The protest held on Saturday, 16 February 2013, against the government’s 6.9 million population White Paper saw the second largest crowd ever at Hong Lim Park. Organisers estimated it to be 4,000 to 5,000, which puts it second only to Pink Dot 2012. Walking around and observing the density of the crowd myself, I more or less agree with the estimate. More might have come if not for the drizzly weather.
With that kind of crowd size, there will be plenty of reports on social media, but nonetheless, I don’t think anyone else is going to make the observation I made: the language of the rally explains the rally.
What do I mean by that?
Okay, I arrived about 15 minutes late, so I must have missed the first two speeches, but I stayed till the end, and from the time I arrived, I noticed that all the speeches were made in English. And not just English. All were made in Singapore-accented standard English.
Of course, many other events at Hong Lim over the past four or five years have been conducted solely in English, but they tended to be niche events, drawing people concerned with a cause they identified with. This population protest was broader-based and aimed to speak for Singaporeans in general. And speak to Singaporeans in general. And yet, the event used just one language.
Pause for a moment, and think through the history of Singapore. How interesting it is that we have reached this point.
From the 1950s up till maybe the 1990s, organisers would have taken the trouble to have speeches in several languages. At the election rallies of the 1950s and 1960s for example, there would also have been speeches in two, three or four Chinese dialects. Even now, at some events, e.g. election rallies, National Day Rallies and various constituency celebrations, multi-lingual speeches are still programmed. However, it is increasingly more for form than function.
At the Hong Lim Park population protest, form was not a consideration. Function was, and it was recognised that English alone would serve.
But how does that explain the protest? It’s like this: Our arrival at a single language platform signals the gelling of identity. From separate communities of 50 years ago, each speaking its own language, the Singaporean has emerged. There is a common sense of culture and place, and it is this shared appreciation of culture and place that the Population White Paper rudely tramples over. Thus the outrage.
Or rather: thus part of the reason for the outrage.
Bread and butter issues are the other part. To put it simply, people are fed up enough about the rising cost of living (which is the other side of the coin of stagnant incomes) and congestion in transport, health and other infrastructure. They are also anxious about job competition and security. The White Paper managed to press all these red buttons in one go! The widespread fear is that an increased population load would mean increased competition for resources, be they housing, transport or jobs.
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The speakers at the rally knew what was uppermost in people’s minds.
Tan Kin Lian spoke about “long queues in hospitals . . . and just to get an HDB flat.”
Lee Kah Jing pointed out that the White Paper’s boast about 65% of Singaporeans getting into PMET jobs is misconceived. This especially as it means we will need to import more people to do non-PMET work. “We don’t need so many PMET [among Singaporeans] if we pay a decent wage for manual work,” he said. “There’s nothing in the White Paper that reassures the bottom 20 percent that they will be looked after.”
Nizam Ismail asked the crowd: “With immigration, what do you think will happen to the income gap? What effect on prices?”
Tan Jee Say noted that “four economists . . . were highly critical of the White Paper, systematically pointing out the flaws. But we have not heard any counter-argument from the cabinet.” The real reason behind the White Paper, he said, had nothing to do with giving Singaporeans a better life. After all, it’s the same strategy as has been applied in the last ten years. And during that time, “we saw depressed wages for the lower-income groups and an increased income gap.”
“So ordinary Singaporeans are worse off.”
Several speakers addressed the question of Singapore’s economic model.
Tan Kin Lian said, “Our problem is that our economic structure is a mess. Too many people are working in banks, property, insurance, moneylending, speculating [on motor vehicle Certificates of Entitlement] for example. Too few people want to be engineers, teachers, nurses.” We’re putting people in the wrong places, he argued. If we can redistribute our human resources, “Singaporeans can fill all these jobs, so we don’t depend so much on foreigners.”
“Wages must be enough for them to raise a family, pay for an HDB flat and save for the future,” he argued.
Tan Kin Lian closed by linking the issue to the birthrate, but wasn’t specific, except to say that Singapore needs “to take a new look and find a new solution . . . so you can earn more and be able to afford to raise a family.” To encourage young Singaporeans to start families, we need to “tackle the root of the problem.”
It was Lee Kah Jing who called for a minimum wage. “We need an absolute national focus on the birthrate, not immigration. We need work-life balance, a minimum wage and more confidence in the future to start a family.”
Tan Jee Say too supported a minimum wage. Moreover, we need a “robust social safety net”, he added, one that will assure families of financial security. He suggested more state investment in education and healthcare to take the burden of costs off people’s backs. “Better to spend reserves on Singaporeans than on building infrastructure to accommodate more foreigners,” he told the crowd.
Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss spoke mainly on Singapore’s misfocus on people as economic digits. “We have lost the plot,” she said. “Instead of sustaining our national identity, our government concerned itself with sustaining GDP,” and brought in other people. She said we are not doing enough in building our social infrastructure, like caring for our elderly and those who are not as economically productive. “How are we supporting families? How much are were doing to support Singaporeans who want to get married and have children?”
