Since 21 January 2017, in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, a series of political rallies known as Women’s Marches occurred around the world to promote women’s rights.
The movement began in Washington, D.C. and spread to 673 marches in 34 countries worldwide, including Asian countries Japan, South Korea, and India, with global attendance numbering in the millions.
Singapore, however, is not on that list of countries.
Of course, one could be content with the explanation that the Trump issue is too far removed from our shores for us to care enough. However, as one of Asia’s most developed nations alongside Japan and South Korea, and one with a large American expatriate and student population, Singapore’s absence from such a major global movement should surely raise the glaring issue of free expression and the right to dissent in Singapore.
As many of you should know, protesting is illegal in Singapore outside of licensed protests in Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner. If that sentence made you frown in confusion or laugh out loud, you’re probably not Singaporean. “Protesting is illegal”, “licensed protests”, “Speakers’ Corner” – it all sounds like a bad comedy – one that Singaporeans have grown numb to.
Around the world, Singapore is known as an Orwellian dystopia of silent obedience, where almost all dissent is effectively repressed by the law, draconian punishments are meted out in disproportionate spades, and everyone is so used to the oppression that the country actually operates rather peacefully; it’s almost like a North Korea done right.
Ask any citizen of almost any other “first-world” nation if protesting is legal in their country, and the answer will almost invariably be, “Of course, why wouldn’t it be?” The right to dissent is seen elsewhere as a basic human right. Not here, though.
Some would argue that the restricting of protests is necessary for socioeconomic stability in a country, but as all the developed nations of the world that afford their citizens the freedom to protest highlight, that is all a crock of shit. Stability and freedom of expression are not mutually exclusive. One needs simply to be equipped with the maturity and open mind required to handle discourse and dissenting opinion.
In any discussion about protests in Singapore, many would point to the race riots of 1964 and 1969, Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, and Chinese middle school riots of 1956, and go, “See? That’s what happens when people protest.” This argument, however, fails to consider that these events happened over 50 years ago.
A lot can change in 50 years; our society is now more educated than ever, and well-informed of events around the world. To assume that we would simply devolve into the same horrible behaviour of our forefathers given the opportunity would be incredibly pessimistic and insulting to the intelligence of modern Singaporeans as a whole. We are not rabid animals waiting to tear each other apart at the slightest provocation.
Give us a chance to voice our grievances and concerns freely, and you might find a populace living with a far more robust sense of genuine belonging and purpose. How could we possibly develop a personal stake in a place whose government operates so far above the silent voices of the people, knowing that nothing we ever do or say will make any difference?
To be fair, though, things are showing signs of getting better. In 2008, the government ruled that events held at the Speakers’ Corner would no longer require police permits, or be banned from using audio amplification devices, although organizers still had to register with the government-controlled National Parks Board. Peaceful demonstrations such as Pink Dot continue to be held there annually, attracting more attendees with each passing year. It is still comically ridiculous that protests must be restricted to one small area, but it admittedly is better than nothing.
Do I wish to see a protest happening every other day in Singapore? Of course not. I like peace and quiet. I do, however, want to know that anyone with a grievance and a desire to make his/her voice heard in a public capacity has the right to do so without fear of being thrown in prison and caned on the backside. Because any country that forces its residents to internalize all their problems instead of freely expressing themselves in a peaceful way is forcing peace and stability upon its people rather than earning it.