Public dissent in Singapore: foreign intervention not required

“Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all.

Do not raise your voice against me,

I am not afraid of your anthem

although the lyrics are still bleeding from

the bark of my sapless heart.”

 -Alfian Sa’at, “Singapore You Are Not My Country,” One Fierce Hour[1]

Singaporeans have been characterised as being averse to public dissent, such as political demonstrations.[2] The backlash Yale-NUS College received over its experiential learning programme on dissent appears to provide more evidence for this conception, with public comments decrying how students would become public dissenters.[3] In Singapore, Incomplete, Cherian George theorises that this aversion is the result of a cost-benefit analysis.[4] In this essay, however, I contend that even if we accept the framework of a cost-benefit analysis, George’s conception of dissent might be too narrow, and a broader conception of dissent in a democracy might show that Singaporeans dissent more often than some suggest. For this, I consider Chantal Mouffe’s framework of antagonism and agonism within a democracy and argue that a wide range of activities demonstrates a tolerance of dissent. I then submit that public dissent is a “site” where support for democratic institutions are built.

Dissent through a cost-benefit analysis

George, in Singapore, Incomplete, notes that Singaporeans are particularly averse to a range of activity that “disturb the peace.”[5] This range includes a variety of public political actions, from open challenges to the political leadership of Singapore,[6] to “irregular” and “disruptive” methods employed by groups, such as protests. These public political actions expressing variance from the Government’s position I term public dissent.[7] For George, these actions appear stigmatised in Singapore in comparison to other societies.

Reflecting on this, George finds two explanatory theories unconvincing – that Singaporeans are averse because they are too “comfortable” or too repressed. George notes that these two theories are empirically unsound. In both countries that are better-off or more repressive than Singapore, public dissent still occurs. It is thus unlikely that Singaporeans are so “comfortable” that there is nothing to dissent about, or that the Government is so repressive that dissent is too dangerous. Rather, this aversion might be driven by a cost-benefit analysis.[8] Viewed through cost and benefit, while things are not perfect, one risks much more dissenting than one could hopefully gain. This also explains the most significant occasion for George where Singaporeans feel comfortable engaging in public dissent – the Opposition election rally.[9]Here, the costs are much smaller; the large crowds and the cloak of night provide anonymity.

George submits two other factors that might translate this aversion to an intolerance.[10] First, intolerance might serve as a psychological defence mechanism for the discontented. Public dissent reminds the discontented of the uneasy compromise made when they turn from the public sphere, and the larger problems they close their eyes to. Intolerance, in the form of critique directed at the dissenter, redirects one’s attention from this personal compromise. Second, George suggests that Singapore’s historical anti-colonial struggle and its attendant values of public dissent have been successfully recast as extreme. Singaporeans who had engaged in public dissent in the struggle for independence are now cast as militants. The national narrative, unlike other countries, successfully downplayed the role of public dissent in achieving independence. As George puts it, Singaporeans think we made an omelette without breaking any eggs.

A broader conception of public dissent

Indeed, as George suggests, public dissent might be unpalatable or even intolerable to the calculating Singaporean public. However, is there more to public dissent than lawsuits and civil disobedience? What do we make of successful gatherings at Hong Lim Park or the arts community’s defence of Alfian Sa’at?[11] Perhaps a broader conception of dissent is needed that encompasses these activities, and this conception might suggest that Singaporeans actually dissent more than others believe. To do this, we first need to understand the role of “dissent” in a democracy. For this, I draw on Mouffe’s theory of democracy as agonistic pluralism.[12]

Mouffe suggests that society fundamentally contains different ideological positions, some of which are inherently opposed. Dissent is thus inextricable from society – there will always be a confrontation between hegemonic and minority ideologies.  The role of democracy is situated in this context, and democratic politics should ideally “mobilise…passions towards democratic designs.”[13] Before democracy, there is an antagonism between ideological opponents where each sees the other as an “enemy” to be destroyed. The role of democracy in agonistic pluralism is to construct the ideological opponent as an “adversary” instead – they are a “legitimate enemy,” with the right to defend their ideas, and not be destroyed. This relationship between “adversaries” is termed as agonism. While antagonism still exists within individuals living in agonistic pluralism, the structures of a democracy should seek to transform this antagonistic impulse to agonism.

