Who Controls Singapore's 'Safe Spaces'?

Who Controls Singapore's 'Safe Spaces'?
Photo Credit: Raeesah Khan Facebook
What you need to know

Safe spaces can’t be provided or dictated by the powerful.

During the general election that took place in July this year, Singapore’s millennial and Gen Z voters took to politics in a big way. Candidates were scrutinized, discussed, and memed. Instagram was replete with resources about voter education and discussions of social justice and democracy.

This activation was kicked into high gear when the police announced, in the middle of the nine-day campaigning period, that they were investigating Raeesah Khan of the Workers’ Party, a 26-year-old Malay woman, for old comments that she’d made on Facebook questioning double standards in policing and sentencing. The authorities cited a section of Singapore’s Penal Code that outlaws acts designed to promote enmity and ill-feeling between different racial and religious groups. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) followed up with a statement that accused Raeesah of racism. In response, young Singaporeans rallied around her online.

On August 24, Raeesah was sworn in as Singapore’s youngest Member of Parliament, and the first Malay woman to be an opposition MP. There’s not enough polling data for us to conclude that her election — along the rest of her team running in a four-member group representation constituency — was a sign of the police investigation and the PAP’s attack backfiring, but the election had nonetheless sent a message that young Singaporeans are more aligned with Raeesah’s mode of political discourse, and eager to discuss sensitive issues like racism, discrimination, and injustice.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/ TPG Images
Workers' Party supporters celebrate the results of the general election in Singapore, July 11, 2020.

The latest PAP government has acknowledged this desire. Yet their reaction suggests that they either don’t, or can’t, really understand the sort of conversation that young Singaporeans want to have.

Allowing that conversations about race and religion should happen, Edwin Tong, the new Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth, said that such exchanges needed to move away from “confrontational” approaches in favor of “common space.” Tong told the Straits Times, “So what we need to do is facilitate platforms so that these conversations can be conducted in a safe space.”

This comment was swiftly followed by news that his ministry had awarded a contract worth S$74,000 (US$54,528) to a data science company to study online groups identified as using “pro-social” behavior to conduct conversations, which could “provide a blueprint for how potentially divisive conversations, such as those on race and local-foreigner integration, can be conducted and managed.”

Singapore is long overdue for public examination of racism, inequality, and double standards. Young Singaporeans, watching as anti-racist movements and debate about decolonization flourish across the world, want to see change in our own city, too. There are calls for safe spaces where we can talk about these issues that matter.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/ TPG Images
A combination photo shows people in face masks posing for photos on their way to the supermarket or bank, on day nine of the "circuit breaker" measures to curb the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, April 15, 2020.

The PAP, on the other hand, can’t get over their need to be dominant, to be the ones setting the rules. Faced with a new generation of new demands and expectations, they are still defaulting to old instincts, seeking to be the ones to define the boundaries. But this isn’t just missing the point — it’s running counter to what young Singaporeans want to achieve when we talk about justice and reform.

Safe spaces can’t be provided or dictated by the powerful, because these spaces need to be safe from the powerful. When we talk about the need for safe spaces, we mean that there needs to be space for those belonging to minority and marginalized groups to talk about their experiences and express themselves without fear of being dismissed, belittled, or intimidated by those speaking from the comfort of a majority experience. For example, people from ethnic minority groups need to be given opportunities to talk about racism, discrimination, and bullying, without people immediately denying their experiences, or accusing them of trying to sow hatred and discord. Within the Singaporean context, this also means having a space to speak without worrying that someone is going to report them to the authorities for breaking broadly worded and easily weaponized laws about promoting enmity or “wounding religious feelings.”

A majority Chinese and majority male government with a history of using the law to investigate and penalize minorities when they talk about racism is not in a position to be the facilitator of safe spaces, nor define what these spaces should be.

Tong’s comments and his ministry’s funding of research to identify “pro-social” behavior, suggests that the government is digging deeper into emphasizing using “the proper channels” (such as government-run feedback platforms, as opposed to protests) to talk about thorny issues like race. But such tone-policing is never going to dismantle injustice and imbalances in power — they will only reinforce them, as the already powerful sets the rules of engagement.

It’s laughable that a party that has itself engaged in smear campaigns, gutter politics, and intimidation of opponents and activists is now urging Singaporeans not to be swept up by confrontation and “cancel culture.” The conversations that progressive young Singaporeans want aren’t more top-down, PAP-defined “pro-social” public consultation exercises — we want ground-up efforts that, for once, give space and platform to those whose stories have been shouted down, talked over, or excluded completely.

Sure, sometimes these efforts will be messy, uncomfortable, and likely confrontational; we’re talking, after all, about issues that have caused pain and anger for years and years. For instance, Chinese Singaporeans clinging to the idea of meritocracy might not like to hear that members of the majority race enjoy particular advantages in multiple aspects of our lives, from special funding for particular Chinese schools to employment practices that favor bilingual (i.e. English and Mandarin) speakers. Other issues, like discrimination against Malay-Muslims in the military, racism in the rental property market, or the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab at school or work, have also been identified as controversial.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Migrant workers rest at a swab isolation facility as they wait for their test results at a dormitory, amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore, May 15, 2020.

People will feel what they feel, and they should be able to express that frustration. When encountering statements or responses that make us uncomfortable, what we need to do is to not give in to knee-jerk defensiveness, but to tackle that discomfort head-on and ask ourselves what lies behind it.

If a government really wanted to acknowledge the desire and need for such conversations, the best thing that they can do is to remove oppressive laws that encourage people to self-censor. They could start with Section 298A of the Penal Code — the law that they used against social media influencer Preetipls and rapper Subhas Nair last year, and which they invoked against Raeesah Khan this year.

At the very least, they could commit to principles of good-faith engagement themselves, and reject intimidating, harassing, or bullying behavior within their own ranks and that of their supporters. Academics put out such a call during the election campaign period, only very few politicians — and no figures from the PAP, as far as I saw — picked up on it.

That, instead of these moves, we’re seeing efforts to control the discourse, tells us that the ruling party’s post-election "soul-searching” hasn’t gone far enough.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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