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Culture of dissent – barometer of ground sentiment

By Howard Lee

Many of us in Singapore stared in awe and admiration as the protests in Hong Kong extended into weeks. We marvelled at the miracle of a street protest that has all the makings of a courtesy campaign, as pro-democracy protesters made up mostly of students – in any other part of the world generally dismissed as unruly youths – cleaned up their own trash, did their recycling, did their homework and attended lectures on the streets, and held impromptu concerts.

(Image - Quartz)
(Image - Quartz)

When the authorities rained violence and allegedly incited disharmony among them, they linked their arms and plodded on in silence, at times in tears. When the rain came, they held umbrellas for the police officers who, only days ago, had been firing tear gas canisters and pepper spray at them.

And we wondered if Singapore, so close in terms of geography, economy and lifestyle might one day adopt a similar culture, outlook and courage as the protesters who occupied the streets of Hong Kong.

Chua Mui Hoong, opinion editor of The Straits Times, earlier cited various Singapore academics who have openly mused about the possibility of Singaporeans taking to the streets en masse. She concluded thus:

“I think it depends ultimately on whether there are fair rules, and whether government and people play by those rules.

If a society has fair rules to govern elections, there’s no need for people to take to the streets. The vote gives people voice and power.”

To Chua, Singaporeans are generally happy with the way things are, and only unfair elections would likely result in a surge in citizens wanting to take to the streets in protest, breaking the rules that currently confine such activities to Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park.

Indeed, observers have noted that among the solidarity events held around the world in response to the Hong Kong protest, Singapore’s was a relatively muted affair, where a crowd of 400 was deemed “larger than expected”.

Recent events at HLP have also cast some doubts about whether what some of the activities we see at HLP can be considered civil movements. Heckling or no heckling, the Return Our CPF protest on 27 September, and possibly the series that preceded it, was notable for its volume, but not its depth.

Yet, we need to take a broader perspective on what civil movements in Singapore has or has not been about. More importantly, in view of what I last discussed about the need and interest of both the ruling elite and the people to be able to understand and make use of such dissenting voices and the interests they represent, we need to come to terms with what democratic freedom in Singapore means, where we are at, and how we can take it forward.

Chua was right in saying that Singapore’s civil rights movement led by students has all but “died” in 1975. What she did not go into was the reasons. The arrests of various dissidents, not just in the student union circles but in broader civil society, have led to a chilling effect on activism. Chiam See Tong’s biography, as well as many other accounts by activists, noted these to be cautious times, where those seeking change were often reluctant to do so, let alone go into politics to challenge the ruling party, for fear of arrest.

The result has been complacence among the ruling elite. With no meaningful opposition in or out of Parliament, the People’s Action Party have full control over the development of policies, some clearly to the detriment of the people. From Chiam’s biography, it is also not entirely true that Singaporeans generally accepted the social compact. Pockets of disadvantaged existed among us, only that they were too small a voice to make a difference at the polls, or that the PAP chose to completely ignore the murmurs, in preference for an egoistic portrayal of its ability to govern well.

Image - Martyn See
Image - Martyn See

As recent history would have it, this indifference backfired, spectacularly in the backward slide of the party’s popularity at the 2011 General Elections and the public outcry over the Population White Paper. But the ruling party continues to indulge in indifference. Protests and dissenting voices online continue to be dismissed, no less through the caricatures presented by the mainstream media.

And if history would repeat itself, this administrative remains, or choose to remain, blissfully ignorant of the problems of the people. The more the government tries to manage dissent, or the perception of its presence, to the extent that it refuses to acknowledge its presence, the less it will be able to deal with the realities of what is happening on the ground.

How about its own feedback channels? The Singapore Conversations have all but fizzled out or faded into the background, and while there has been indications of the popularity polls for the Prime Minister and the government conducted on the back of surveys on “government policies” – not just one but two accounts – but how accurate are these given the timing and way in which there were asked?

While it is mildly commendable that the PAP had admitted to its policy failures, it is perhaps time for the government to openly acknowledge and accept as valid the views of those who are the most outspoken against it and consider them seriously. The broad strokes do not sweep felt problems under the carpet. “Out of sight, out of mind” cannot possibly make for good policy formulation, and doing so would only desensitise the political leadership, to possible disaster at the polls.

Image - CNA
Image - CNA

Allowing and studying dissent would also be advantageous to the PAP by offering solutions that dissenting voices might throw up. The unfortunate pre-conceived idea that our government have of protests is that they are disruptive to nation building. But if it were to take dissent as coming from people who genuinely want to make our country better, the every sensible opposition is a potential solution.

However, the odds are slim for the PAP to accept, much less incept, dissent as part of its model of governance. When asked on his views on “popular democracy” in Hong Kong at Forbes Global CEO Conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had this much to say:

“As for Singapore, Mr Lee said democracy here does not automatically guarantee good government.

"If you look at Singapore, we have elections, we have a parliament, we have an elected government, and yet if you ask whether that is a formula which would automatically yield a good government and a successful country for the next 50 years, nobody can say. It depends on the people, it depends on the values of the society, it depends on the quality of the leaders, and the connection between the leadership and the population.”

The concept of good governance as separate from, and in fact a direct opposite to, the raucous nature of a street protest seems to be the modus operandi of our leaders. Indeed, the continual insistence that democracy is separate from governance is heavily suggestive in the PM’s statement. Why should it be so, since democracy is precisely what gives the PAP the legitimacy to govern?

The short-sightedness is worrying, as the possibilities of allowing, even encouraging dissent are a lot more promising than keeping people bottled up in frustration.