I thus define public dissent as public expressions of antagonism and agonism, which I use in the remainder of this essay. This conception includes public political actions in George’s conception, rooted in liberal democratic tradition, and other expressions of disagreement with prevailing political power. Turning to the question of public dissent in Singapore, it then appears that Singaporeans are more tolerant of public dissent than some argue. I present two examples below.[14]

Ringfenced public dissent – Hong Lim Park

The most prominent “site” of public dissent in Singapore is Hong Lim Park, which since 2008, is the only location in Singapore where an outdoor public demonstration can be held without a police permit.[15] A variety of significant public demonstrations have since taken place, such as the Population White Paper protest and the annual Pink Dot rally.[16]

These rallies have proven to be politically significant, such as the Population White Paper protests, which contributed to a shift in immigration policy.[17] The SG Climate rally, which garnered attention for being youth-driven, resulted in direct responses from the Government and various political parties.[18] These acts of public dissent also serve to promote solidarity and mobilisation. Pink Dot, now in its eleventh year, has not succeeded in repealing Section 377A of the Singaporean penal code.[19] Despite that, it has served as a platform for solidarity within and beyond the LGBT community.

Public dissent at the Meet-the-People session (MPS)

The MPS is another significant “site” for public dissent. MPS’ are one-to-one meetings between elected Members of Parliament (MP) and constituents, where constituents can convey their opinions or seek assistance. They are typically held weekly at accessible locations within a constituency. One recent incident that utilised the MPS was the response to the Singapore Government’s prohibition of the use of personal mobility devices (PMDs) on footpaths.[20] The abrupt implementation of the ban caused great anxiety and frustration to users of PMDs,[21] some of whom depended on PMDs for their livelihoods or mobility needs.[22]

Despite the lack of formal organisation,[23] PMD users began attending MPS’ to express their displeasure. At the largest such gathering, hundreds of PMD riders were in attendance.[24] These gatherings were tense and confrontational, with one resulting in a PMD user accusing the People’s Action Party MP of turning them into “enemies inside our own country.”[25] Beyond these gatherings, a petition was circulated and a protest rally planned.[26] Three days into the ban, the Government announced a $7 million grant to replace PMDs, alongside a “transition assistance package” for riders.[27]

Meaningful public dissent

The two examples above, among others, highlight the possibility of public dissent in a “soft-authoritarian” state – constrained but still somewhat efficacious.[28] In these cases, the antagonism felt by Singaporeans does not disappear in the face of an unfavourable cost-benefit proposition. Rather, alternative possibilities are explored, where the costs are not so high. This broader conception of public dissent also demonstrates that Singaporeans have not fully turned away from the public sphere, as some suggest. Antagonism is translated into state-permitted agonisms that are still unpleasant for the state, and result in shifts in policy, or at least solidarity. Public dissent is still possible, but perhaps not in the forms imagined by George.

However, one caveat is in order. These examples of public dissent only attempt to prove that there is more tolerance and participation in public political activity than detractors might think. This does not mean that these acts of public dissent do not attract public disdain at all, or that they are not substantively debated.[29] Yet, some of the reactionary pushback ironically takes the form of public dissent as well. One example was the “wear white” campaign in opposition to Pink Dot in 2014, which drew criticism from two ministers.[30]

Public dissent as experiential learning

If one accepts that there is indeed tolerance and engagement in public dissent in Singapore, albeit within tightly managed bounds, what are the implications on Singaporean democracy? Here, I suggest two.

First, as George notes, a further broadening of the space for public dissent can improve the quality of governance.[31] With limited space for public dissent, George fears that public displeasure (antagonism) might be blocked from public expression (agonism) because of fear or disillusionment. This might then cause the Government to miscalculate policy decisions, or provoke public demonstrations of antagonism instead. Neither are good outcomes. While this limited space is better than nothing, a political culture of non-confrontation might lead to a serious policy mishap in the future.

Second, and perhaps most important, is that public dissent “teaches democracy.” Here, it is important to note that public dissent in itself does not symbolise support of democratic institutions, and can, in fact, take an anti-democratic form. However, acts of public dissent by the individual can also serve to “teach democracy,” especially in regimes unwilling to do so in other public venues such as schools. Scholars, such as Carole Pateman, suggest that participation in democratic processes, such as public dissent, inculcate the value of democracy.[32] Democracy, in that sense, has to be experienced – the mere establishment of democratic institutions is insufficient. Likewise, reciting Singapore’s National Pledge does not educate one of the significance of a “democratic society, based on justice and equality.” Instead, it is the mental realisation of the value of democratic institutions that is necessary to “learn democracy.” Public dissent thus provides “sites” for mental realisations where the attendant values of democracy can be “taught,” either through participation or self-realisation.

