Straitjacketed cosmopolitanism

Malaysian C P Teoh has been called up by the police for the Bersih 2.0 event at Hong Lim Park last Saturday, 9 July 2011, reported the Straits Times. Although styled as a picnic — for which no prior registration is needed — the police have now judged the event to have been rather more than that.

An estimated 120 people, according to the newspaper, were there with most donning yellow T-shirts as an expression of solidarity with a planned march in Kuala Lumpur the same day to call for clean elections and related political processes.

In Singapore, the supporters – clad in yellow – sat on the grass in small groups for two hours or so, discussing the drama in the Malaysian capital as it unfolded.

Some stencilled the word Bersih on their umbrellas and T-shirts, while a small group gave out yellow roses to remind people of the movement’s non-violent stand.

The gathering ended at 4pm with a group photo and a shout of ‘Bersih’.

— Straits Times, 9 July 2011, Speakers’ Corner event ‘required permit’, by Teh Joo Lin

It is not yet clear whether Teoh will face any charges.

The [police]  spokesman said the police take a ‘serious view of foreigners who import their domestic political conflicts into Singapore, and of foreigners who use Singapore as a stage for such political agitation’.

— ibid.

We should stop for a moment and examine this statement, for what it reflects is not so much any wrongdoing on the part of Malaysians and other foreigners but the kind of frog-in-a-well mentality propagated by our single-party dominant state.

Politics is a natural expression of humans’ social nature. It can hardly be divorced from our identities without damaging our psyches. It is as natural as wanting to celebrate customary festivals, marking anniversaries, attending concerts or helping out with an act of altruism. All these are ways by which humans engage in community, partaking of it, contributing to it. Politics is no different.

Yet in Singapore, we are conditioned to see it as a dangerous activity that must be tightly regulated. You see the word “agitation” automatically appended by the police spokesman to “political” above, connoting a threat to order and stability — this word-trick is part of the mind-fuck process Singaporeans are subjected to all their lives.

The Malaysians who went to Hong Lim Park did something any well-adjusted human would want to do. The Singapore authorities that want to clamp down on it are the ones on the dark side — they are the ones who would cauterise our brains, making us think that engaging in politics is an activity in a special class of its own requiring ring-fencing.

One might argue — it’s only registration, a procedural matter, how objectionable can it be? Well, firstly, even if Teoh had applied, he’d probably not get the permit. The rules say that only Singapore citizens can organise a demonstration at the Speakers’ Corner. Secondly, have we forgotten so quickly how absurd it is that (relatively) free speech and freedom of assembly is confined to just one park? This proves my point again that we have stigmatised what should be a natural part of our humanity.

* * * * *

And yet, we dream of a cosmopolitan city, welcoming talent from around the world. As the rhetoric goes, we must ensure that Singapore is the place of choice for them to live and work. To that end, for the last 15 years, we’ve been speaking of creating buzz, allowing space for different cultures and lifestyles. But mostly, the space is freed up just for consumerism. When foreigners want to express themselves politically — even if it’s a matter related to their home country — or want to participate in the civil society of Singapore, all kinds of barriers come crashing down. Worse yet, all kinds of punitive measures are applied.

Several Burmese who in past years have voiced dissent against the military junta that ruled their country have had their permanent residency, employment passes, etc, terminated by our government. By expelling them we disrupted their careers or studies and separated them from loved ones who remain in Singapore. Their cause was a just one. By that token, action by the Singapore government was unjust.

Not only does Singapore want brain-cauterised Singaporeans, we want all foreigners coming here to contribute their skills and labour to our society and economy, to put on straitjackets on entering. We want them decontaminated of political impulses, and become, like Singaporeans, mere economic and consumerist automatons.

Unless, of course, they support the single party that dominates this state. In that case, please speak up and laud our tremendous achievements.

41 Responses to “Straitjacketed cosmopolitanism”


  1. 1 Dolphin 16 July 2011 at 12:42

    To claim that the event is a ‘picnic’ when it was clearly NOT so is a lie to begin with. It is then hard to take a moral high ground over what might transpire had they simply applied for a permit. If this happened to a Singaporean, would any of the foreigners voiced out? For foreigners who made the decision to come ‘contribute’ to Singapore, they are already subscribing to the policies and regulations of the ruling party. It is not correct to claim how “Their cause was a just one.” while that of the “Singapore government was unjust”.

