Confessions of a Singaporean protester: I found out what it means to be a citizen

September 16, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Teoh Tian Jing

Below is the account of Teoh Tian Jing who was one of the protesters at the Empower Singaporeans Rally and March that led to a standoff with the police from 16-19 Sep 06.

As I begin to pen down my thoughts, I cannot help but recollect the faces I’d seen during the last 4 days, as they flash repeatedly across my mind like a slide projector running images in a quiet, dark room.

It’s a room full of seats but I’m be the only one in the world to be privileged to sit in claim ownership of these images, etched forever in memory, and remembered till the day I pass on.

The group walked into Hong Lim Park with no resistance of any sort like we had imagined. We had planned down to the worse possible scenario of being immediately halted by a riot squad before we even stepped into the park and then arrested.

While some of the activists were registering to speak at the Speaker’s Corner, I had my virgin interaction with a journalist who turned out to be a young, pretty lass from Reuters, by the name of Fayen. She would be one of the people I would see everyday.

When the standoff started, we were encircled by police, reporters and cameramen.

A supporter by the name of John brought in some food and much needed relief from the human enclosure. Evening came and passed. Sore feet and trembling knees slowly became numb. At about 10pm some of the supporters standing outside the circle started singing national songs, and suddenly I felt as though I could go on standing forever.

By this time, food had already started to pile up from well wishers, and I had a feeling of untold gratitude towards these kind people. We stood steadfast, past midnight before finally settling down.

An officer politely suggested to me that I should sit to the side (of the walkway) so that the bicycles won’t hit me: “We are concerned about your safety.” I argued that bicycles would stop and wheel across even when the path wasn’t blocked, because they wouldn’t want to risk hitting YOU guys, so I couldn’t be more safe sitting down there.

Then I recalled during the press conference earlier that day, one of the reporters asked, “Dr Chee, did the police treat you well during the night?” And he replied “Absolutely…absolutely NOT.” This explained the extreme attitude change the police went through in the few hours. This is a land of 4 million fake smiles, indeed.

On the second day after the downpour, we stood a little more until the sun set, and then laid out a tarpaulin on the sidewalk and rested our sore feet and tired bodies. Francis bought food, and while we started to tuck in, John appeared. That moment is a slice in time that I will want to preserve. John bought food; from 2 large plastic bags he whipped out munchies, cakes of all varieties, disposable raincoats, wet tissues, other toiletries, and he took it all out one by one. It was like receiving birthday presents, each one more delightful than the other. Everybody hushed in anticipation of what was to come out of that red bag, and squealed at what came out of it. John was our Santa Claus.

Then there were the three women supporters whom we affectionately called our ‘Charlies Angels’. They left such an impact on me that I couldn’t help but feel absolutely moved by their little actions of support. One of them brought in vitamin C and garlic tablets, and I gladly washed them down together with a light meal. I started chatting with them and the light conversation greatly boosted my mood and determination to stay put till the end.

There are simply no words to describe how I felt then, looking at the police looking at us enjoying ourselves on the sidewalk of Hong Lim Park. Perhaps I felt fortunate to have met these people at this place. Perhaps it was a feeling of bliss, because we were having an outdoor picnic while the police looked on.

And perhaps it was because it was the element of human-ness that is so sorely lacking in the Singaporean society. It was the human touch at that moment, selfless people looking out for each other, people gathering together for a common ideal.

But it also struck me that by contrast Singapore had developed into a very selfish society, a place where people tend to think only about themselves or their immediate friends or families, and where everything is motivated by money. It is a place where human relationships don’t matter and where materialism has taken over what defines us as human beings – compassion.

After dinner, Chee’s family came by. Mei, his wife and his three young kids came to visit us. He embraced his youngest son and carried him, while Siok Chin played with the other two daughters at the carpark nearby.

Immediately, the police sprang into action from their daydreaming, having had nothing to do but stand around and watch over us the whole day. The video cameras started rolling. I could only watch quietly at their actions. It was a pathetic and very shameful scene to witness.

I stepped up to one of the officers and whispered, “Don’t you feel stupid for taking all these?” pointing to the two girls and Siok Chin who were teasing each other like how I would play with my young nieces and nephews.

Having being wide awake for more than 36 hours, I wasn’t feeling too good and was on the verge of falling ill due to lack of sleep. And having my fretting parents at home who had seen the newspaper, I decided to home for that night.

I met up with my fellow protesters at Raffles Place the following (third) day, giving out flyers to let people know of the ongoing protest. Fresh from the comfort of my own bed, I relieved Rizal of his stack of flyers and finished the task in a jiffy. We then proceeded back to Hong Lim Park with two plainclothes officers following us from a distance.

The day passed strangely calm, and in the evening we had even more food and more company. A German couple, who had been there since day one but were intimidated by the police’s presence, finally decided to sit with us. The chiefs of foreign news agencies also came down as did some members of the Worker Party’s who brought some food.

That night I couldn’t sleep. I sat at one of the stone barriers beside the road, and Rizal joined me. At 2am, we both went back and I tried again to sleep, but it was too humid. Then I got up and sat at the stone barrier again, simply looking at the taxis driving past.

When dawn came, I took out the sleeping bag I had brought from the previous night and took a half-hour nap, at long last. After a night of thrill, tension and adrenaline, my body finally allowed me to relax for a while.

The helicopters came for the second time in four days, and I could not help but feel amazed at the extent they would go to and the kind of money they would waste to monitor nothing.

By noon, the area was packed. Journalists, passersby, students, cameramen, protesters surrounded, Dr. Chee started his press conference. Gandhi and Ms Chee gave their speeches as well. Then we linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome”, the song we sang on the first day. Then Chee announced it: We were going home.

In the car, I could only look on. An oldie tune played on the stereo, and I thought it befitted my mood. It was so surreal. I felt as though the scene was pulled from a movie. As we pulled out from the carpark, I continued looking at the police and noticed some new faces. These replacements obviously did not know what happened the past four days. Then my mind went blank.

Afterthought:

During the 4 days, there was not an instance that I felt fear. For the cause that we were fighting for, the fear of the police, fear of being arrested, fear of being jailed seemed like something I could handle with relative ease.

Through the experience, I finally had a taste of what it really meant to feel a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging is so important for people to develop patriotism, which is something that also does not exist here.

In Singapore, nothing really belongs to you. Every inch of soil here belongs to the government, HDB houses really belong to the HDB, and your car belongs to you for only as long as the date on that piece of paper.

In one of the two notes I wrote to the police, I said: Feel your heart, is this what you call a country when citizens don’t even have a voice? Is it no wonder that people call this a place to work in but not live in?

At the very least, we the protesters can claim that for four days – when the sky was our roof, the police were our gates, and the foreign reporters were our burglar alarm – we experienced the real meaning of citizenship.

Love for the country, for the soil – they cannot be taught in textbooks. It would have to be felt by the passion and action of each and every individual.


Teoh Tian Jing
is a member of SDP’s youth wing, the Young Democrats.