Lee Kah Jing warned that a key assumption in the White Paper may be unsound. Singapore will only be able to attract immigrants if we can pay them better salaries than they can get in their home countries. It’s not an assured prospect since the GDP per capita in Beijing, Shanghai and Mumbai is already in the range of US$8,000 to US$12,000. Immigration as a strategy for Singapore is “not sustainable,” he argued.
Nizam Ismail took issue with the way the White Paper was rammed through. “Why did the entire machinery of the state forget to consult?” he asked. He touched on the state’s reluctance to engage with civil society, but “civil society groups reflect many different aspirations of Singaporeans.” As for the state’s attitude towards social media and blogs, Nizam described it as “regrettable.” He said the government merely sees them as “noise”, and on saying that, he turned to the crowd: “Let’s hear some noise!”
The crowd responded: “Reject, reject, reject.”
Nizam also took issue with mainstream media reports and how they reveal the “groupthink” behind the White Paper. They seem to believe, he said, that “only elites are fit enough to think for Singapore.”
It was Sem Teo who made sharper political remarks. “The fish rots from the head,” she said.
Tan Jee Say devoted a good chunk of his allotted time to explaining the numbers behind his argument that new citizens provide the People’s Action Party with a solid voting block of 5 – 6 percent. Coming here to work is one thing, but “there is no economic reason to convert them to citizens,” he pointed out.
Vincent Wijeyshingha came closest to what I was thinking. “The White Paper attacks us in our very deepest identity,” he said, adding that it reveals two things: “One, the government doesn’t understand what it means to be an ordinary Singaporean; two, it does not seem to care.”
“Our fear of being displaced from our own homes is as old as humanity itself. We feel betrayed that those whom we trusted to look after us now close their ears to our apprehension, our worries and our fears.”
However, he devoted the bulk of his speech to arguing against turning xenophobic. All human beings have the instinct to be safe, to belong and to be fed and clothed. Not just Singaporeans, but foreigners who come here to seek a better life too. We should not direct our anger at them, he said. “They deserve our respect and friendship.” Instead, in opposing government policy, “we must direct our dissatisfaction at our government.”
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How much effect Wijeysingha had is hard to say. But I can see he was very conscious that not only is xenophobia a close cousin of anti-immigration sentiment anywhere in the world, but that the lead organiser of the protest, Gilbert Goh, has a history of making somewhat xenophobic remarks.
In fact, the day before the rally, an old post by Goh resurfaced. It was an absurdly stereotypical analysis of the various migrant communities in Singapore. Mainland Chinese are like this, Filipinos are like that, Myarmese [sic] are like that . . . and so on. They were nowhere near to being hateful words, so ‘xenophobia’ would be a bit extreme as a description — at least in this instance — but the post certainly revealed a mind that saw people primarily in ethnic and national-origin pigeonholes. Several Facebookers took exception to the post and he took it down quickly, with apologies added.
Then at the rally itself, the emcee slipped on the same banana skin when he tried to say that we should reject xenophobia. Unfortunately his next few sentences were embarrassing, to say the least; “facepalm” moments, as someone called them. He said he had a Malay friend when young, and he “even” had Indian friends. Erm, what he described were friendships across race lines; quite a different thing from xenophobia. And what’s with “even” having an Indian friend, as if Indians are so far out that having a friend of that kind was like wow.
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Like an increasing number of dissent events, this protest incorporated the reciting of the national pledge and the singing of the national anthem in its programme. This practice is beginning to be overdone and getting a little cheesy. However, people take to it with gusto. Like I’ve said, there is a growing sense of Singaporean nationhood. Even so, I sometimes wonder if the inclusion of these rites is to fend off accusations that dissent is unpatriotic?
Here’s a video of the national anthem at the end of the rally, from The Online Citizen:
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Will the government be moved by this event? Unlikely. Never underestimate a ruling class’ capacity for denial.
I do think however that they were shaken by the angry responses they saw on social media, and taken aback by opposition from among their own backbenchers. But since they simply cannot see any other way ahead, they’re not about to change their minds. As for this protest, even 5,000 people on a field is something they can conveniently dismiss as yet another “vocal minority”, or “the usual suspects”.
More likely, the ministers will retreat a bit more into a sense of martyrdom. They are still convinced that they know best, but hurt that their well-thought-through plans and hard work are not appreciated. “We will go down fighting, let history be the judge” is an easy cry to adopt. It has the benefit of preserving pride while mitigating the need to think again.
As much as this protest, with its exclusive use of English, is a marker of the times and a window into an emerging sense of Singaporean nationhood, the government’s acute difficulty on this issue is also because of the times. In the early years of Singapore’s independence, economic survival was of paramount importance. People didn’t mind being treated as economic digits so long as the government delivered the goods. The government thus developed the habit of thinking in crude economic terms. They saw their job as one of pushing technocratic buttons here and pulling financial and immigration levers there.
But along the way, people changed. Their priorities changed: values, community, identity, culture, history and place became important too. And the government’s habitual way of doing business became ill-suited to today’s aspirations and sensitivities. The people were speaking a new language while the government only had the old.