Protesting in Singapore: Part 2

January 14, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Chee Soon Juan

In Part I of this essay, I wrote about how some Singaporeans saw civil disobedience (CD) as being an inappropriate tactic for Singapore’s democratisation because the majority are averse to confrontation and therefore will not support such a strategy. (Photo: The Tak Boleh Tahan protest in 2008)

In this second part, I wish to focus on those who agree in principle that CD is an effective tool but contend that the time has not yet come for its employment. The reason given, which is not an invalid one, is that Singaporeans are by and large not sufficiently aware and educated in politics for such an undertaking.

This, of course, leads one to ask: When are people going to become educated? When does the education start? And how is this process going to take place or in what form should it take? In other words if not now, when is the right time to defy an autocratic regime?

The answer is that there is never a “right” time.

In the beginning

This is because political progress does not occur in a neat linear fashion. It ebbs and flows. The pages of progress turn slowly, often indecently so, during which nothing ever seems to happen.

Then it explodes; dictatorships are toppled, new regimes are elected (in some cases installed) and a new era is heralded. The changes may or may not be consolidated, and the people may or may not live happily ever after. But that’s not the point of this discussion.

The point is that change necessitates perseverance. Perseverance encompasses repetition of action (even though that action may be refined and improved along the way). And repetition of action draws more participants in to the campaign.

The reality is that the concept and practice of CD cannot be taught only in the classroom, nor can it be advocated only at public forums. It must be demonstrated in the real world, on real streets, facing real opponents. It is through action that citizens come to learn and understand of the need to not bow our heads in silence in the face of repression.

Action generates discussion. It forces people to take sides. Opinions and views are exchanged. Reasoned argument is put forth. Awareness is raised. In other words, education is occurring.

Are we there yet?

Unfortunately, the people who start the education process are seldom the ones who witness the change that occurs later. These are the same people who are most often accused of banging their heads against the wall, of conducting quixotic acts that only end in pain and futility.

And yet without their initiative, change would not have come about. Actions of individuals or groups of individuals build on previous ones. Such progression allows the gradual accumulation of experience and knowledge which are the basic ingredients of all successful endeavours.

The story about Rosa Parks, who boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to move to the back like all obedient black Americans were supposed to, is one that many of us are familiar with. Her defiance of white authority prompted a certain Martin Luther King, Jr to join the fray and spark the Civil Rights Movement in America. (Photo: Rosa Parks in 1955)

And yet Parks, who died in 2005, did not just burst on the scene to start the campaign in 1955. Before her were Irene Morgan, Sarah Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin who had all committed the same act. In fact it was Colvin’s act of defiance nine months preceding that enabled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to plan for Parks’ move.

Contrary to popular folklore, Parks was not a disinterested by-stander. She was a trained and “knowledgeable NAACP stalwart” at the time she committed her act of disobedience.

But it was not just in the mid-20th century that these acts of civil disobedience came about. Generations of African-Americans had begun the process decades before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King came along. These acts of CD did not precipitate the Civil Rights Movement. Were their actions conducted at the wrong time, that is, prematurely? (Photo: Rosa Parks in her later years, with Martin Luther King)

Of course not. Early pioneers of the movement laid the groundwork upon which successive groups built their campaigns until the barrier was finally breached. In other words, political movements don’t happen spontaneously at the “right” time. It takes the pioneers to push, often against psychological
inertia and the reluctance of the majority, before the tipping point comes about.

What must be emphasized is that when an action that is taken does not, for whatever reason, achieve its intended goal, the resultant effect is not zero. Each time we act, we move the needle of progress up one notch, however small that notch may be.

It is the cumulative effect of each single act that ultimately brings about change. The late Robert F Kennedy once remarked:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.


Moving the needle

And so it must be with us in Singapore. The vast majority of the people may not know or understand what CD is. But, as I pointed out earlier, a political movement does not start with the masses. It starts with you and me.

We are the ones who must help with the education process. We are the thin end of the wedge that will eventually force wider the crack in the PAP wall. Our spreading the word is the education that is needed.

We may or may not live long enough to see our efforts bear fruit but that should not be our primary concern. Our goal must be to ensure that the process of changing and opening up minds continues.

The needle has moved. Let us continue to move it up one inexorable notch at a time.


Read also: Protesting in Singapore: Part 3
                Civil disobedience works

(2008)