Do Singaporeans need foreign interference?

To conclude, I contend that while Singaporeans do not appear to support or tolerate acts of public dissent that would be common in other societies, a broader conception of public dissent reveals ways in which Singaporeans still express their antagonism within the narrow bounds permitted. Thus, claims that Singaporeans need to be radicalised by foreign interference into engaging in public dissent, appear blinkered at best, stripping the Singaporean of agency by suggesting they are intrinsically pliant.[33] As John Stuart Mill suggests, the process of self-determination is a school.[34]The same analogy can be brought over to democratisation. In an unfriendly environment, public dissent is perhaps the only school, imperfect as it is, that teaches Singaporeans of the value of democratic institutions and mobilises support for the preservation and expansion of these spaces.

[1] Alfian Sa’at, One Fierce Hour (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998), http://books.google.com/books?id=JxtaAAAAMAAJ.

[2] One recent example is Leslie Fong’s (a former Straits Times editor) piece on the 2019 Hong Kong protests, characterising Singaporeans as bewildered at the idea that a public building could be occupied unchallenged. Leslie Fong, ‘Hong Kong Protests: What’s Fuelling the Unrest and Ways to Deal with It’, Text, The Straits Times, 5 July 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/whats-fuelling-the-unrest-and-ways-to-deal-with-it.

[3] Fasiha Nazren, ‘Yale-NUS Cancels Programme on Dissent in S’pore, S’poreans Including Tan Chuan-Jin Chime In’, Mothership.sg, accessed 21 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2019/09/tan-chuan-jin-dissent-yale-nus/.

[4] Cherian George, ‘Political Sweet Spot’, in Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development(Singapore: Woodsville News, 2017).

[5] Cherian George, ‘Disturbing the Peace’, in Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development(Singapore: Woodsville News, 2017); George, ‘Political Sweet Spot’.

[6] George cites Chee Soon Juan’s hunger strike, and Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang’s lawsuits as examples.

[7] Here, it is important to note that George does not collect the range of public political activities he claims Singaporeans are averse to under a single term, but it appears fairly obvious that what he is referring to are public expressions of dissent by either groups or “prominent” individuals.

[8] George, ‘Political Sweet Spot’.

[9] During the “campaigning period” (the period between the nomination of candidates and polling day), political parties in Singapore are permitted to hold political rallies at designated sites, such as stadiums and open fields. Opposition rallies are noted to be significantly more well-attended than those of the ruling party, the People’s Action Party. See Joshua Kurlantzick, ‘Singapore’s Election Apparently Delivers Big Result for Ruling Party’, Council on Foreign Relations, accessed 23 November 2019, https://www.cfr.org/blog/singapores-election-apparently-delivers-big-result-ruling-party.

[10] George, ‘Disturbing the Peace’.

[11] Tessa Oh and Ng Jun Sen, ‘Yale-NUS Dissent Module: Tommy Koh, Arts Figures Back Playwright Alfian Sa’at after Ong Ye Kung Criticism’, TODAYonline, accessed 21 November 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/yale-nus-dissent-module-tommy-koh-arts-figures-back-playwright-alfian-saat-after-ong-ye.

[12] Chantal Mouffe, ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?’, Social Research 66, no. 3 (1999): 745–58.

[13] Ibid.

[14] I organise the examples of public dissent along spatial lines for ease of comparison, but I also acknowledge that there is an interaction of “sites” in any organised public dissent, such as the social media platform, a newspaper, a petition, and so on.

[15] ‘The Evolution of S’pore’s Speakers’ Corner’, TODAYonline, accessed 22 November 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/evolution-spores-speakers-corner.

[16] The Population White Paper protest was a protest against a While Paper published by the Government that suggested Singapore needed a more liberal immigration policy in light of demographic challenges. The Pink Dot rally, which began in 2008, is a rally in support of LGBT rights in Singapore, and principally in opposition to Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalises sex between consenting male adults. For context, see Calvin Cheng, ‘The Population White Paper – Time to Revisit an Unpopular Policy?’, Text, The Straits Times, 9 January 2017, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-population-white-paper-time-to-revisit-an-unpopular-policy; Howard Lee, ‘From Hong Lim Park to Speakers’ Corner – 15 Years to Be Made?’, The Online Citizen, 3 September 2014, https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/09/03/from-hong-lim-park-to-speakers-corner-15-years-to-be-made/.

