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Noisy protest versus quiet exodus

An interesting debate is happening in social media about how Singapore should view the protests (or is it riots?) in Hong Kong – and even what people here really, really think about it. Do we scoff at the protests as the antics of young people who have too little to lose or view the breakdown of law and order with “sadness and bewilderment” as one local commentator said? Are there people here who applaud the bravery of the protesters/rioters or see this a people movement against authoritarianism?

I don’t think anyone here can speak for the majority of Singaporeans,  not for the intelligentsia nor for the ordinary folk either. But I think “bewilderment” is a fair term. It is not bewilderment in terms of hand-wringing “How can they do such things?” or “Don’t they have better things to do?” but a rather more complex one that speaks to the environment and political culture we have here.

You have the cynical who point to the list of laws that would nip any sort of protest in the bud.  There is always some rule or other that will prevent any kind of group (or even solo) demonstration that doesn’t fit into the typical Singapore street scene. You need to know the law well, the relevant regulations and all the permits to apply for – which can be denied. Is it any wonder that the Singapore way is … to do an online petition?

Then you have those born and bred in the era of peace and plenty and decry any disruption to daily life as an infringement on their right to work, commute and be productive citizens. Maybe the Merdeka or Pioneer generations will also have some of Singapore’s history to fall back on, and you will hear old tales of blood and gore which they don’t care to be repeated.

There is the fearful, who might quietly congratulate the HK protestors and wish they had the gumption to do the same because they have grievances that they can’t get addressed. I think there is also the lazy, who do not get off their butts but choose to lament loudly online about how they are not being heard, and how it is no use even they are.

I believe that we have some in-built mechanism that makes us object to “public” displays of expression. We’re even too shy to do good in public, according to a survey by the Kindness movement. When some groups do so (think candlelight vigils), we watch in trepidation for public and official reaction. In Singapore, there is a very strong sense of “don’t make waves”, “don’t rock the boat”. Instead, we have officially sanctioned dialogues and forums (closed door if it’s a contentious topic) and the people are exhorted to contribute to the communal good, rather than question fundamentals which have worked for Singapore or challenge the official orthodoxy.

I think a lot of people here are okay with the political culture of the G knows best and people should keep their heads down and just carry on working. We accede to this compact in return for job security and material wealth, and the promise of a better future for our children. A protest that could cripple Shenton Way or Marina Bay Financial Centre? Closed shops and offices? Traffic in gridlock? We tell ourselves that we’re more pragmatic than that. We just want to work, go to school, make money, live in a hopefully bigger and bigger house and take plenty of holidays abroad.

Maybe we will do something if our way of life and livelihood are threatened, like how the 6.9 million population target for 2030 disclosed in 2013 was so unpopular with the people that a protest (or is it assembly?) organised against it drew 5,000 people (5,000!) at the officially sanctioned venue, Hong Lim Park.  People do not want to see a Singapore flooded with foreigners who crowd our neighbourhoods and transport system and who might even be taking over our jobs. This wasn’t a “vocal minority” talking, but people who constitute the bedrock of Singapore.

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Such sights are rare in Singapore and is probably a reason why the White Paper on Population has never made much news since. It isn’t just the people who don’t want to rock the boat, the G doesn’t want it shaken either.

For Hong Kong, the June/July demonstrations are no longer novel. There were two other big scale ones before. It might explain why the protestors have to resort to wilder antics to make themselves heard, like storming the Legislative Council building. And maybe why the HK police let them do it too, so as to justify any tougher action later on. One possible lesson: if you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in.

So will a protest a la Hong Kong happen in Singapore?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked the question in 2015 after “umbrella movement” protests  against proposed electoral reforms in Hong Kong. He said both places are alike, yet different. He talked about property prices in Hong Kong which put homes out of reach of young people. That could be the underlying cause of the protests rather than, in this case, the Extradition Bill itself which might just be the spark. Many news reports have said the same, citing the housing policy as the root of all that bad feeling.

I’m sure there is some legitimate worry about political dissidents and activists being hauled to some Chinese gulag; the Chinese government doesn’t have a great record of dealing with opposition.  People will risk all because all is really nothing. If everything in Hong Kong is hunky dory, would the legislation still create such a fracas? Or would the people see it as a price to pay for material comfort?

Another point is that Hong Kongers did not elect their leaders unless you consider 6 per cent of the electorate voting as an “election”. The distance between the masses and the leadership is a construct. There is no bond which engenders trust. Whatever you might think about Singapore politics, all citizens exercise the vote, which ties the governed and the government in a common destiny.

Then there is the looming presence of China. Some have argued that the young people there have no idea of what China is like today, and have been fed tales of a backward, repressive country rather than the vibrant, modern economy it is today. Clearly, young Hong Kongers think they have developed a separate identity and culture which they are proud of and see as being threatened. I sometimes ask myself what would have happen if Singapore had remained in Malaysia. It would have been hard to retain our own identity. It would be natural for the Malaysian government to want to keep its province in line rather than have ”one country, two systems”.

But from news reports, it seems that the protestors do not want Hong Kong to go it alone. Their demands are specific and relate to the Bill. Nor do I think China would ever kick it out.

So the solution seems to be for China to create economic conditions for Hong Kong to thrive and for young people to envisage a better life for themselves ahead. In fact, pundits have suggested that this is how Singapore managed to keep the genie in the bottle. But this assumes that people do not care about “higher order” goods like democracy and individual rights which are sometimes viewed here as bad values of the Western kind.  It’s always bread-and-butter first.

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I think that’s the case here. For now. People don’t really case about privacy issues or freedom of speech, preferring to let the G lead the way. But increasingly, a well-fed people will start to think about higher order goods as an entitlement. What would be worse if they also don’t think they are as well-fed as before. Then the G will have a big job delivering on several fronts.

I don’t think we will ever go on a rampage in the streets because it is simply not our way. But the outlets of expression must be well utilised, ventilated and acknowledged. It’s a tragedy that our elected parliamentarians (read: ruling party) seem to have no problems, for example, approving the fake news legislation so quickly. I agree that only a small proportion of the population care enough to make noise. But small or not (is it 100,000 or 500,000 Hong Kong protesters and does it matter?), the more important question is whether more time should have been spent persuading them to a certain point of view – rather than dismissing them as irritants.

Our placidity is both a boon and a bane, methinks. We won’t protest but we expect to be heard or at least have our views acknowledged. Another option: If the people here don’t think there is a better future for them here, whether in terms of bread and butter or higher order goods, they know they can signal at the ballot box.

Or, they can also simply vote with their feet. That’s the trouble with being relatively well-fed, well-educated and well-regarded in this world. We’re accepted in most places. So I don’t think there will be a massive protest about any issue, not now or in the near future. That’s too noisy. The disaffected will just sell their house, take out their CPF and quietly go away. Is this good or bad?






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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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