Exploring the Psyche of Protests: Musings from Home and Abroad

“We can strike whenever we want. That’s the beauty of this country.”

– Words uttered by my Law and Disorder professor

Had I heard this comment a year earlier, I would not have been so enamoured by it. My instinctive response would have been one of dismissal, derision and perhaps even traces of pity – how annoying and intrusive it must be for the average British citizen to be forced to put up with this on a regular basis in such an advanced country.

Within the span of a year in Europe, I had witnessed more grassroots activism than I had ever experienced in my 19 years in Singapore. I remember chancing upon a poster that was stuck to my kitchen door: “Firefighters on strike – do not leave cooking unattended and keep the kitchen doors closed.”

I remember waking up to a morning where every available blank wall on campus was draped with white sheets scrawled with words calling for teacher pay rises. It was shortly followed by emails of cancelled lectures and seminars and I bemusedly pondered about how absurdly easy it was for anyone in this country to paralyse the system and hold it hostage.

Just recently, a peaceful sit-in protest in Warwick University championing the cause for free university education turned ugly when cops were called in to control the demonstrators. The footage of police violently manhandling students made its rounds around YouTube and social media. Within a day, student demonstrators rapidly rallied themselves around a new cause: alleged abuse of police power and the infringement of their rights of protest. 

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For the first time, the enormity of the courage required to take a stand against institutions of power and vocalise what one felt was unjust, struck me. I found my disparagement slowly give way to fascination at how the culture of protest was so deeply integrated into the collective psyche of the British society and the important place it occupies in their civil discourse. Whether peaceful or violent, the holding of protests is one method that civilians have in their arsenal against institutions of power or what they perceive as an unjust law or policy and the Europeans take this right extremely seriously. The objective is to push for change through visibly and publicly manifesting their demands, thus raising awareness for their cause, and frustrating the relevant authorities. The effectiveness of such demonstrations may be mixed, but the people’s exercise of their power and their dedication to the commitment is, in theory, quite noble. As my Law and Disorder lecturer added a little sheepishly, “I cannot mark your presentations, but I will record it and once the ban ends, I will put a mark on it. I know it’s strange, but that’s how things stand for now.” The spirit of protest, or the expression and assertion of one’s demands and rights, is very much alive here and there was something to be admired in their strong principled devotion to a cause.

Subtly and inexorably, there was a gradual paradigm shift in my perception of protests. It drew me into a troubled contemplation of the relationship between the state and the individual back home. Hailing from a national culture that prides itself for its clockwork efficiency and enduring stability, it wasn’t merely the idea of protests that unsettled us. Fundamentally, Singaporeans seem to share a deep-seated apprehension of physical chaos or even the potential of chaos, and an almost obsessive relationship with our carefully engineered order.

This discomfort was most evident from the migrant worker rioting incident that broke out in Little India a year ago, the first in Singapore in decades. The surreal video footage of burnt and overturned vehicles in the streets of Little India caught the entire nation – including our riot police – by surprise. What was unnerving wasn’t simply the cause of the riots, but the fact that it had happened and the extent of violence that broke out. This was simply “not the Singapore way”, as the police puts it, and demonstrates how inimical chaos is to our state of existence.

Having said that, though Singapore may be widely regarded by the Western world as a highly authoritative state, the idea of protest as a form of civil engagement still intrigues and excites the imagination. Within the confines of our tightly regulated political space, the Hong Lim Speakers’ corner designated for speeches and protests has become a treasured patch of political activism. However, beyond that, there seems to be a general aversion to any activism that disrupts the order of everyday society and the law. Whether this “consciousness” was indoctrinated or cultivated, at the root of it, we simply lacked a culture of protests in our civil discourse.