    • 2 Shaun 16 July 2011 at 21:55

      Don’t be absurd. The event *was* a picnic. Just because the picnickers gathered together for the aim of expressing moral support for the Bersih movement doesn’t make it less of a picnic.

      Sheeple like you have been brainwashed by the government into thinking that political events exist in a rarefied category of its own. In fact, politics permeates every aspect of our daily lives. Why can’t politics be discussed at a picnic? Why can’t picnickers wear yellow shirts to express solidarity with their Malaysian brethren? Why should a permit be needed?

      What is even more ridiculous is this idea that foreigners cannot be allowed to disagree with the policies and regulations of their host country. Of course they can – it is very common to see foreign students in other countries (e.g. US, UK) protesting against policies of their host country. You have simply been indoctrinated by the PAP into thinking that this is wrong.

  2. 3 waypoint 16 July 2011 at 13:19

    Would you want someone staying/living under the roof or shelter you provide with all its conveniences and amenities to cause dissent in your own home?

    • 4 Shaun 16 July 2011 at 22:03

      Yet another brainwashed sheep who thinks that expressing one’s political views peacefully = causing dissent/fomenting instability.

    • 5 Loh 17 July 2011 at 10:46

      If a Malaysian who lives in my house wants to invite his friends over to have a picnic, wear yellow shirts and discuss politics, I’m fine with that. In fact, I would likely join in.

      • 6 Chow 18 July 2011 at 20:25

        Cause dissent? What dissent are we talking about here? They are for supporting a particular cause in their own country. They aren’t burning trashcans and blockading streets for goodness sakes. If they did, they will face a strong response because they are endangering lives and property and not because it’s a political gathering. It’s silly to think that just because they come here they must automatically become politically neutered.

    • 7 jem 18 July 2011 at 16:12

      Of course I would not. However, meeting up to have a picnic hardly qualifies as dissent. Very nice leading question you have there.

  3. 8 Dolphin 16 July 2011 at 13:34

    Further to my comment, you have mixed the Bersih 2 event with the earlier Burmese one. They are different. Firstly, for those holding Malaysian passports, clearing the custom at Woodlands is probably faster than making their way down to Hong Lim. More importantly, the regional event was organised and coordinated in Malaysia. Tian Chua, their leader, visited Dr Chee when he was in Singapore ‘for a meeting’ as reported in SDP website. It was highly probable that some participants were not Malaysians residing in Singapore, but who deliberately crossed over to Singapore to participate in the event in Hong Lim. From that perspective, I do understand why the SPF might be concern about the event. Singapore cannot be used by foreigners to drive their domestic agendas especially when their own country is a mere 20 minutes away. Imagine if Thaksin and his supporters start their own picnics here. While we appreciate alternate views in politics, hanging dirty laundry in the neigbour’s backyard and claiming justifications are no no.

    • 9 yawningbread 16 July 2011 at 18:54

      You are repeating the very argument that I contested:
      Political expression = chaos and disaster. Therefore tight restrictions are justified.

      Political expression is not disaster. It breathes life into us and our society. It is its denial that wounds us.

      And so what if foreigners participate in political expression. Other countries have no problem with it. Even Singaporeans do that, e.g. travelling to other cities, e.g. Taipei, to participate in Pride marches. Have other countries collapsed?

    • 10 cleaner 3 August 2011 at 00:48

      factual error – Tian chua is not their leader. Bersih is led by a coalition of NGOs. The decision makers are from the NGO and are non-partisan.

  4. 11 Jenny 16 July 2011 at 15:33

    AND this is Hong Lim Park, the ONE TINY PLACE where you supposedly can have free speech!

  5. 12 Visakan V 16 July 2011 at 17:16

    I like this post, and it gives me hope because it makes me think that it’s only a matter of time before straitjackets, as you describe them, become completely unsustainable, even economically. Depoliticizing Singapore might have made economic sense in the 60s and 70s, but it ceases to be relevant in today’s complex world. I also like how you use the term “brain-cauterized”, because it’s very appropriate, and great imagery!

