A speech I gave in 2016 that's suddenly really relevant again.
I gave this speech in November 2016 at a forum on activism, civil disobedience, and social movements (yes, that forum that eventually got Jolovan Wham convicted of organising an illegal assembly, because Joshua Wong Skyped in). This speech has recently resurfaced and been edited out of context to suggest that I want to have 500,000 people in the streets of Singapore and that I want Singapore to have large-scale protest and conflict like in Hong Kong today. So I’m now publishing the transcript of what I said, for the record.
I'm just going to give a bit more of an overview rather than personal sharing, because I found that when we talk about civil society, civil disobedience, and social movements, a lot of Singaporeans feel that it's very hopeless.
A lot of people say things like, "Look at how many thousands of people they can get on the streets in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, look they can have Bersih, they can have Umbrella Movement, we cannot even get 100 people in Hong Lim Park without police coming." People feel very depressed, people feel like... I often hear, "Why are we so hopeless? What is wrong with us, that we cannot seem to do the things that civil society does in other countries?"
I used to feel that way but then I decided that… on observing more social movements, studying more social movements and strategy, I started to realise that maybe this isn't even the right question to ask.
Instead of asking "why are we so hopeless?" we should probably look at the conditions and the process, and also the culture in Singapore that might contribute to these things. And I'm not talking about the "Asian values" type of culture, I'm talking about political culture. What is it that we understand about politics, about democracy, about participation. What has historically happened to curb civil society and activism in Singapore, because historically we did use to have very vibrant activism, trade unionism, organising, community organising, and that was clamped down on in ways that we still live today. That affects the way we understand democracy and participation.
I don't think I'll go through everything and I'm sorry it's too small but basically this is a part of a Movement Action Plan by an American activist named Bill Moyer. And he, on participating in social movements and also studying social movements, came up with this theory that most social movements go through like eight stages of beginning to success, and then it goes 'round in a circle.
So for example, he would say things like the first stage, he calls them "Normal Times", which is when there are problems in society but not acknowledged. Most people think that life is okay, it's fine, the public are quite unaware of problems. And there might be a few small, kind of, activist or opposition voices, but they're seen as a sort of lunatic fringe type, like making trouble.
And then that moves forward to growing opposition, growing realisation that things don't work, more opposition groups growing, more research being done to show that things aren't working. And that grows all the way to like... he says Stage 4 is like a “Take Off”, where's there's a trigger event that kind of really brings it into the public eye and pushes it forward so that more people see the problem that's in front of them. The trigger event is seen as the most media friendly event, that's when you have people in the streets, that's when the journalists and photographers all come, take photos, it's on TV, the headlines. And it builds to the point where the majority of the public are aware of the problem, they're being persuaded by the alternative policies, and it goes in a circle.
So understanding these stages of social movements, I found it very helpful, because it then helped to understand why Singapore is the way it is.
Like what stage of a social movement are we? I wouldn't say we're at any trigger event. It's not really a trigger event to have 6,000 people at a WP rally and then half of them vote PAP afterwards. It's not a trigger event in that way. So perhaps Singapore is in a Stage 1 to 3, sort of... most people don't think there's a problem but there's growing discussion, growing activism and civil society, and maybe that's the stage we're at.
And if that's the stage we're at, then it's okay, it doesn't mean that we're hopeless, it just means that we are less mature than civil society in other places and it's up to us to understand the reasons for that, and understanding that, how we then build to the future stages.
So perhaps if we measure Singapore against Hong Kong and think the goal that we want is to have 500,000 people in the streets, then yes Singapore fails because we do not get 500,000 people in the streets. But if the goal that we want, being in such an early stage, is growing discussion, growing pushback, growing networks and activism and civil society, then these are things that we can achieve and that, I would argue, is actually happening already because even in the six years that I've been blogging, writing, participating in different groups, I have seen growth, I have seen more people joining, I have seen students who weren't particularly informed before now asking activists to come to their unis to give talks, joining and volunteering, doing projects about migrant workers. They wouldn't have done that 10 years ago.