This consciousness is probably the product of a story that has been weaved so seamlessly into our DNA as a nation through weekly mandated national education class and social studies classes: as a small island-state borne out of chaos and an acute security complex, our sovereignty, survival and prosperity hinges on the maintenance of peace over all other values. The tight control of public space, press and unions alongside strong economic growth, had over the decades disincentivised most Singaporeans from airing their grievances through public demonstrations. Our memory of disorder – those early student and race riots – has all but faded out of our national narrative and into a cautionary tale.

Instead, protests and demonstrations have become dirty words associated with violence, radicalism and fear-mongering. Its legality and viability as an avenue for change has been roundly discredited through, and conversely we have nurtured a perception of protests, whether peaceful or violent, as largely unwarranted nuisances in daily life. Ask a Singaporean what the best qualities of Singapore are and he or she will probably declare, with a shadow of smugness in their voice, that it’s “safe”, “stable” and “peaceful” amongst other things. Stability is a quality that very much forms the bedrock of our national identity and pride.

I did not realise how subconscious these associations were until faced with a slightly confrontational conversation with an Austrian friend. We were on the topic of democracy in Asia, and he had callously labelled Singapore as a dictatorship. Patriotism, it seems, only reveals its true strength when tested beyond the borders of home. My outrage at his presumptuous statement led to a fairly heated exchange, but the discussion grew increasingly futile as it spiralled into clichéd arguments about chewing gum and free speech offences. Finally, he posed a question to me:

“Can I freely insult the government?”

“If it’s defamatory-”

“There is no “if” in free speech. Here I can freely criticise any policy of David Cameron’s. Freedom of speech is a basic human right. You may have all the economic prosperity, but you are not a democracy.”

Regardless of how biased my Austrian friend’s opinion may be, my indignance fell into an unsettled realisation of how pointless any arguments about this topic would be between us. Our vastly different political and cultural experiences had shaped our value systems in divergent ways, influencing the way we prioritise certain values like stability over others such as right to protest. Only a year abroad and it had already rudely pulled the proverbial rug out from under many of my closely held beliefs and assumptions.

However, with Singapore’s growing socio-economic problems such as widening inequality and rising costs and an increasingly educated populace, priorities of people are shifting – it is no longer possible to placate such frustration with the mere promise of prosperity and stability. Emerging alternative voices are slowly negotiating the boundaries of political control and so far, civil society’s foray into the realm of activism has been marked with considerable success: the SG Pink Dot movement, which supports the freedom to love, has been growing from strength to strength each year, becoming one of Singapore’s largest peaceful civil gathering in recent history. In another incident, the authority’s decision to pulp three books in the children’s section as it contained homosexual depictions of families was met with stiff public opposition. In response, a gathering of 400 people staged a silent read-in of the books to their children of the books at a local library. The result of this public pressure was to compel authorities to halt the destruction of the books and move them instead to the adult section.

However, a vastly more popular manifestation of our “protestors” are our silent keyboard warriors – social media and political blogs have become significant platforms for people to discuss perspectives and reach out to the critical masses, and while there is a tendency for such mediums to distort and “viralise” untruths, it is quite heartening so far to see measured dialogue trumping polarising opinions. In the spirit of airing our grievances and allowing our voices to be heard, Singaporeans seem to have chosen a more subdued manner and medium of discourse, the “Singapore way” to borrow the words of the policeman, and it is a product representative of our own unique psyche. A culture that goes up in arms over the inefficiency of a 15-minute train delay is certainly not going to accept a day of transport strikes anytime.

My attempt at reconciliation at the end of the day is to accept that perhaps it is all a matter of subjective realities and finding a model of discourse that fits. For better or for worse, we have lost the experience of disorder, but we are only gaining momentum in finding more productive avenues of change.

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Allison is a second year law student from the University of Warwick hoping to carry her legal aspirations back home to Singapore. In real life, she is more comfortable responding to the name of Zhi Tian but until the day people can figure out its pronunciation, she is content with the nicknames of “Ally”, “Allison” or “Tian”. She appreciates thoughtfulness in writing, people, work, no matter what form it takes.