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Government using hyperbole to justify public protests ban

By Gerald Giam

The Singapore Government has once again employed the use of hyperbole to justify its near-total ban on public demonstrations, whether peaceful or not.

In his letter to the Straits Times and TODAY, the deputy director at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) cautioned that "(t)he worst race riots in Singapore history began as peaceful processions".

Let's examine that statement a little more closely by looking at the history of riots in Singapore.

Riot history

Since independence, there has been just one major riot, the 1969 Race Riots, in which four people were killed. These were a spill-over from the May 13 riots in Malaysia. The riots did not begin as a peaceful procession. No permit was applied for, and none was granted.

Chinese and Malay gangs, together with foreign infiltrators, simply attacked innocent civilians at random. Clearly this was a case of the police not being able to prevent the violent actions of a few lawless individuals. Had the present permit system for public demonstrations been in place then, the riots would have still taken place.

Prior to that, there were the 1964 Race Riots that occurred on Prophet Muhammad's birthday, in the backdrop of a very tense period of race relations. If one examines the events that led up to this riot, it is no wonder that it turned violent. On 21 July 1964, about 25,000 people had gathered in the Padang to celebrate the Prophet's birthday. After speeches (which probably included provocative calls to action), the crowd was allowed to go on a procession towards Geylang. Along the way, some violent groups within the crowd started attacking policemen and passers-by and this provoked violent counter-reactions.

The police should never have allowed that procession to proceed in the first place. Common sense would tell you that 25,000 people going on a racially-charged procession through ethnic neighbourhoods after listening to fiery speeches is a recipe for disaster.

Looking back 51 years to 1956, were the Chinese middle school riots. Again, these riots did not take place in isolation. This was the height of the government's battle with the communists who had infiltrated numerous organisations and schools.

The Hock Lee Bus Riots of 1955 were a result of a dangerous concoction of militant trade unions, communist instigation and anti-colonial sentiments. The riots broke out when police tried to disperse a demonstration of 2,000 students and strikers.

The National Service Riots of 1954 started as a demonstration with 500 Chinese students holding a demonstration against conscription and marching towards the Istana.

Finally, rounding off modern Singapore's history of riots are the infamous Maria Hertogh Riots in 1950. Three thousand angry people had been allowed to gather outside the Supreme Court as a blatantly insensitive colonial judge made a ruling that Muslims saw as a slap in their face.

In all these instances, several key factors were at play:

1. Turbulent political times;

2. Widespread poverty and social neglect;

3. Very large crowds.

Singapore 21st Century

Contrast these with some of the demonstrations that the police have banned in recent years:

· Feb 2003: Police broke up a protest by six Singaporeans (mostly young girls) in front of the US embassy to protest the Iraq war;

· Sept 2003: The Think Centre's application to display dolls in Raffles Place was refused on grounds of “law and order considerations";

· Nov 2003: Maid welfare group TWC2’s application to hold a symbolic march to mark International Day Against Violence Against Women was rejected on “law and order considerations”;

· Sept 2005: Buangkok residents put up cardboard cut-outs of white elephants in front of the Buangkok MRT station to protest against its non-opening. A police investigation was launched and the "culprit" was given a stern warning;

· Jan 2006: Schoolgirls wore white elephant T-shirts at Buangkok MRT's opening ceremony, and were warned by police that if they wore the T-shirts “en masse, it might be misconstrued by some as an offence”;

· Sept 2006: All outdoor protests at the IMF/World Bank meetings were banned;

· Aug 2007: Police rejected the Workers' Party's permit application for a cycling event;

· Aug 2007: Police filmed a demonstration by Odex anime fans and sent four riot police vehicles to intimidate protestors;

· Oct 2007: Police reject student Andrew Teo’s application for an outdoor protest against the Myanmar junta.

Unlike the riots of yesteryear, it is highly unlikely that any of these protests would have turned violent. There simply isn't enough political tension in the air among local residents for it to happen.

If the police are really concerned about law and order issues, they could simply grant permits for crowds of up to, say, 50 people. Beyond that they can step in and break it up. Surely a crowd of 50 is more than manageable by our able men in blue!

Unfortunately, two generations of Singaporeans — which include the policymakers and police officers themselves — have been brought up with ghost stories of our turbulent past and been told that any organised gathering that is not government endorsed (picture, right, link) is dangerous and could lead to riots.

I think a higher level of maturity in our developed society is needed.

Read also: Banned In The City Of Possibilities here.

Visit Gerald's personal blog for more of his writings.