So it's already happening, and I think it's important for us to acknowledge that, because a social movement is not 500,000 people [in the streets]... it's all the work that goes into potentially one day having 500,000 people in the streets. And that work is as, if not more important, than getting huge numbers to attract the media attention, because the groundwork, that foundational work is what sustains the network after the 500,000 people go home.
So building on that, I was thinking, what can Singaporeans do? And I think it's a lot about mindset and a lot about what we're comfortable doing.
One thing I’ve found is that we do not yet have expectations of democracy, so when we hear things like, you know, Amos Yee is arrested, or Roy and Soh Lung are being investigated for Cooling Off Day, alleged Cooling Off Day violations, they had their computers taken away, their phones taken away, a lot of us react out of fear.
And the reason we react out of fear is because we have, on some level, accepted that this is what happens to people who speak, and that an authoritarian government has the power to do whatever they want to do, if you speak. So we react out of fear and think, “Okay, maybe I shut up, and then this will have nothing to do with me.”
That’s the sort of mindset that leads to people saying to Seelan, “You’re an artist, why do you bother”, or you know, why don’t you just focus on your studies, why do you want to do all this activism thing. That’s the sort of mindset that we allow, that the reality is that authority has power over our lives, whereas if we really were a democracy, then the mindset would be to react in anger, because there is no right for people to be investigated, to have their computers and phones taken away, just because they posted on Facebook.
That is our right to speak, and that is our right to assemble, to participate in causes. So when there is oppression, we should react based on the understanding of our rights being violated, rather than based on an understanding of fear, because this is what they are allowed to do.
So that is one major thing, I think… that we should expect our rights to be respected, rather than to hope that our rights will be respected, and if they don’t, we just go, “that’s what you get for being an activist.”
It’s a mindset that [isn’t] just from the government, but from friends and families. I think most activists in Singapore will have at least a few stories, of people coming up to them and saying, you shouldn’t do what you do, because you’ll get in trouble. And being dissuaded from doing what they do, not by the state, but by family and friends and people they’re close to. So that’s one of the major things.
Then of course we should use the space that we already have. Actually there’s a lot more space to manoeuvre than a lot of people think. In Singapore there are a lot of processes and things you can do, like parliamentary petitions, which we did for the contempt of court bill. That’s a legitimate way to participate in parliamentary process in Singapore that cannot be denied to citizens, and so we should use it, and we should use it more and more. Because it’s kind of ridiculous, when we did the petition for the contempt of court bill, even the parliamentary clerk was confused and no one knows how to submit a petition, because no one has done it for like, nine years.
We should use that more, whether it works or not, whether it ultimately ends up in a vote for or against what you’re hoping for. At this stage, that is possibly less important than the process. Exercising our right to participate, getting used to being able to participate, just making it normal for citizens to participate.
Things like lobbying your MP… your MP is not just there for your HDB cleanliness, and whatever balloting kind of appeals that you want, they are there because they are policymakers, they are lawmakers. You should expect them to have more views than what covered walkway should be built. They should have views on human rights, they should have views on the economy, they should have views on foreign policy. When we’re worried about the Rohingya, we should be able to go to our MP and say, “As a constituent, I demand you to bring this up in the Parliament, because Singapore has connections with Myanmar, and we are concerned as part of ASEAN and and as trading partners, we are concerned about the genocide.” We should be able to demand that of our MPs, because that is what they are elected for.
Attend parliamentary sessions that’s open to the public. Anyone can go. We should even be asking why we don’t have a live feed of Parliament, why do we have to literally go there? I should be able to tune in from whether it’s a channel on TV or whether it’s a YouTube channel, I should be able to see my Parliament happening. I shouldn’t have to wait for ChannelNewsAsia to edit out the soundbites that they want us to see, I should be able to see the whole thing live.
Participate in all sorts of consultations, even if we feel that it’s a wayang consultation, participate in it anyway! Because if they offered the space, take up the space, and then ask for more space!
