By Howard Lee
There is a lot of anguish online and offline following the clash of events at Hong Lim Park (HLP) on Saturday between YMCA and the organisers of the Return Our CPF protests. Most of it was directed at the CPF protesters, who were accused of heckling the special needs children who were performing at the YMCA event.
It is even more odd that a lot of the comments did not come from those who attended either events – which includes me – but based almost entirely on the video showing the CPF protesters marching, waving flags and shouting in front of the stage where YMCA was conducting its event.
The TOC report on the double event would have covered what really happened. But what really happened leading up to the event to cause this unhappy incident, and could it have been done differently? I would like to examine this from the beginning to the end, when the reservations to use HLP were made all the way to the protest march.
All bookings made?
YMCA claimed that they have approval from NParks to use HLP in April 2014. Presumably, they would have used sent an email to the National Parks Board, as indicated in the NParks website. Similarly, Ms Han also claimed to have obtained her approval from NParks in July 2014, presumably using the online application form found on the NParks website.
It would appear that both parties have legitimate use of HLP. Does it then mean that NParks has logged in a double booking?
As it is, Ms Han Hui Hui, organiser of the CPF protests received a shock when she visited the park grounds on Thursday night, to see that tentage she did not order has been erected in the middle of HLP for the YMCA event.
Ms Han reported on her Facebook page that she spoke to some representatives of the other event, whom she believes to be grassroot leaders. Given that YMCA has openly declared that “neither YMCA nor its representatives have had communication with Ms Han”, who exactly did Ms Han spoke to on Thursday?
It would also appear that Ms Han tried to contact YMCA about this, to no avail. Unfortunately, the party she should have contacted was NParks, who would be able to clarify with her precisely what the misunderstanding was about.
D-day, and run-in with NParks and the police
As it turned out, NParks has indeed received and approved two applications for the use of HLP. As reported by media:
“NParks demarcated and allocated space for both events. “There are two lawns at Hong Lim Park, and each event was allocated a lawn. NParks and SPF approached Ms Han to request her cooperation to speak at the allocated space,” the statement said. “We regret to note that Ms Han did not heed our advice and continued to hold her event at the same lawn as YMCA.””
When exactly did NParks and the Police approach Ms Han to let her know about the allocation of a separate lawn? As TOC reports, 30 minutes before the event, when their equipment has already been set up and participants would already have been arriving. YMCA was granted use of the larger piece of HLP in front of the community centre where the soil mound and the usual protests are located, while the CPF protesters were to use the smaller area to the east.
Did NParks actually consider a few implications of this double allocation? Such as, given that the CPF protests have drawn crowd sizes of up to 3,000, that the smaller lawn might not be able to fit a sudden turnout? If so, then why chose to only inform the protest organisers at the eleventh hour?
In any case, the way which the director of parks, Mr Chia Seng Jiang approached Ms Han to inform the protesters about the venue would have been a sure way to solicit resistance. To be flanked by a band of people, only one who legitimately identified himself as a police officer, and to threaten to take down particulars, all the while having not indicated in writing and in advance that Ms Han was only allocated the east lawn, he would have only received the response he deserved.
Oddly, even at this point, the authorities could not be counted to be consistent. Media reported that “the police said they would be investigating the incident”, yet it was Assistant Superintendent Eric Chong who told Ms Han that to march within HLP, she has to “check with NParks”. So what exactly are they investigating?
My view would be that the CPF protesters did the right in asking for identification and clarity from the authorities, and stand their ground when none was produced. Their anger is understandable, and their defiance natural. Whether that justified their entire slate of actions is another matter.
That heckling incident
Heckle – interrupt (a public speaker) with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse; to interrupt (a public speaker, performer, etc) by comments, questions, or taunts
The dictionary definition of “heckle” indicates that the insult has to be directed at the person it was intended to put down. As such, did the CPF protesters deliberately try to be aggressive towards, abuse or taunt the special needs children present at the YMCA event, whether on or off stage?
All onsite video recordings seem to indicate that, while they were rowdy, they did not seem to have directed their words at the children performing. TOC posted a video online to show a different perspective, but it is already apparent that the video used to demonstrate heckling did not seem to contain any of the sort.
However, what we see being reported in a “reputable” broadsheet like The Straits Times is that they deliberately sought to make life difficult for the children. “Special needs children heckled as Hong Lim Park rallygoers disrupt charity carnival”. That is as much sensationalism as you can cram into one headline.
Unfortunately, that seemed to have incited many Members of Parliament to respond in outrage [emphasis mine]:
Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin: “I am appalled. We now heckle special needs children? Vile. Total and absolute disgrace.”
MP Janil Puthucheary: “What sort of public discourse do we want? No excuse for bad behaviour, but especially not directed at kids.”
MP Zaqy Mohamad: “A pity that special needs children were heckled by protesters at event by YMCA at Hong Lim Park. One thing to want to make a statement, and another to cross the line in this manner.”
MP Ang Wei Neng: “It was a sad day. There was no good reason for the bloggers to heckle children with special needs and hurl vulgarities.”
In fact, of all the comments made, possibly the only one who made any good sense was by Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck – the only one among all his anguished colleagues who was actually at the event, and quite likely the object of the heckling, if any – who made this most commendable even-handed comment to media:
“They have their views, which they want to share, and which they voiced out in a different way. Of course, we hope that things could be done in a more friendly manner.”
Mr Teo did not seem to think that the CPF protesters heckled the children. Why should any of his colleagues think so?
So they did the right thing?
However, that is not to say I agree with what the CPF protesters have done. I agree to some extent to what Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing said: “To cause alarm and distress to special needs children, and disrupting their routine cannot be right no matter how righteous you think your own cause may be.”
The protesters would have been aware that there are children, special needs or otherwise, present at the YMCA event. They were not party to the objectives of the CPF protest or what the organisers were subjected to earlier, might not understand the anger expressed and would likely have found the hullabaloo alarming.
Indeed, it matters little who the event was organised by or for. It could have been an actual grassroots event organised by the ruling People’s Action Party, but it gives no reason for anyone to intrude into another’s space, even if the authorities did not clearly define that for us.
Granted, we can no longer claim that the CPF protesters heckled the special needs children. They also used the space that they thought was approved by NParks, having not received any indication otherwise. But their anger with the authorities need not have rubbed off on YMCA, to the extent of making the YMCA event any less enjoyable for its participants.
The lesson learnt, then, are multiple. Being confrontational and authoritative will only solicit defiance and feelings of being victimised. Clarity from the authorities is essential, if it wishes to manage our social spaces. Failing which, we need to fall back on co-managing it with others, so that we can better achieve our goals without making others feel bad. Otherwise, we are just offering others ammunition to take us down for doing the socially unacceptable, although technically right, thing.
TOC’s video coverage of the “heckling” incident