Martyn See’s observations about the Hong Lim rally
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Written by Ng E-Jay
19 February 2013
Film and theatre director Martyn See has made some very good observations about the Hong Lim rally. Here I shall paraphrase and expand on them.
1. The notion of “public protests”, outlawed, tabooed and ridiculed in the preceding decades, took a giant stride into mainstream acceptability.
Prior to the liberalization of Speaker’s Corner, the PAP government has always come down hard on public demonstrations, first by using the Miscellaneous Offences Act to pursue legal action against those who assemble in public in groups of 5 or more for political causes, and then by enacting an enhanced Public Order Act which deems even a public assembly of one to be an offence.
As a result, the notion of public gatherings became a taboo subject in the Singaporean psyche. The fact was that there were no legal avenues to gather peacefully even to talk about non-political issues or other social causes.
But when the government legalized Speaker’s Corner for demonstrations, concerned Singaporeans gradually began utilizing the space. Niche groups such as Tan Kin Lian’s minibond rallies or Pink Dot were notable movements that used Hong Lim Park effectively as a legalized rallying ground for non-political, social issues.
Last Saturday, the public showed that they no longer deemed gatherings as taboo, as long as it was a just and noble cause about a social issue that affected everyone, and as long as it was conducted legally and peacefully.
2. A culture of political fear made way to a willingness to be photographed and filmed holding placards.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew governed Singapore with an iron fist that tolerated no political dissent of any kind. Even under the softer approaches of Prime Ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, the political climate remained fear-driven.
In recent years, all that has changed. The opposition managed to make strides into Parliament and the people slowly shed their fear of politics.
Today, social media like Facebook or blogs are used to discuss all issues that affect Singaporeans, spanning the entire spectrum from political affairs, to bread-and-butter topics, to niche subjects like LGBT rights. Many people make internet posts using their real identifies and are prepared to stand by what they write.
At Hong Lim Park last Saturday, many Singaporeans took the trouble to create fantastic placards that expressed their feelings and were not afraid to be photographed up-front holding them. Such is the remarkable progress we have made in becoming more open about expressing ourselves on social issues, especially issues that are hurting us deep within.
3. The community was able to monitor itself, to quickly condemn and nullify offensive remarks and sentiments from within.
When offensive and xenophobic comments were posted by Mr Gilbert Goh, people were quick to take his views to task, and Mr Goh apologized.
The swift action by the internet community shows that even without any formal government-approved Code of Conduct (or other such nonsense), the community can self-regulate.
At Hong Lim Park, speakers like Dr Vincent Wijeysingha took pains to explain that we should not be xenophobic, but treat foreigners with dignity and respect.
Singaporeans, after all, expect to be treated the same way when they go abroad to live, work or play. Singaporeans too are not a perfect species, and we also have certain social mannerisms that can be improved upon.
Instead, it is flawed government policies that must be the target of our anger and disenfranchisement. The distinction must be clear.
4. Dissidents in civil society have gained a fluidity that has made it harder for the State to target individuals in order to isolate them. The tiny pool of usual suspects – Chee Soon Juan, Alex Au, etc, have morphed into Pink Dot Committees, migrant workers’ help groups, human rights advocates, Bukit Brown campaigners, SlutWalk organisers, the lawyers behind the 377A constitutional challenge and a host of online commentators, bloggers and filmmakers.
In the past, the usual faces dominated the socio-political scene and the government easily clamped down hard on them, and used the compliant state-controlled media to tarnish them. Dr Chee Soon Juan, who believed in civil disobedience, and whose struggle in the area of non-violent action resulted in today’s liberalizing of Speaker’s Corner for demonstrations, was persecuted repeatedly and even bankrupted for his views.
Today, there are more social activists and political candidates from diverse backgrounds who are willing to stand up and be counted.
The police detained Ms Lynn Lee for many hours at a stretch in an attempt to extract intelligence from her, but she is unfazed by the event and is determined to continue her work.
Others too, like Dr Vincent Wijeysingha or Alex Au, remain steadfast in the face of political action against them.
As the saying goes, you can trample on the flowers but you can’t stop the spring.
When there are many people involved in causes they are passionate about, the government is forced to listen, or risk losing even more support.