Respecting freedom of speech – dissecting a protest snafu

By Ariffin Sha

At the protest to call for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to step down, a video of Mr Mohammed Bashir being booed off stage went viral, as he was making some positive remarks about the ruling People’s Action party.

That video made it’s rounds and many said that the opposition want freedom of speech but they do not respect it. But is that really the case? I beg to differ.

If one takes the video at face value, that might seem to be the case. But when one takes a closer look at the context of the situation, what happened before and after the incident, there might be more than what meets the eye.

Let me just start by saying that this is a generalisation. Just like how if one man splashes all of his retirement savings on girls in Batam, it doesn’t mean that all men would be irresponsible with their retirement savings. Just because of one incident at Hong Lim Park where a man got booed off stage by a crowd of about 100 who opposed his views, it doesn’t mean that the 39.9% of people who voted for the opposition do not respect freedom of speech.

Remember that video where a group of Worker’s Party supporters were gathered and when one of them shouted “F**k the PAP”, the rest actually asked him to stop and stay relaxed instead of spurring him on?

Generalising and jumping to conclusions just based on one incident is very dangerous. Instead, let us dwell deeper into the series of events that unfolded last Saturday at Hong Lim Park and find out what really happened.

Firstly, the crowd at Hong Lim Park that day was a small but strong one. This event wasn’t heavily publicised, so most of the people that came were, for the lack of a better word, “die-hard” opposition supporters. The crowd numbered at about 150 people, but they were very vocal. If I were to be blindfolded and asked to estimate the number of people in the crowd according to how they answered my questions during my speech, 400 would be a conservative estimate. Yes, they were loud indeed.

As these were die hard supporters of the opposition, they might have a core belief that the PAP is bad and the opposition is good, so when a statement such as “opposition are shit” is made. it contradicts their core beliefs which gives rise to the phenomena known as cognitive dissonance, which is a major hindrance to debates as logic and common sense are thrown out of the window.

Secondly, the speaker before Mr Bashir really roused the crowd and fired it up. Not to mention Gilbert Louis, who sang the song “Shout” by Tears for Fears right before Mr Bashir’s speech. Not the best song to sing before hearing an opposing view.

The crowd was united, emotionally charged and fired up, and it was the worst possible time for Mr Bashir to speak, in my opinion. He should have spoken at the start of the protest, or perhaps after Gilbert Louis sang “Let it Be” by The Beatles.

Saying that this charged crowd did not respect freedom of speech because they did not listen to Mr Bashir would be like saying the Red Shirt Protesters in Thailand do not respect freedom of speech as they didn’t listen to what Yellow Shirt Protesters had to say in the middle of protesting. The context is not right from the start.

Thirdly, the opening lines of Mr Bashir triggered an emotionally charged audience. “Opposition is shit” might not be the best thing to say. Speaking to Mr Bashir later, I understood what he was planning to say – to explain that in the past the opposition parties only appear near elections and disappear after that, but that was in the past and things have changed now. He could have chosen his opening words more wisely, especially in front of the Hong Lim Park crowd.

peaceAfter the crowd calmed down, Gilbert Louis, on behalf of the crowd, invited Mr Bashir back on stage, to accept the crowd’s apology and “make peace”. The man who snatched the microphone during his speech and many others came forward to shake hands and make peace, too. It all ended on a good note, but we knew that the mainstream media had a different story in mind.

Immediately after Mr Bashir was booed off stage, he was swamped by journalist, most of them who were among the crowd and didn’t make their presence felt until after Mr Bashir’s speech. The way they interviewed Mr Bashir at length with such interest, as compared to how they interviewed the organisers was already a sign of things to come. Well, I don’t expect anything better.

Lastly, do note that the crowd’s reactions may not necessarily be directed towards Mr Bashir but rather towards PM Lee.

And this whole incident raises another question, a question of appropriateness. I believe that a forum, or an actual debate would be a better platform for two opposing sides to air their views and debate instead of a protest. There have been numerous forums where politicians and even members of public with opposing views have debated their views in a peaceful and respectful manner. Even JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong managed to have a peaceful (yet fiery) debate with Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong.

Another thing that came to my mind was, if we are willing to invite a Pro-PAP speaker to our rally, will the PAP do the same? And the answer is, yes they will. Credit has to be given where it is due. At the dialogue hosted by Hri Kumar Nair, Kenneth Jeyaretnam was allowed to enter and air his views. The organisers of the protest also did their best to try and control the crowd.

In conclusion, the opposition do indeed respect freedom of speech, which also comes with the freedom to offend. We shouldn’t ignore what others have to say just because we don’t agree with it.

Hong Lim Park isn’t a place just for people to voice their protest against the government or political figures. Its about a space where people can assemble to speak on issues without permits, something which people like Dr Chee Soon Juan fought for by their civil disobedience and pushing of boundaries. It will be a shame if this right for citizens to voice their opinions is being violated by other citizens just because they have differing opinions.

So, let us all agree to disagree. And I would like to end off with the following quote which is often wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

This article is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Ariffin Sha’s blog.