We all know that staging any protest in Singapore, however peaceful is a potential minefield. There are permits to be gotten and the limits of such permit (if granted) to be considered. There is also the question of what issue the protest is about. Rightly or wrongly, most Singaporeans would likely be of the opinion that any protest (however peaceful) against the ruling Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) will likely attract greater scrutiny from the authorities. Whether that opinion is valid is up to the reader but I would like to point out the seeming discrepancies between how various “protests” were dealt with recently.
Earlier this month, it was reported that social worker and activist Jolovan Wham (Wham) was being investigated for allegedly protesting outside State Courts without a valid permit. Wham had posted a photo on Dec 13 2018 on social media channels, which showed him standing outside the court complex while holding up a piece of paper that read: “Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa.” Without commenting on the nuances of the law, I would like to pose a question in common sense to the readers – Can one person constitute a protest? In Wham’s case, was he simply making a request of the authorities as opposed to staging a protest? Not to mention, it is said that he was there for only a few seconds without the guards being alerted to his presence or actions.
Now contrast this with the group of people outside Platinum Dogs Club, holding up posters of the missing dog for an extended period of time. In that case, there didn’t appear to be investigations beyond Minister for Law, K Shanmuggam calling for calm. I am not suggesting that anyone who took part in the Platinum Dogs Club protest be investigated. Being an avid dog lover myself, I would have gladly joined the group outside Platinum Dog Club had I known that it would be happening. The issue is therefore not with peaceful protests per se but with the inconsistent treatment meted out to different protests. Could it be interpreted by the watching public that dogs are less political and therefore less of a threat?
Then we have the prosecution of artist Seelan Pillay who was said to have committed an offence when he staged an alleged “public procession” from Hong Lim Park to the National Gallery and Parliament House to commemorate the detention of long-time political detainee Chia Thye Poh. This was despite confirmation from the police that he was neither unruly nor disruptive. Why was tax money spent on a crime without any real threat to the people of Singapore? The only threat that can be possibly gleaned from Seelan is that he challenged the PAP establishment.
Contrast this with the side street sit down protest that took place at the Central Business District where about 30 foreign workers were quietly protesting against unpaid wages. By all accounts everything was peaceful and calm. The reasons behind the protests are very valid. I am glad that they are standing up for themselves in a way that commands respect and attention. I am also heartened that the police were not forceful or aggressive. However, what this incident again highlights is that the authorities do treat different protests differently.
The question is why.