[17] Cheng, ‘The Population White Paper – Time to Revisit an Unpopular Policy?’

[18] Malavika Menon and Clement Yong, ‘MPs Respond to Climate Rallygoers’ Suggestions’, Text, The Straits Times, 19 October 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mps-respond-to-suggestions-of-attendees-of-singapores-first-climate-rally; ‘Workers’ Party Sets out Stance on Climate Change, Green Issues’, CNA, accessed 22 November 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/workers-party-climate-change-action-environment-parliament-12044768.

[19] ‘Pink Dot SG Statement on the Penal Code Review and Section 377A’, Pink Dot SG (blog), 9 September 2018, https://pinkdot.sg/2018/09/pink-dot-sg-statement-on-the-penal-code-review-and-section-377a/.

[20] PMD riders are also prohibited on roads but not on cycling paths. However, Singapore only has 440km of cycling paths as compared to 5500km of footpaths. See Toh Ting Wei, ‘E-Scooters to Be Banned from Singapore Footpaths from Nov 5’, Text, The Straits Times, 4 November 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/parliament-e-scooters-to-be-banned-from-footpaths-from-nov-5.

[21] The ban was announced on November 4, 2019, and was to be in effect the next day. However, it was also announced that only warnings would be issued until the end of the year, bar egregiously dangerous cases. See Ibid.

[22] Kenneth Cheng, ‘The Big Read: E-Scooter Footpath Ban — Lessons from the PMD Saga and Where to Go from Here’, CNA, accessed 22 November 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/the-big-read-escooter-footpath-ban-where-go-from-here-12099792; Julia Yeo, ‘Amputee Worked as Food Delivery Rider Using PMD, but Livelihood in Jeopardy Again’, Mothership.sg, accessed 22 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2019/11/amputee-pmd-ban/.

[23] Tan Guan Zhen, ‘Resigned to Fate, No PMD Riders Attend Ang Mo Kio MPS, so MP Ang Hin Kee Speaks to Reporters’, Mothership.sg, accessed 22 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2019/11/pmd-ban-food-delivery-grow/.

[24] Cheng, ‘The Big Read’.

[25] Joshua Lee, ‘“Are You Running a Communist Law Now?” PMD Riders Confront Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng’, Mothership.sg, accessed 22 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2019/11/pmd-riders-confront-ang-wei-neng/.

[26] Zachary Tan, ‘Banning of PMD / e-Bike in Singapore’, Change.org petition, accessed 22 November 2019, https://www.change.org/p/all-singaporeans-banning-of-pmd-e-bike-in-singapore; Linette Lai, ‘Students Come out in Support of Food Delivery Riders after E-Scooter Ban’, Text, The Straits Times, 17 November 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/students-come-out-in-support-of-food-delivery-riders-after-e-scooter-ban.

[27] Toh Ting Wei and Wong Kai Yi, ‘$7m Grant to Help Food Delivery Riders Affected by Footpath Ban Replace Their E-Scooters with Other Devices’, Text, The Straits Times, 8 November 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/transport/7m-grant-set-up-to-help-food-delivery-riders-affected-by-footpath-ban-replace.

[28] George, ‘Political Sweet Spot’.

[29] Ashley Tan and Zhangxin Zheng, ‘S’poreans Didn’t Take SG Climate Rally Seriously despite Climate Emergency. Here’s Why.’, Mothership.sg, accessed 22 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2019/10/sg-climate-rally-reactions/.

[30] Belmont Lay, ‘Tharman vs Yaacob: Both Issued Platitudes about the Online Campaign to Wear White, but Who Said It Better?’, Mothership.sg, accessed 22 November 2019, https://mothership.sg/2014/06/tharman-vs-yaacob-both-issued-platitudes-about-the-online-campaign-to-wear-white-but-who-said-it-better/.

[31] George, ‘Political Sweet Spot’.

[32] Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, 1970.

[33] Goh Choon Kang, ‘Singapore Does Not Need a “Colour Revolution”’, Text, The Straits Times, 21 September 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/singapore-does-not-need-a-colour-revolution.

[34] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed (New York: Basic Books, 2006), chap. 6.

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Cheng, Kenneth. ‘The Big Read: E-Scooter Footpath Ban — Lessons from the PMD Saga and Where to Go from Here’. CNA. Accessed 22 November 2019. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/the-big-read-escooter-footpath-ban-where-go-from-here-12099792.

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———. ‘Political Sweet Spot’. In Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. Singapore: Woodsville News, 2017.

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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