By Lee Jixiang
I got wind of Mr Gilbert Goh’s protest event against the 6.9m population white paper when an article first appeared on yahoo singapore, and later to his facebook event page. My initial impression was neutral, but as days went by with the number of folks pledged and maybe kept rising, I realized this is an event that I WANT TO GO! The online community’s response was in the thousands, with at least 3700 pledged to attend and about 1800 maybe on 15 Feb night. I thought to myself the night before the event: Tomorrow will be a litmus test for Singaporeans and the “fear of the government”.
A litmus test of the degree Singaporeans to which they would stand up in the open based on what they think and believe. I have seen some of that in the past election and by-elections, but this event is more significant as it involves folks to stand up and out as themselves, and not behind political parties and polling cards.
Will the fear of the government take its toll on the number of folks who have pledged to attend?
I’m Too Old To Be Afraid
I asked myself if I am afraid of whatever consequences, if any, of attending the event. I couldn’t get a definite answer, but I mentally drifted to a phrase by Mr William Binney, an American former NSA employee who was and is constantly hounded for whistle-blowing. He was asked if in an interview if he is still afraid of his government and his reply was: “I’m too old to be afraid.”
I’m in my thirties already and I picked up that phrase that I’m too old to be afraid. Go to jail for civil disobedience and dissent? Not bad really, if you think carefully with the white paper: free accomodation and food. Hell, I might even request for maximum duration if that happens.
The Stranger I Met
I arrived early at around 2pm, sunny and somewhat windy. The organizers were there, a sign about the event was put up in front of the MRT exit leading into the park and the make-shift stage was already set-up. There was only a few people in Hong Lim park at that time, so I walked around to “explore” since this was my first visit.
Time passed slowly and I spotted a man in his fifties I think, sitting alone enjoying the breeze on the sheltered permanent stage near the cafeteria. I smiled and waved to him as I approach and received the same. I asked if he was here because of the event but he replied no. He was just taking a rest so I explained to him about the event that will start at about 4pm. He was skeptical about the pleged 3000+ turnout so our conversation turned towards local politics, history, life in singapore and so on.
Time flew when you are having a meaningful time, and a man came to the permanent stage to cordone it with red-white plastic tape who explained he had to make it “off-limits” to folks during the event. Whatever the reason, uncle and I walked off towards the MRT exit. It was around 245 pm and people are starting to gather on the paved track outside the MRT exit. Probably about fifty in the park, excluding the organizers. There was a few youngsters playing frisbee and folks taking pictures with the event sign post, while the rest (including us) was simply chatting, observing and waiting for the 3000 to turn up.
The number was increasing slowly though. Then suddenly someone shouted for our attention, so most of those present walked towards the speaker who was standing on the elevated part of the field. He introduced himself
as an ex-pilot and he gave us a piece of his mind about what he felt about the white paper and his concerns. I could see and feel his emotions, and the light rain that started didn’t put out his fire one bit! As I turned around when he had finished, the crowd probably was in the three hundreds or so.
The Historical Day
The rain stopped and the two of us decided to get off the grass as it was turning muddy, and picked a paved spot to the left of the field. We observed that the crowd was growing at a faster rate near the stage as well as those near the MRT exit.
When the organizers on the stage started and the emcee spoke, the turn out probably was in the 500s. The rain came back heavily at some point and the unprepared took a dash to the MRT. However, the empty spaces were promptly taken up and the crowd that gathered soon filled my view of the stage to the centre of the field. The two of us focused on listening, and sometimes giving my personal views to uncle. The only complain he gave about the event was that there wasn’t any speech given in mandarin. Despite that, uncle stood his ground (till 6pm and went off knowing at least 3000 were present)! And towards half past four, the field was filled and people started gathering beside and behind us. And when people were squeezing about, you know its a full house!
Suddenly the crowd standing in the rain in front of me strucked me. I saw young parents, some with their children and even newborns. Young couples, arms around each other. Groups of friends together, sometimes sharing jokes. The aged too, can be seen displaying some of their lost vigor. Our hardy and proud Malay compatriots there displayed the same energy and concerns as the Chinese. That further strengthened my belief the Singaporean always has a large Malay character and strength to it. It would not matter to me if there is a Malay or Indian majority in the population build of Singapore, if that is to happen tomorrow. it is just equality . Its in our pledge. Amazingly, there were some Caucasians amongst us! Some might be observers, but I did saw a middle-aged Caucacian with a chinese lady which I presumed was his Singaporean wife.
The speeches given and the responses by those present were impressive.
Points to highlight:
(1) Mr Ex-pilot’s good point: If possible, work with the government to bring about a better plan. Use of violence will only give the authorities a good excuse to use violence on dissenters.
(2) The use of “Land”, “Labour” and “Capital” – the three factors of production by Mr Kuan. I was pleasantly shocked that the he used these three words to explain his thoughts! Maybe its just me, but I don’t remember learning and thinking along such lines in my schooling days. My first real encounter with these three words and the system of thought was in a book I came across by chance a few years ago titled: “Progress and Poverty” by Henry George. That book was a huge slap in my face which made me know my ignorance. Old school political economy or not, I believe that more writings and speeches using these important concepts can and will bring about clearer understanding some of the underlying problems and contradictions modern societies, and in particular Singapore, is facing.
(3) The government need and should engage the public on important national issues. The old ridiculous imperialist excuse for colonialism: “Being educated and highly experienced, we know whats best for the natives because they are uneducated/uncivilized blah blah…” can’t possibly be accepted by our HIGHLY EDUCATED Singaporeans today. The brains of our educated in the universities, industries and indeed anyone with a relevant idea/contribution can help make informed decisions and plans with the government. Need a more broader analysis? No problem. We can consult academics around the world for additional input.
(4) A referendum should be called for this white paper on population.
(5) Singaporeans have talent and passion, but for some reasons, they don’t appear to be going to the place where they are most needed: the government. A few of the speakers made strong and rational criticism of the white paper, and I wondered why aren’t they in the government too, apart from what we already have? Singapore needs a George Galloway and a Elizabeth Warren. A Justice Bao rather than the God of Fortune. And of course, the more the better.
(6) The confidence in large turn outs of crowd. Cowardice in small groups. The more people go means less people will chicken out. More courage displayed means more courage will be attracted. This is the crux.
(7) Most folks who don’t use the net regularly or not connected to social media didn’t know the existence of the event. Uncle was an example and I am glad I met him that day! How to reach out more of such Singaporeans?
(8) Peaceful protests. The Occupy movement in the US was kind of surgically defeated via military methods, with protester leaders treated and targeted as “terror suspects”.
Litmus Test Result passed and ready for more action.