    The beautiful dilemma that arises is as follows- the world is now in a place where “mere economic and consumerist automatons” are not enough to contribute to the economy. By cauterizing the brains of Singaporeans, we actually diminish their ability to contribute to the economy. (I’m only using economic arguments because that seems to be the language spoken in the discussions that decide Singapore’s fate.)

    We cauterize brains, yet we ask for passion, creativity, entrepreneurship. There’s a mismatch there, and if our government is really as competent as we’re led to believe, it had better acknowledge this disparity and do something about it. We can no longer lock up our kids at home to spare them the evils of the world, we had best empower them and teach them to protect themselves, to make their own decisions. Teaching has changed, parenting has changed, and I think Statesmanship needs to change too. Adapt or perish.

    We must make this work, and I have a feeling it’s going to be the most rewarding and fulfilling stage of Singapore’s development- driven by a diaspora of passionate individuals. Nationhood is too important to be left to the State.

  6. 14 Heng Chee Meng 16 July 2011 at 18:36

    We are celebrating Bersih 46.0 of national brain cleansing soon.

  7. 15 Gee Whiz 16 July 2011 at 19:03

    u know how it is… if the police dont do anything, and someone higher up asks why they were allowed, the officer-in-charge will get into trouble. so to cover his arse, he just had to do it.

    which, in reflection, is what’s wrong in most of the administrative areas in our government departments – the worry about process, or kiasuism gone terribly wrong.

  8. 16 My 16 July 2011 at 20:01

    I was one of the participants there that day.

    We are here in Singapore, working and living, as the circumstances may be. This event was a impromtu as it can be for a political movement. One must see it in the context of the number of malaysians in Singapore. Only 150 out of a few hundred thousand Malaysians living in Singapore showed up on that day.

    Whatever the case maybe, one cannot simply divorce oneself from what is happening in one’s homeland. It was a monumental day for Malaysia and we as it’s citizen, merely displayed our love for our country.

    Some of us in Singapore did drive all the way down to KL to join BERSIH 2.0. It was not our intention to bring disturbance to our host country. If you google, you will find that the same event was organized by Malaysians in many countries.

  9. 17 Koshchei 16 July 2011 at 22:29

    Most likely the participants will not be charged.

    Doing so may cause Singapore to be to be grouped together with the Malaysian government in terms of freedom of expression, or rather, the lack thereof. While Malaysian communities around the would organized demonstrations with speeches and placards, Singapore is the only one which does not have these, and Malaysia is the only one which arrested demonstrators.

  10. 18 Tinker 16 July 2011 at 23:19

    The right to assemble is a fundamental human right. It gives people dignity to fight for a cause they believe in. Having the right to protest and have a voice without fearing for your job, your home, your family. It is what separates dignified respected citizens from repressed slaves.

    • 19 Xia 17 July 2011 at 01:00

      Ah, but people get greedy when you give them power. They get funny ideas. They start believing that denying other “lowly beings” of their human rights is now their *right*.

      • 20 Loh 17 July 2011 at 14:21

        So it’s alright to give power to only a few? And these few won’t get funny ideas?

  11. 21 catlover 17 July 2011 at 14:08

    Even uncles in coffeeshops all over Singapore gather & discuss politics everyday- u gonna get them all arrested for illegal gathering & unsanctioned political discourse, & not wearing matching shirts..?

  12. 22 Yunita Ong 17 July 2011 at 15:38

    Well, it’s obvious from this that the Singapore government places its interests where its sources of trade and money lie.

  13. 23 Chanel 18 July 2011 at 14:56

    In S’pore, a lot of otherwise productive police resources are wasted on “fixing” the opposition parties and suppressing any public political discourse/expression.

    Don’t our men in blue have far better and important issues to handle? for example, why not allocate more resources to tackling the perennial loan-shark-harassment problem? Why not put more policemen on patrol to enforce the laws against illegal parking and cycling on narrow pedestrian pavements?

  14. 24 Tan Ginn Ho 18 July 2011 at 15:53

    Alex strikers a chord. Human are political animals. Politics and human characteristics cannot be divorced. The arrogant S’pore Govt cannot do anything to Msian. They need us to work and toil here to replace their impotent men. You want foreigners, you better also accept our right to protest against. What business is it of Spore Govt if the subject of our displeasure is our own Govt.

