The continuing protests in Hong Kong have received international attention. Some commentators, both internationally and locally, have made comparisons between the protest culture in Hong Kong and in Singapore and concluded that the former reflects dynamism and vitality while the latter reflects conformity and apathy.
Such superficial extrapolations are not worthwhile. It would be more meaningful to ask when and why disruptive protests, whether on a large scale as has happened in Hong Kong or on a small scale as recently occurred at Hong Lim Park in Singapore, are warranted.
First, let us accept as a priori that protests are a channel to make views heard. In the negotiation of the national course there are several channels. Protest is just one of them.
Second, let us correct the impression that protests and Singapore are incompatible. After all, the People’s Action Party Government legislated the creation of Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park as a site specifically to host free speech and then, latterly, protests. It is worth noting that legislation to this effect was first introduced in 2000, 14 years ago, and it was to allow protests in Hong Lim Park, which is not hidden away in a marginal corner of the country but located in the middle of the Central Business District.
Thus, far from wanting to marginalise or mask public speaking and protest actions, the Government acted to legitimise and facilitate protests in a specified highly visible venue – at a time when it arguably faced little domestic or international pressure to do so.
Third, that protests are legal does not mean that they are always legitimate. While protests are one of a range of accepted channels of public discourse, it should be noted that there is a hierarchy within these channels.
This hierarchy serves to ensure both efficiency and effectiveness in the discourse without undue disruption to social harmony and economic activity.
Participating in organised public consultations, attending forum engagements, submitting to letters pages, producing editorials, publishing books and giving feedback at Meet-the-People or dialogue sessions are just a sampling of the long list of available channels. To this list we can add peaceful, non-disruptive protests. If all these channels are present, then there should not be disruptive protests. In my view, disruptive protests deserve support only if three tests are met.
Three tests before protesting
First, are the available channels working?
If the answer is yes, then protagonists of any cause should apply themselves to getting their points across through these channels. Yes, it may take time and require effort and may not be as dramatic as bashing barricades.
But boring is better – getting a result peaceably is what civil, stable and mature negotiation of important issues is about.
In the Arab Spring it was clear that there were no available and working channels for the masses to have their voices heard. But in Hong Kong and in Singapore there are several operating channels.
Second, what is at stake?
For disruptive protests to be legitimate, the object of the protests has to really matter fundamentally. It should be on a plane that is near existential.
Disruptive protests should also have an evidence-based premise. They cannot be based on some charismatic leader’s “gut sense”.
Beyond this, there should be a coherent reasoning behind what it is hoped protest will achieve. Importantly, there should be a sense of proportion – even if the cause is critical, how much disruption is it really worth?
Again, the masses in the Arab Spring had strong grounds – the decades of power abuse, denial of human rights and repression of minorities or contrary views have been well documented.
In Hong Kong, as is common where protest movements are led by the very young, loaded terms such as “democracy” and “human rights”are bandied about as justification. These rallying cries resonate but do not illuminate. These ideas have the power to quickly attract the young and idealistic. However, the usefulness of these concepts benefits from considered and contextual application and suffers from romanticised adoption.
As law professor Lim Chin Leng wrote in The Straits Times last week, Hong Kong has a system of “restrained constitutional debate” based on its Basic Law. There is a shared framework for public-political debate that has helped the territory stay successful. Anyone who has visited Hong Kong – with its free-wheeling economy, affluent lifestyle and aggressive press, would be hard pressed to say that it was a politically suppressed society with economically subjugated people.
The young people on the streets may think that they are fighting for their tomorrow when what they may really be doing is throwing it away. The pity of it is that the disruptive nature of their protests may also result in the destruction of other people’s today as livelihoods are jeopardised.
In the case of Singapore, even the most sympathetic interpretation of the motives of the Hong Lim Park protesters rallying over the Central Provident Fund will not excuse the protesters who encroached onto the venue for a YMCA charity event on Sept 27. Nor is the premise for their cause so compelling that it would exculpate their behaviour. Their conduct was out of proportion, unsupported by logical reasoning and certainly not validated by any sense that there were no other available channels.
Third, who is being represented?
In the case of the Arab Spring, the masses rose up, seemingly to represent an entire society. At the time it appeared to be a case of one people and one cause. With the passage of time, we can now see, in the divisive and chaotic politics of Syria, Egypt and Libya, that both assumptions were misguided. Thus, we should be careful in correlating large numbers with the impression of representation of the most, let alone all; or in thinking that large numbers suggest unity of beliefs or purpose.
In Hong Kong, the large turnout also does not suggest the protesters speak for all of Hong Kong. After all, there may have been 100,000 protesters at the height of the protests but this should be set against the 7.2 million Hong Kong residents. Even if many in Hong Kong sympathise with the protesters, they may not share their cause. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming clear that the depth of conviction is not uniform even among the protesters.
In Singapore, the small number of participants at the “Return Our CPF” protests can hardly make the claim of representing most Singaporeans, yet they frequently do so. They are a fringe group, given their small numbers, a radical group based on their lack of a credible premise and the failure to use normal channels, and a group of provocateurs going by their aggressive rhetoric and tactics. And now, with their recent antics, they may also be found to be a group of law breakers.
As Singapore continues to mature as a country, we need to come to terms with certain realities. Democracy is a demanding form of governance. The performance of a democracy is best measured not by stating lofty ideals, but by two simple but potent yardsticks.
First, the quality of its process: Is it civil? Is it efficient? Is it focused on the greater good and the longer term?
And second, the quality of its outcome: Does it deliver? Are the basic needs of citizens being met? Is there safety and security? Is there a sense of forward momentum?
Let us keep in mind these two measures of effectiveness and the three tests of legitimacy. All Singaporeans need to be part of the national journey and to contribute to the resolution of real, not imagined, problems and challenges before us, today and tomorrow.
For this we should and need to have a bigger tent of views and ideas. But we should also ensure that we do not allow a few hot heads to bring the roof of this tent down to satisfy a few people’s selfish sense of mission.
The best way to avoid this is for more reasoned and mature citizens to participate in various ways to generate better ideas, uphold the standard of the democratic process and to step forward as civil and political leaders. Then good sense will crowd out madness, rather than having common sense be captured by the madness of a small crowd.