Because when you participate in these things, and they don’t work, the documentation that shows that it doesn’t work is crucial in building social movements and civil society, because you demonstrate that the status quo is not working for the citizen. So you need to participate, so that you can show. If it works, that’s great, because you get to participate and achieve a goal. But if it doesn’t work, the very fact that it doesn’t work is important as well.
And you know, organise networks, build relationships among your own close circle of friends, among other activists, between civil society organisations, you can start as small as like a reading group in your house, it doesn’t have to be huge gatherings in Hong Lim Park, you just start by getting small groups of people together.
If people are not comfortable with public forums, it’s much easier to access these kind of discussions if it’s with a small group of friends over dinner, just get people talking, get people thinking, make it normal to talk about these things. We should built the expectation, once it’s normal to talk about it, it’s becomes more normal to expect your rights to be expected.
To do those things, to build solidarity, so you might not be able, for various reasons, maybe you can’t be full-time into activism yourself, maybe you can’t show up at all these events, but you can do a lot of things to show solidarity with people who are doing it.
You can support independent media, you can donate to The Online Citizen, you can contribute articles, you can even just stand up for people who do face oppression. So when Soh Lung and Roy are investigated, you can stand up and say, “That’s not right, that’s not how we should be treating our citizens”, when Amos Yee is arrested… you don’t even need to like those people, it’s not about “we’re friends so I support you”, it’s about the principle. Even if Lawrence Khong, who I really don’t agree with, if someone just showed up, like the ISD came and took him away, in supporting the principle of free speech, that needs to be denounced.
So it’s really about focusing on principle and process, and I think following what happened with the Bersih solidarity event, I think, and what Joshua said as well, it’s important to build solidarity cross-border as well, because a lot of us are facing the same problems, the same sort of authoritarian streaks coming from governments.
And honestly governments learn from each other how to oppress people, so we shouldn’t pretend that we only care about our domestic affairs, because if the governments are learning how to control populations, we should be learning from each other how to resist the control.
So things like denouncing what has happened with Maria Chin in KL, she’s been detained for 28 days under SOSMA, which is a law that the Malaysian government has said will only be used for terrorists, and now they’ve used it on a Bersih leader, and that is not acceptable. That has resonance for us, because in Singapore we have seen detention without trial used on our activists as well, and so things like that, we need to be able to stand up and say… and when the government says, you know, foreigners should not influence domestic affairs, or foreigners should not bring their country’s politics into Singapore, we should push back on that as well, because why not, because solidarity is important.
Things that happen elsewhere affect us, and things that happen here affect other people. When people are travelling they’re learning from each other, it’s natural to care about things that are happening in other countries. I mean I’m not from Hong Kong, but I care about what happens in Hong Kong. I’m not Malaysian, but I care about Bersih, because clean elections are important to everybody. And I’m not American, but I’m like, freaking out about Trump everyday. So, we care about what happens in other people’s countries because we relate to them, and they have repercussions for us, so I think we should keep building this solidarity.
I’m just going to end here so that there’s time for questions, but I wanted, like Seelan, to end with a quote that came from an article I read recently after Trump was elected. And Sarah Kendzior is an American journalist in flyover country who has been covering the election and she predicted that Trump would win. And she also studies authoritarian regimes, and she said this about authoritarianism, which I felt rang true for me, and just to read it out for the people in the back:
“Authoritarianism is not just a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are, it makes you afraid, and fear makes you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do. You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.”
And I think that’s important because we often talk about authoritarianism based on what is coming from the top down, about what the state is doing and the oppression from police, from government. And that’s important, but we also need to talk about what is happening to the way we act, the assumptions that we hold when we talk about politics, like when Singaporeans complain complain complain and then they go, “But it’s like that lor, what to do?” When they go on and on about all the rubbish being said in parliament, and they’re like, “But parliament is like that, what are you going to do about it?”
That’s actually not state control, that’s something we do to ourselves, and I think that’s actually something we should think about, so I just wanted to end with that.