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How leaders should behave

By Terry Xu

The protest that is currently taking place in Hong Kong has won the hearts of many onlookers around the world for how Hong Kongers have shown their unity as a community and their stance on civil disobedience to seeking universal suffrage from the Chinese government.  Their resolve to demand democracy through peaceful protest can clearly be shown by the protesters refraining from aggressive behaviour towards the police, despite having tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flying their way.

Their strong hold on moral ground has spurred populations around the world to feel for the cause that Hong Kongers are fighting for.

Chow Ting
(Chow Ting - Image credit - Lynn Lee)

17-year-old Hong Kong Student, Agnes Chow Ting is a core member of Scholarism, a students' group that helped launch the Umbrella Revolution. Scholarism's stance in the "Occupy Central" movement after the police used violence on protesters was:

"In the face of the loss of control over public authority, HKFS and Scholarism will continue to participate in and support the citizen-initiated occupy movement. We are in contact with citizens in the various occupy locations, and coordinating our needs. We believe that all occupiers hold similar beliefs about watching out for each other. All three occupy locations are self-initiated and maintaining order. There is misreporting on some on the ground developments. We urge everyone to maintain confidence and head to the ground to understand the situation for yourselves. This can avoid the spread of misunderstanding that may affect the unity and diversity of the movement."

Scholarism might have drawn references from the Sunflower Student Movement in ROC Taiwan earlier this year, when students peacefully protested against the trade pact between China and the state.

Looking back at Singapore, we have individuals like Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui who are prominently known by the public due to the publicity gained from their blog posts and offline activities. Both of them enjoy the support of many, who commend their efforts in calling for the Singapore government to relook policies on the Central Provident Fund.

However, public opinion on the "dynamic duo" swayed to the negative over their actions when the event organised by Han at Hong Lim Park last Saturday conflicted with another event.

The protesters at the CPF protest event were accused of heckling special needs children at their performance. This charge was led mainly through a short 30-second video and write up of what they did.

Although it was subsequently proven by TOC's recording of the same episode that the protesters did not deliberately "heckle" the performing children, their decision to march through the YMCA event, which is a charity and non-political event (not just once but four times in total), was a very bad decision.

They might be passionate individuals who believe in certain causes for public interest, but they are definitely not activists whom people should regard as political leaders.

Why do I say that?

Below is a video taken in Hong Kong, where a business owner is complaining to the protesters about how his business is being affected by the protest.

In the video, you can see individuals trying to push the other protesters back from the business owner, pleading for others to stand down and remain calm to avoid escalating the situation.

This was very important because there is a possibility that there are provocateurs sent in by police, businesses, or even triads to spur a confrontation that will give police a reason to intervene. This allegedly happened before in previous protests, where some provocateurs purposely instigated a clash with protesters, which prompted the police to move in. There were also instances where people suddenly identified themselves as plain-clothes police officers and started arresting people.

Going back to the incident on Saturday, if there is anything that can be learnt from the saga - apart from the fact that Ministers can blindly accuse individuals of deeds which they did not witness themselves or based solely on very dubious sources - it would be that Ngerng and Han can call themselves activists, protesters, voices of the people or any other number of titles, but not anything close to being leaders whom people should or could look up to.

As leaders, they should have tried to control the supporters instead of being part of the problem. If they believe that the authorities might be out to entrap them, as evident in the usual conspiracy theories, shouldn't they be more careful in their actions? Instead, they are blaming the YMCA, a non-partisan charitable organisation, for political intent, when no such proof is available.

It is understandable why so many supporters still support the two despite the saga that unfolded on Saturday. There are very few political leaders who dare to voice out on the issues that Ng and Han regularly speak and write on. The two are the ONLY choice that people have, a "take it or leave it" situation.

But why is it that after 50 years of nation building, despite the growing resentment of government policies and mistakes made by the authorities, there are only that few who dare to stick their necks out?

The very same opinionated and disciplined political leaders we see in Hong Kong leading the current protests will be treated as domestic terrorists in Singapore, and they would likely be portrayed as people who want nothing else but to disrupt the stability of the country.

Just look at the cameras shoved into the face of activists by plain-clothes police officers who are likely to be from the Internal Security Department of the Singapore Police Force.

Activists like Vincent Wijeysingha and Rachel Zeng were openly followed by the authorities while in Little India. Is this not intimidation? Who in their right minds would want to put themselves in such circumstances for the sake of others?

Young students, like Ariffin Sha who has been vocal about government policies (not in the positive way) was barred from helping out his school due to his activities.

And who can forget how the "Marxist conspirators" in Operation Spectrum were all arrested in one fell swoop, some stolen from their families in the dead of night?

And what were they doing before their arrest? Volunteering to help low income families.

Till today, they have not been proven to be guilty of their "crimes" in court or have their detention justified with any evidence apart from confessions of individuals who were been detained without legal consultation.

Who can blame the average citizen from minding their own business and adopting the mindset of, "The more I do, the more I might get into trouble"? That is, unless you have the blessings of the government or ruling political party.

With the paranoia of the government still in place and the hard handed methods to keep its citizens in check , Singapore will find it hard to expect individuals to step up, not to mention having people who are sensible and tactful in their ways to take up the challenge.

And this is why pragmatic Singaporeans who are fed up with how things are in Singapore tend to place their hopes in the General Elections, in the hope that some inspiring politician may bring some change to Singapore.

They probably think that no one would take up a stance against the government without any promise of benefits.

But I must say, that is definitely not the way for change, especially with the naive perception that the next batch of politicians will help them realise their dreams for the country.

People change, and so do politicians. Therefore, people should understand that real change comes from people who take action based on their beliefs and goals, and not those who yearn from the other side of the wall.

It is most unfortunate for Hong Kong that Hong Kongers have to take drastic measures to fight for their rights and for greater levels of democracy promised in their Basic Law.

But what is happening in Hong Kong must surely have opened the eyes of Singaporeans, young and old, to the fact that civil disobedience isn't about violence. It is not about ego. It is about standing up for what people feel is the right thing to do.

Let not the protest event at Hong Lim Park be a textbook example of how protests would be carried out in Singapore. Instead, let us use it as a reference for what should not be considered an acceptable form of civil disobedience in the country.

And perhaps one day, we can gather somewhere else other than Hong Lim Park, celebrating or supporting a cause we hold true to our hearts, singing songs together like the Hong Kongers, in a peaceful demonstration of national solidarity.