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Much has been made about the apathy of Singaporeans towards politics and political issues. Is such a “tidak apa” attitude a result of the fact that Singaporeans are a contented lot or is it because the authoritarian system has instilled fear into the minds of the people by criminalising political activities through the decades?
The former explanation cannot be true going by the recent flurry of activities held at Hong Lim Park. Political and social activists of all persuasions and interests have conducted numerous protests and commemorations at Speakers’ Corner.
Just in the last eight days, four events were staged at the park. Last Saturday, the gay and lesbian group came together for the “pink dot” event to encourage tolerance of homosexuality.
Five days later, a group of young activists converged on the green to remember the 1987 “Marxist” detentions and to call for the abolition of the Internal Security Act.
Yesterday, disabled members of our society, including those visually handicapped, made a strong pitch at the Speakers’ Corner for transport subsidy from the government. At the same time, a peace activist staged a hunger strike to call for an end to the violence in Sri Lanka.
Taking turns to address a crowd of some 60 people, a group of disabled Singaporeans urged the authorities to hear their plea for transport subsidy.
“What is the point of providing accessibility at MRT stations when there is no subsidy?” asked one speaker. They said transport subsidy will go a long way to provide mobility for them, most of whom are in the low-paying jobs.
Another speaker was 37-year old social worker Mr Wong U-Wen. A deaf, Mr Wong used sign language to articulate his views on the need for transport subsidy.
He said: “Because the government does not believe in a welfare system, disabled persons face the economic hardship. The costs of living standards are pretty high, I mean crazy. I think the government needs to cut down on our transport costs.”
The half-hour event, organised by social activist Mr Ravi Philemon, ended with a petition signing asking the authorities to consider subsidizing their transport costs.
A call for peace in Sri Lanka
Also at Hong Lim Park yesterday was a group of Singaporeans supporting a peace activist. Mr Rajasegaran is conducting a 48-hour hunger strike to call attention to the Eelam Tamils who are casualties in the on-going war in Sri Lanka.
Visitors were asked to sign petitions to the United Nations, Sri Lankan government and the Singapore government to a quickly and peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Mr Rajasegara will end his hunger strike on Monday morning.
Causing public order concerns
All these protests were not possible a few years ago because Mr Lee Kuan Yew insisted that pandemonium would break out if Singaporeans were allowed to come together for such events.
Such scare-mongering is the hallmark of anti-democrats. The appeal to fear is a potent weapon in getting the masses to fear itself and its own voice.
Just years ago the word protest was taboo. Even progressive-minded individuals thought that public demonstrations were unnecessary, if not altogether dangerous.
The past few years have, however, proved such fear unfounded. Every single one of the events held at the Speakers’ Corner over the years have not resulted in a single act of violence.
Ironically it is the PAP MPs that have been the source of violent confrontation. Going by Mr Lee’s logic, he should ban all public meetings involving his MPs. These events are obviously of public order concern. Instead, the Government prohibits peaceful protests.
Whatever the PAP’s motives, the truth is that Singaporeans are not the contented and uninterested people that we think we are. It is the continued authoritarian system that instills fear and keeps citizens away from engaging publicly in issues that concern them.
The myth of the apolitical Singaporean has been shattered. It is now a matter of getting more people to overcome their fear of gathering in a public place, albeit at Speakers’ Corner, to exercise our right to freedom of expression. Every society starts with small groups leading the way, the masses will eventually follow.
And while we’re at it, we should never forget that this right cannot and must not be restricted to Hong Lim Park.