Analysis: Singapore and its rare ‘political’ protest
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Analysis: Singapore and its rare ‘political’ protest

Angry and frustrated with the government and its population policy, over 3,000 Singaporeans gathered in Hong Lim Park on Saturday to protest the Population White Paper that had been passed in Parliament on the back of the ruling PAP’s majority.

The significant turn-out made it one of the largest crowds gathered in Speakers’ Corner – the only space where Singaporeans are allowed to protest without a permit. It brought together Singaporeans upset about a range of issues, from overcrowding to the lack of a voice in national policy decisions.

It made the front page of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and popped up on several other foreign media publications, but The Straits Times’ front page was surprisingly devoid of the protest. Although there was a report inside the paper, the comprehensive coverage that one would expect from the local broadsheet on an event of such significance was nowhere to be seen. This was strongly criticised by ex-journalist Bertha Henson in her blog: “The kindest thing I can say about MSM here is that they don’t track events as thoroughly as the foreign media. But I know that’s a lie.”

‘Debates’ and ‘conversations’ – A lesson in missing the point

What was worse, though, was the ruling party’s response to the protest. When asked, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that he was “pleased that Singaporeans are debating this population issue because it is about our future”, although he felt that the speeches had been “too political”. Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor was also quite pleased, saying that the government would “continue to engage our Singaporeans” so that it would be able to get “more buy-in and support”.

Faced with what is possibly the largest overtly anti-government protest in recent Singaporean history, the government’s ability to completely miss the point is staggering.

ESM Goh’s criticism of the speeches at the protest being “too one-sided” were simply ludicrous; a protest by its very nature takes a side with no intention of being ‘balanced’. The thousands who gathered were not there to ‘debate’ the issue. There was a plurality of backgrounds, opinions and personalities, sure, but everyone was very much in agreement on one thing: the White Paper sucks.

His comments also serve to further highlight the validity of some of the criticism: he is pleased that citizens are debating the issue, but the Population White Paper has already been passed in Parliament. It constructs an uncomfortable scenario: you can talk and talk, but we’ll just do what we want. This is precisely what has angered many Singaporeans who feel excluded from the democratic decision-making process.

The ‘political’ and ’emotional’

Of course, the standard criticism of being “too political” features in ESM Goh’s response. Again, this is silly. The White Paper was a policy paper specifically endorsed by a government made up of a particular ruling party. It is in itself political, thus making the protest against it political too.

The invoking of the word ‘political’ serves to remind us of how politics has been removed from everyday society, portrayed as the domain of elites. Anything that diverges from the official party line is political, and ordinary Singaporeans, it seems, have no business being political. But ESM Goh has failed to see that times have changed; where ‘politics’ may have once been regarded as a dirty word, a general election, two by-elections and the growth of the blogosphere have shown that Singaporeans are casting off their fear of being political.

Last but not least, ESM Goh said that the speeches only appealed to emotions, suggesting a lack of logic or reasoning. But emotional arguments are not automatically lacking in logic or sense, and there have been many criticisms of the White Paper – both at the protest and elsewhere – that have been backed up with evidence and references, perhaps even more so that the White Paper itself. It makes one wonder: has ESM Goh really listened to the speeches, or read the critiques of his government’s policy?

Again, ESM Goh has completely failed to understand what ‘protest’ means. On top of taking sides, protests are often also incredibly emotive events. They are born from frustration and anger, desperation and hope. It’s no surprise that the protest over the weekend was emotional; these are issues that affect people’s everyday lives, their families and their hopes for the future. These are things that hit very close to home, so why are we writing off emotional responses?

The PAP’s struggle

With every response, every move they make, the PAP only manages to highlight just how out-of-touch they are. In all fairness, efforts are being made by the party to bridge the gap and appeal to Singaporeans. But the rift between the government and the people cannot be closed if those in power continue with their selective hearing.