Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the gala celebrating CNA's 20th anniversary on Fri (29 Mar 2019). Source: CNA/Facebook

Will Singapore ever see an anti-government protest in the scale of that in Hong Kong?

Back in 2015, the Prime Minister’s Office published a video of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong being interviewed by journalists. During the interview, he commented about anti-government protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

One of the journalist asked PM Lee if he is worried about the same kind of anti-government movement happening in Singapore seeing as younger people are often unsatisfied by government policies.

The Premier replied that although Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore do share similarities such as having a Chinese majority population and had at one point been referred to as the Four Little Dragons due to their rapid economic growth, he noted that Singapore is not like the other two nations.

“But for a decade I think we had parted ways, Hong Kong is part of China. What are Hong Kongers are worried about? Housing. Young people can’t afford housing, not to mention getting married and having children.”

PM Lee noted that another possible concern for Hong Kong is how the massive mainland Chinese society could overshadow the unique characteristics if the island. So despite the Occupy Central protests against the electoral system, he posited that there were other socio-political factors at play which could have contributed to the cause.

Switching to Taiwan, PM Lee said in the interview that he believed most Taiwanese people would prefer the status quo and political diversity that they have. He opined Taiwan had a slower economic growth compared to Singapore and that while most of their youth are university graduates, may end up in unsatisfying jobs like taxi driving or starting small businesses.

“Some of them even apply to work in our country,” he added.

“Why? Maybe they lack clear economic direction in the past decade,” the Prime Minister elaborated. Mr Lee said that Taiwan faces the conundrum of getting too close with mainland China but it’s difficult for them to resist the attraction of business opportunities that China offers.

Another point of concern for Taiwan, says PM Lee, is the importation of foreign workers which the Taiwanese worry would bring a negative impact on a society that is already dealing with economic stagnation.

“Hence, young people [in Hong Kong and Taiwan] do have reasons to worry and these worries were reflected in election results,” proposed Mr Lee.

Meanwhile in Singapore

Turning to back home, Mr Lee explained that Singaporeans face their own unique set of challenges. One example he gave was that some people felt that the government’s pace on housing is too slow.

“But at least we don’t have issues in buying a house,” he says.

Mr Lee elaborated that if you ask a Taiwanese or Hong Konger when they plan on buying a house, they might think you’re making fun of them because they cannot even imaging owning a house unless they are incredibly rich.

“But Singaporeans often marry after they buy a house, right?” PM Lee chuckled.

In the video, the Prime Minister also mentioned that Singapore’s economic growth has been going well for the past decade, noting that students who graduate from polytechnics and universities always manage to secure a decent job.

“Within six months, 98% [of graduates in Singapore] find employment, and the job is decent.”

However he did add that people still hope for better paying jobs and shorter work hours, something he hopes for too.

In the case of Singapore, PM Lee did note that economic success comes with a price, that is the need to import foreign talent. This, he says, poses another challenge.

While PM Lee did not directly answer the journalists’ question on whether an anti-government protest might happen in Singapore as it did in Hong Kong and Taiwan, we can help to answer that by looking at Singapore’s laws which makes it pretty much impossible. An assembly of any number, even a one man silent protest, is considered illegal in Singapore.

On top of the restrictive Public Order Act, a law was passed by this 13th Parliament last year which gave powers to the police to designate a peaceful demonstration as a ‘special event’ which allows them to use lethal force on protesters and which makes the recording of video and photographs illegal.

The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act which was passed in 2018, treats peaceful protests the same was as terrorist attacks, giving the police wide-reaching powers. The law makes it illegal for anyone other than the police to make recordings of the event which means any evidence of possible police brutality – such as we’ve seen recently in Hong Kong – would have to be retrieved from the police force themselves at their discretion.

When the law was passed, civil society groups expressed serious concerns about the bill, saying that these so-called special powers are unnecessary given that Singapore already has strict laws against public assembly which empowers the police to respond to them as they would any prohibited activity.

The Human Rights Watch said about Singapore:

Peaceful public demonstrations and other assemblies are severely limited, and failure to comply with detailed restrictions on what can be said and who can participate in public gatherings frequently results in police investigations and the threat of criminal charges.

HRW notes that the Public Order Act has an extremely broad definition of ‘public assembly’ which “has been interpreted to encompass everything from handling out leaflets on the death penalty to an individual standing silently holding a placard.”

Even assemblies at Speakers’ Corner that do not require a permit face numerous restrictions, notes HRW. Foreign companies are prohibited from sponsoring events there and foreigners are banned from participating in assemblies. The area is blanketed with CCTV, so even a foreigner who happens to stop for a minute at Hong Lim Park while an assembly is happening could be at risk of criminal prosecution, as is the organiser.

What’s more, HRW pointed out that “violations of the restrictions on public assemblies are criminal offenses and the authorities routinely question and harass those who participate. As a result, many are afraid to do so.”

One activist was quoted as saying, “There are people who say ‘I support you, but I don’t dare come to your protests.’”

So as you can see, the chances of an anti-government protest in the scale of which we’ve seen in Hong Kong back and Taiwan happening in Singapore is rather slim given the severely restrictive laws.