Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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The Merlion Protests – The rights of foreigners and the relevancy of our protest laws

By Ghui

A foreign workforce makes up much of Singapore’s labour market. This has, as we are all aware by now, led to a surge of resentment from Singaporeans who have come to see these “foreign talents” as competitors for housing, jobs and space in our crowded public transportation services. People wiser than me have said that it is not so much the influx of foreigners that has caused the backlash of anger but rather, the lack of provision made by the government to ensure that our country was equipped to deal with the sudden population increase that has led to the maelstrom of discontent.

The most basic starting point of handling a population explosion is to make sure that the country’s infrastructure is able to support the increased numbers of people without bursting at its seams. From the various transportation meltdowns and sky rocketing property prices, this was not adequately dealt with. However, rafts of reforms have now been introduced and these issues will hopefully dissipate in time. There is however a secondary issue that bears more in depth thought – What place do foreigners have in Singapore beyond the role of worker bee? And more specifically, in the scenario, I am about to highlight – what rights does a foreigner have?

Most Singaporeans would by now be aware of the two Merlion Park rallies that were held to protest against the recent Malaysian elections. These peaceful demonstrations have been deemed by the Singapore police as “illegal”. Technically, the police are correct. Public gatherings of any kind are only permitted in Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park if a permit is applied for and granted prior to the event. This would apply to foreigner and non-foreigner alike so while I disagree with the law per se, this is not a foreigner versus non-foreigner issue.

Some Singaporeans have however, queried whether non Singaporeans should be permitted to participate in protests in Singapore (link). This then begs the question of why not?

To unmuddy the waters, let’s take out of the equation whether or not we should have a large foreign workforce in Singapore. That is a topic for another discussion and indeed one that has been discussed to death – so, let’s not flog a dead horse. The fact is, we have a sizable foreign population in Singapore and they are here to stay. Given that they live and work amongst us, shouldn’t they have a right to enjoy the same social and political rights that we are beginning to hold dear?

Malaysia is our closest neighbouring country and there are many Malaysians who live and contribute meaningfully alongside us. Many Malaysians I know consider Singapore to be their home while at the same time, having great affinity to Malaysia as the country of their birth. Despite living in Singapore, they will still take great interest in the developments in Malaysia. Is that wrong?

Our world is getting more globalised and most developed countries in the world permit dual citizenship. They recognise that it is possible for a citizen to feel loyalty to more than one country. This is not only an economic reality but an unavoidable effect of globalisation, a process that Singapore is most certainly a part of. Many of our countrymen work overseas and are permanent residents of other countries but still considering themselves to be Singaporean. So, why all the hoo-hah vis-à-vis the Merlion Park protests?

Singapore has many foreigners living in our midst. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept this reality and be more forward thinking. If there are a large grouping of a particular nationality and an issue arises that concerns that particular nationality, then by sheer numbers, we have a large proportion of people resident in Singapore who are concerned about that given issue even if they might not be Singaporean citizens. So, if a large number of people currently resident in Singapore are concerned about a given issue, shouldn’t they be permitted to air their concerns in Singapore (where they live) in a peaceful manner?

From all that I have read, the Merlion Park rallies were peaceful. From that standpoint, I see no difference between a Singaporean protest and a non-Singaporean one.

As for the “illegality” point, my views are clear. It is a hallmark of democracy for peaceful protests to be permitted. The law in this area will have to be revisited soon. Singaporeans are getting rightfully more vocal. Laws are never static and should be reassessed to meet the changing needs of Singaporeans. The existence of our “protest” laws has now created a international relations incident with Malaysia. Malaysia’s Democratic Action Party has requested a meeting with the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the fate of 21 Malaysians arrested for staging an “illegal” protest at Merlion Park (link).

Indeed, the arrests of the 21 Malaysians in Singapore has made the press on a global scale and brought international scrutiny on democracy (or allegedly lack thereof) in our city state.

I am aware that I have raised many points in this article which I had meant to be concise but what I really want to say is this: This whole Merlion Park Saga highlights not only the issue of the social and political rights of foreigners but also questions the relevancy of our current protest laws.

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