Protesting in Singapore: Part 3

January 17, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Chee Soon Juan

          A protest along South Bridge Road in 1959

Discourse on civil disobedience (CD) in Singapore tends to centre around whether Singaporeans are receptive to the idea (as discussed in
Part 1) and, if they are, whether they see society as being ready, that is politically sophisticated enough, for such an undertaking (
Part 2).

There is yet another view: Singaporeans are economically comfortable even though they may not enjoy political freedoms, and because of this soft underbelly, they will not engage in risky political ventures like taking part in CD.

Put simply, Singaporeans are too rich and contented to risk their well-being by getting into trouble with the law, unjust as they are. On the face of it such an analysis makes complete sense. Who wants to leave the comfort zone into territory that is alien and dangerous? CD works best for those who are economically deprived and have little else to lose.

Too rich to protest?

Such a view is problematic for a couple of reasons.

One, if it is the possession of economic wealth that causes people to shun non-violent action, then Taiwan and South Korea would still be toiling under dictatorships. These two countries were experiencing heady economic growth in the 1970s and 80s as Asian Tigers when their citizens, many of them professionals, were pressing hard for political change.

The risks of getting involved were many as they were immediate and the rewards intangible and distant. And yet it was the middle-class that rebelled and brought about change.

Hong Kong people protest in the hundreds of thousands

What about Hong Kong? Its economy is as robust and bouyant as ever. But this didn’t stop Hong Kongers, hundreds of thousands of them, to demonstrate for democracy and freedom.

Malaysia’s economy may not be as advanced but it is nevertheless fast-growing by any standard. Malaysians enjoy a standard of living quite unsurpassed in their own history. Yet, in the past couple of years there has been an unprecedented push for democracy in the country despite the authoritarian Barisan Nasional regime.

Indeed, there is a theory that says that as a society becomes more affluent and as people don’t always have to think about where the next meal is going to come from, citizens will naturally demand more liberty and rights.

Conversely peoples like the Burmese and North Koreans cannot make any headway in bringing about democratic change even though the masses are starving and living in abject poverty.

Two, if it is true that only the economically down-and-out engaged, or were willing to engage, in CD then I would find myself surrounded with people who are lower on the socioeconomic scale. But this is not the case. The individuals actively defying the PAP laws are not exactly those whom one would consider down-trodden.

Among those who took part in the
Tak Boleh Tahan protest in 2008 was a graduate student, a businesswoman, an engineer, a property developer, a lawyer, a computer programmer, an artist, and a psychology lecturer. The one thing that they have in common is not the lack of wealth but a strong sense of justice. It is this conviction that moved them to action.

Kicking the can down the road

The truth is that it is dangerous to leave things until a time when the economy turns sour and wait for an angry and hungry mob to rise up. Such non-strategy runs the risk of having the situation end up in violence and strife.

Sometimes a dictator will go after much bloodshed and violence. That’s what happened in Indonesia in the late 1990s when the economy unraveled and Suharto was toppled.

And sometimes not. Regimes may dig in and step up their brutality to quell the revolt. Zimbabwe is one example. The result? Countless lives are lost, the economy is an absolute shambles, and the dictator is still in power (and apparently still shopping).

Either way, leaving change to the boiling over of popular anger is riskier than a well-constructed program of CD and non-violent action.

The fact of the matter is that without initiating and educating people in the ways of CD, we are setting ourselves up for even more pain in the future. Opposition and civil society leaders trained in non-violent action are in a much better position to steer society away from the violent chaos that we all don’t want to see, and achieve change through peaceful means.

Don’t forget, without Independence fighters like Lim Chin Siong and company who strove valiantly and were jailed repeatedly fighting for our freedom, we would still be singing
God Save the Queen instead of
Majulah Singapura. If it was good and right for Singaporeans to use CD against the British then, why is it bad and wrong for us to use it against the much more authoritarian PAP now? 

On this note, let me end this piece with a quote from The
Economist:

It is clear that a successful popular change of regime—one, that is, that results in a reasonably democratic and enduringly free system—is much more likely to emerge if it has certain characteristics. What is needed, according to an analysis by Freedom House of 67 overthrown dictatorships, is “broad-based, non-violent civic resistance—which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience to delegitimate authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support, including the loyalty of armed defenders.” Such people power can be decisive. And if it is a significant feature of the change of regime, the emergence of a free society is much more likely than in a top-down change of power brought about by elites or others close to power. Moreover, the most important factor in contributing to the emergence of a freer society is the presence of strong and cohesive non-violent civic coalitions.

 Read also Dr Chee’s speech (2008): Civil disobedience works