar on October 15 to exchange notes and how to fine-tune our strategies for our next rally and protest march.