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Missing: The authoritative voice of NParks

By Howard Lee

In the last five days following the clash of events between YMCA and the CPF protesters at Hong Lim Park (HLP), Singaporeans pored over footage of the protest, and witnessed praise, condemnation and some blatantly false accusations from or directed at the CPF protesters, YMCA, Ministers, Members of Parliament, and even members of the online community.

Hardly anyone paid any attention to the one missing piece of the puzzle that warrants a closer investigation – the role of the National Parks Board in the entire fracas.

NParks’ side of the story was painfully missing in mainstream media coverage, which was basically obsessing with the “heckling” incident that never actually existed.

The latest we heard was this quote reported in media:

“NParks stated that in general, where there is more than one application, its approach has been to allow the participants to share the space in Speaker's Corner. “Until the incident on Saturday, no adverse or disorderly incidents have ever ensued in these previous events because the groups showed consideration and respect for each other, despite their different views and agendas.””

Yes, the CPF protesters did not “show consideration and respect” for YMCA, but that can hardly absolve NParks from some of the responsibility. NParks was undeniably a key player in the entire incident, from the booking process all the way to the conduct of its representatives at the event.

Of course, nothing that NParks did or did not do should be offered as any excuse for the CPF protesters barging in on another event and inconveniencing another park user. But knowing why NParks did all it did and seeking accountability for its action will help ensure that the government body bears the responsibility to minimise a repeat, and save citizens a lot of heartache in the future.

The lead-up – an administrative mess-up?

HLP event clash CPF YMCAFollowing the double event, NParks said to media that two bookings were made and confirmed for 27 September at HLP. This means that both YMCA and the CPF protesters were granted permission to use HLP. NParks is hence fully aware that two parties, with massive tentages and crowds, will be occupying the same space at about the same time.

We learnt later that NParks has actually allocated two lawns within the same one hectare of land. YMCA was to use the main lawn where protests are usually held, which the CPF protesters were allocated the smaller lawn, tucked away from the centre of attention.

At the stage of application and approval, NParks must have known what the two events were about and the crowds they are likely to attract. It would then seem a little odd that NParks would have allocated the space at HLP in this way – for that matter, that they would even consider double events. The nature of both events were clearly at odds with each other. Noisy protesters would clearly not be good with special needs children, and the noise from the smaller lawn would hardly be concealable.

Does NParks have a criteria for what type of events can take place simultaneously at a place the size of HLP? Did NParks consider that a protest might affect the YMCA event, even if it was restricted to the smaller lawn? Was NParks aware that the CPF protests have ever attracted a crowd size of thousands? If so, why were they allocated the smaller lawn?

More importantly, NParks had the opportunity and ample time to inform both parties about the potential clash – Ms Han Hui Hui was informed of her approved permit the Monday of the same week, and YMCA much earlier. Why then did NParks not inform Ms Han earlier that she was allocated the smaller lawn? Did NParks inform YMCA about the clash at all, so that they can be forewarned that some negotiation might be needed?

The day itself – naked intimidation?

NParks and the police trying to dissuade the CPF protesters.
NParks and the police trying to dissuade the CPF protesters.

Instead, what we witnessed was NParks’ director of parks, Mr Chia Seng Jiang approaching Ms Han and her group to inform them about the allocation only 30 minutes before the CPF protest was scheduled to start.

Furthermore, Mr Chia found it necessary to bring along an entourage of police officers, of which only one, ASP Eric Chong, positively identified himself as an officer of the law. Of the rest, only one was doing anything active, but no less intimidating – recording the exchange on a video camera.

Why does Mr Chia need an entourage of mystery men, likely from the Internal Security Department, to speak to Ms Han? Did he not think that it might encourage a certain defensiveness in his intended audience? Is this the usual practice for speaking to park users? If so, why, and if not, why then did Mr Chia sought the support of so many officers?

Mr Chia would also be aware that citizens have the right to ask police officers to identify themselves, which was exactly what Ms Han did to ascertain that she was speaking to people of authority, not common thugs. Why then did Mr Chia, who has deliberately requested for the officers to follow him, not compel the other supposedly police officers to identify themselves?

With this as the backdrop, it is of little wonder that the CPF protesters would remain defensive and suspicious, feeling powerless and resentful. Such negative emotions are a sure formula for defiance and anger. Why allow it?

The aftermath – what was it all about, really?

As it is, what we witness NParks doing was openly throw the rule of law at Ms Han and company. If you are seeking cooperation, that would likely not be the best approach. We win consent not by force, but by convincing. Mr Chia did none of that.

But even by the rule of law, there was no let up on the ambiguity. When queried by the media, NParks issued a joint statement with the police, indicating that the police are investigating the incident. What exactly are they investigating? Do citizens not have the right to know, since Ms Han’s permit clearly indicated her right to use HLP?

Mr Chia also promised Ms Han that he will revoke her permit to use HLP should they conduct the protest march on the main lawn. Was this done? If not, exactly what wrong have they done, besides being an absolute nuisance to YMCA?

Recipe for disaster

For sure, the CPF protesters were no angels. But neither should we think the authorities blameless. There is every indication that what began as an administrative error and a lack of understanding of the matter at hand, was exacerbated by poor conflict management, and further compounded by an ambiguous rule of law that only NParks seems to have a complete grasp of.

There are a lot of apologies going around following this incident. Maybe some is in order from NParks. At the very least, NParks needs to provide some clarity on the registration processes, why the authorities saw a need to approach citizens the way it did the CPF protesters, and what exactly they did wrong to deserves a police investigation.

Otherwise, the authorities can hardly blame citizens for calling it politically motivated, a bully, or any other unflattering names.

Questions have been sent to NParks to clarify on some the issues raised in this article. At time of publishing, NParks has not responded. We will include their response, should we receive it.