What you need to know
All across the world democracy seems to be taking a hit. We need to push back and reclaim the space for civil society, for activism, and most importantly, for each other, writes Kirsten Han in Singapore.
The rain added to the misery of the situation, leaving everything damp and grey. Some people huddled under the eaves of the neighbourhood police post, puffing on cigarettes as they waited. Others – some dressed in yellow shirts – sat inside the station next to Singapore’s only (supposedly) free speech park, waiting to be questioned. Two yellow-clad participants were giving statements at the counter.
All it took for this tiny group – about 10 to 15 people in all – to attract such attention from the authorities was to gather last Sunday evening in support of the Bersih5 movement in neighbouring Malaysia. While organisers in Kuala Lumpur were gearing up for a roar, Singapore’s solidarity event was more of an approving squeak. But in Singapore, sometimes even squeaks need to be investigated.
It wasn’t very clear, that Sunday evening, what it was exactly that the police were investigating. When asked, a spokesperson of the Singapore Police Force referred me to the rules governing Speakers’ Corner, which state that only Singaporean citizens and Permanents Residents (PRs) are allowed to participate in activities. They also pointed to an advisory, issued a couple of days before the event, warning foreigners against importing “the politics of their own countries into Singapore. Those who break the law will be dealt with firmly, and this may include termination of visas or work permits where applicable.”
There is precedent for such repercussions: in 2013, 21 Malaysians were arrested for holding their own Bersih rally at Merlion Park in the Central Business District. In 2014, foreigners who took part in the solidarity event for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were also investigated.
The authorities later confirmed to local newspaper The Straits Times that they were also investigating the use of the Singaporean and Malaysian flags at the solidarity event under the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act, which would explain why they confiscated both flags, and a straw mat the flags had apparently been placed on. This obscure piece of legislation prohibits the display of any national emblem except when authorised (or if you’re a diplomat).
It’s not hard to think of scenarios in which national emblems are displayed with wild abandon: printed on polo shirts, waved at victory parades for Singaporean Olympians, added to children’s eraser collections, sneakers sporting the Union Jack or the stars and stripes, the list goes on and on, making it difficult to see this sudden interest in opening an investigation as anything more than a clamp down on freedom of assembly and organising.
Although Singapore has made its name and reputation as a cosmopolitan city-state open to global flows of trade, investment and travel, recent events have shone a light on ways in which the Singaporean government attempts to discourage and prevent cross-border solidarity on issues of social and political significance.
In late October, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced changes to the Speakers’ Corner rules. From now on, foreign entities will be required to apply for permits before they can assist in the organising of an event in that space. Permits will also have to be obtained if any non-Singaporean is going to speak at the event – even if that speaker is communicating via teleconferencing (i.e. Skype) or in a pre-recorded video.
These changes were most likely a reaction to the staggering success of Pink Dot, an annual LGBT rights rally that has picked up huge corporate sponsors like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Barclays and Goldman Sachs. It was quickly justified as necessary to prevent foreigners from “meddling” or “interfering” in domestic affairs. But with the harassment via investigation of the Singaporean-organised Bersih5 solidarity gathering, both foreigners taking a stand on their own country’s affairs (while in Singapore) or locals taking an interest in foreign affairs aren’t welcome either.
It’s an untenable position to hold in a time when people all around the world can check in to Standing Rock on Facebook in solidarity with those protesting the Dakota Access pipeline, chime in as the U.S. election results unfold, or subscribe to news updates from around the world. Globalisation hasn’t just been about trade and business; it’s also been about mobility, networking and relationships. We care about things that are happening in other countries because we understand that there are ripple and knock-on effects, or because we see parallels with local struggles, or because we have friends and family there.
Yet the Singapore government continues wanting to have its cake and eat it too; it wants an open, adaptable, cosmopolitan workforce to attract foreign investors and grow the economy, yet wants Singaporeans keep their minds closed and focused only on their own rice bowls. Laws and regulations are passed to keep grassroots organising – unless it’s for the benefit of the establishment – to a minimum. Attempts at establishing cross-border solidarity are subject to scrutiny and petty investigations, with foreigners intimidated by warnings of ejection from the country.
This is not the time to be insular. All across the world democracy seems to be taking a hit. The U.S. just elected a man whose platform was built on authoritarianism, racism and misogyny, and when he’s inaugurated as president, white nationalists will be right there with him. Between Brexit and Trump, far right groups in many countries are simply ecstatic. This is no time for anyone to act as if foreign affairs and domestic issues exist in silos.
It is precisely in this milieu that people need to be organising and building bridges. If governments try to block such work – whether to protect their own power or that of their allies – then we need to push back and reclaim the space for civil society, for activism, and most importantly, for each other.
Editor: Edward White