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Wednesday August 7th 2019

Activism, barriers and behind-the-scene events of the 5000-strong 2013 PWP protest

There have being alot of media articles written lately on the issue of activism – mainly because of the explosive massive street protests occurring in Hong Kong during the past few weeks.

Naturally, there will always be the comparison of activism activities between the two city states – Singapore and Hong Kong but sadly this is a misnomer.

Singapore is a tightly-controlled country whereby civil liberties associated with democracy are generally banned and any violation is harshly being deait with to ensure that the city state faces no citizenry uprising that may threaten it’s totalitarian rule. On the other hand, Hong Kong has a completely open system of democratic values due to the long British colony’s rule and hence it’s huge influence.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew has also waged a stern campaign against any civil unrest during his reign and the country now suffers from the regime’s autocratic rule – even a one-man public protest i the open is deemed illegal and may warrant a arrest for illegal assembly.

The police will usually serve a verbal warning on the spot to the offender and if he disperses peacefully there may not a official charge laid. However, if he persists in his open protest, chances are the person will be handcuffed and led away for further questioning in the police station.

Thus, we will never get the Hong Kong’s style of street protest here as our population is not geared up for such open public display of defiance which is very Western in culture and seemed as rebellious by many sections of the population. We prefer the more gentlemanly sober act of voting if we dislike the government.

Nevertheless, the government has opened the small ray of democratic window for activists at Speakers’ Corner whereby political speeches and events can be held by way of a permit issued immediately online by the national park authorities provided it does not trespass on religious and racial issues.

We have organised close to fifteen events at the speakers’ corner over the past nine years with attendance ranging from 50 to 5000 – so far no one is being arrested or injured at any of our events.

During the course of our overt activism activities, we were only denied the request of an additional  police permit during the Thaipusam event at speakers’ corner in Feb 2015 to make the Hindu festival a national holiday and during the Presidential Election protest in 2017 whereby we chose to carry out a silent protest instead of submitting for a police permit upon request for a with-speeches event.

As a organiser, I have also chose not to organise events associated with strong religious or racial overtone unless necessary.

Applying for a police permit is both cumbersome and troublesome as you need to produce all the speakers’ speech draft and particulars. The permit needs to be applied about two weeks in advance and more importantly any approval  is usually given a day before the event wrecking havoc on all your logistical preparations.

More importantly, having to apply for an additional police permit means that the event has religious and racial overtones which will also add more tension and danger for the organisers. Even though we are not 100% in agreement with our authorities, sometimes, we appreciate their concern for acting as an additional gatekeeper’s role here.

We also take the cue that when a police permit is required for any  event, we will take a step back and asked if it is wise to carry on with the protest.

For example, the 2017 Presidential Election protest certainly has the dangerous racial element attached to it as people are confused with the Indian/Malay race  issue of the current serving President. Moreover,  during the silent protest, we could see very few Malays attending reinforcing the belief that some quarters of the population may find the event controversial and even offensive.

Many Malays I feel are happy that finally they could get a Malay head of state as President despite the controversy surrounding the Indian/Malay race issue.

Nevertheless, we saw some success in our protests so far notably the 5000-strong uprising in Feb 2013 against the population white paper.

As organisers, we were floored by the huge turn-out even though we could detect via the online chatter that many people are really upset by the white paper.

On my part, it took me three days before I decided to publicise the event online using the Facebook apps and due to a tight deadline of less than 10 days from the day of publicity to the event itself, we were very surprised the FB event apps showed more than 4,000 people would attend on the event day. Moreover, as it was held in the midst of the Chinese lunar year celebration, I was thus apprehensive that the attendance would be great and any number closed to 1000 people is considered a huge roaring success.

We have done several quarterly events mainly pertaining to the labour issues prior to the white paper protest in 2011/2013 and attendance hovered close to 200 – 300 so we have decided to call it off.

After the event was publicised online, I interviewed several speakers which incidentally snowballed to 12 on actual day line-up from the initial 8 that we originally scheduled. More were willing to speak but we have to limit the numbers and each speaker could only talk for ten minutes but many took longer than 15 minutes.

I decided to spread the speakers to a more broad-based one involving people from all walks of life instead of having mostly politicians on the speaking panel. Four non-political speakers were selected and they provided a more non-partisan approach to the whole event which I felt is balanced and reflected the views of the contemporary Singaporeans.

The event went well and like many say, the rest is history…

Nevertheless, unknown to many Singaporeans,  a day before the event something happened which nearly derailed the whole speaking line-up as IBs disseminated an article I wrote on the profile and size of the foreign imports we have in our country. They used the article to brand me as xenophobic and anti-foreigner though I could see nothing wrong with it.

I removed the article from this site but somehow a cached version was retrieved and it went very viral with an estimation of more than 50,000 views the night before the event.

A noted speaker contacted me the night before and say that he may pull out of the event as he doesn’t want to be associated with a anti-foreigner organiser. I asked him not to do that saying I could apologise to all foreigners during the event if this is what he wanted.

My fear is that if other speakers witnessed a strong speaker pulling out midway they may follow suit. We would not have sufficient time to get a replacement especially if a few decided to withdraw from the speaking schedule. It was a difficult  decision to make as I strongly felt that the written article has no xenophobic tone to it. However, looking at things from a big-picture angle, I decided to relent and publicly apologise to all foreigners the next day at the event itself.

I couldn’t sleep well that particular night before the event and truly, I must have less than 20 hours’ sleep for a straight one-week period due to the sheer volume of work involved – mostly in co-ordinating with the speakers and other logistical matters. There were also alot of online messages drifting in throughout the last few days building up to D-day.

The offended speaker agreed to continue speaking if I publicly apologise publicly and that was the reason why you saw me apologizing to the huge crowd on 16 Feb 2013 at the onset of the event.

The event went well as planned and because of the overwhelming success, we were on most world-wide news channel the next day – I got calls from Singaporeans living in Russia, USA, Holland, UK among others. It blew my mind but I was happy we pulled off something that could never happen.

Most of the newscaster’s headlines had this general theme: “Unprecedented mass protest happened in Singapore the day before as thousands gathered to protest against a unpopular white paper that features immigration.”

During the next few months, my mail boxes were flooded with calls from international press wanting to interview me and my small make-shift office became a media meeting place for many journalists and news crew from all over the world.

Big international presses from CNBC, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Daily Mail, ABC, Apple Daily, Kyoto News among others were hot on my heels and I wished that I have more media training to handle them.

On the other hand, I was getting attention from the government as well and emails were sent to report to ROS (Registry of Societies) and MHA  for coffee sessions. The coffee sessions were mixed but they reminded me to be careful and vigilant as we are dealing with a government that is still uncomfortable with any peaceful mass uprising.

Most of their questions centred on my rationale for organising protests and whether I have any foreign aid. They were more like sizing me up and trying to get a feel of who I am as a person.

I am sure the authorities would have met many times on their own after the huge protest especially those planning the population growth and true enough, the government later commented that 6.9 million population growth target is just a number and they would not strictly adhere to it’s implementation.

The success of the huge 5000-strong turnout in 2013 could be attributed to several reasons – the rise of social media which the government could not completely control despite wanting to do so, the willingness of ordinary Singaporeans who want to be heard to stand up and the unity of politicians/activists/common folks sharing a similar platform.

There were several other large protests afterwards notably surrounding the CPF issue and I am glad that the white paper protest is seen as a catalyst for the resurgence of people’s power.

Written by: Gilbert Goh

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