    Anyway, we are not the first. Falun Gong has done it. Burmese has done it. The Spore Govt better be prepared that Thai displeased with Yingluck may just decide to wear Yellow here, or Thai may protest against Cambodians and vice versa, or Indons may wear partisan clothes and protest during their own GE, or simply PRC who wants justice for the corrupt politics back home. The PRC are more “hiong” is this area – look at the 2nd case of “on top of the crane” protest.

    We don’t really care if Spore govt don’t allow Spore to protest. That’s your business. But you have no right to deny foreigners the chance to protest against our own govt. This is our right. This is a universal right. You need us to slog for you and your impotent men, then you live with this reality.

    • 25 jem 20 July 2011 at 16:09

      Well now, you can’t really believe it’s a universal right if you don’t have a problem with Singapore government denying Singaporeans that right, can you? As long as you, the untouchable foreigner, get the right to protest, everyone else can just get shafted.

      I do apologize that I’ve exposed your blatant, self-serving hypocrisy.

  15. 26 tencents 19 July 2011 at 00:22

    Putting it into perspective,

    1,000 protests only x gets violent. Even so, I can stomach a Singaporeans’ protest that is of Singaporeans’ choice based on Singaporeans’ issues. Even if there are chaos and mayhem for things we decided worth fighting for, we live with the collateral damages, we pick up the tab. Malaysians did that even if investors pull out and tourism did. It was their choice. They had a common cause to fight for.

    But if foreigners fight for issues totally unrelated to us and cause similar damages, and we pick up the tab —- I cannot see how we can stomach that. The same Thai saga replicated in Singapore – no thanks.

    So Ginn, it takes two hands to clap. We got work, your country sucks and the people need work. If you detest your ruling party, go home and fight it like a man, like all the supporters back home, instead of cowering here and simply shout loud loud. Do not eat our cake, burn our bakery and mess up our place, while shouting at the bakers next door. Don’t stir shit here for Singaporeans to pick up the tab and clear the mess, while you can easily scoot back to KL with your family or maybe some other places.

    I’m starting to detest all these arrogant PR who think they can simply come here, take our land, jack up our prices, and now blatantly do as they please with or without rules. They don’t do PR, but talk like they own the place. FU.

  16. 27 TH 19 July 2011 at 12:05

    Tan Ginn Ho you are a [personal attack deleted]

    Alex Au, you are letting this [personal attack deleted] foreigner slight Singaporean in your blog!

    • 28 Dolphin 19 July 2011 at 21:14

      The poster Tan Ginn Ho has mentioned Singapore’s “impotent men” two times in the short comment which is irrelevant. While I am not a member of the gay community, I do understand basic respect and courtesy when posting in other people’s website, or using other people’s place without permits. There is no attempt whatsoever to respect the hosts. Permits are required for medical, traffic and crowd control preparations. This is no universal rights.

  17. 29 Dick Singh 19 July 2011 at 20:12

    People resort to attacking the person who has advanced an idea because they don’t have the intellect to logically oppose the idea. It is a variation on the “kill the messenger” syndrome.
    So, let no one get upset by comments like those above – the poor writers just have defective intellect.
    Don’t reply in like kind. When you wrestle with pigs, you get dirty, and the pig gets pissed off.

  18. 30 Paul 20 July 2011 at 00:01

    Thought experiment: Let’s imagine it’s the eve of the 2026 General Elections. It’s been discovered that Party X, which has (come to have) a sizeable representation in Parliament, has been implicated in some unethical activities. Supporters of other parties, out of concern for the state of the government and Singapore, decide to galvanize support for parties other than X. Let’s say some concerned overseas voters residing in London decided to hold a picnic in Hyde Park to raise awareness for the issue.

    Should Londoners be at all concerned about this? Should the British government attempt to stop it or punish its organizers? Is there anything wrong with what those Singaporeans are doing?

    Or, imagine it’s the eve of the 2026 GE and the PAP has discovered that it’s on the brink of losing its parliamentary majority. Let’s say someone in the party/govt hits on the idea of holding a “Singapore Day” in New York on the pretext of reinstilling national pride in Singaporeans living there, but with the hidden agenda of injecting pro-PAP propaganda into the proceedings in the hopes of winning a crucial few overseas votes. Let’s even say that the party/govt officials who moot this plan sincerely believe that the loss of their parliamentary majority would present a real and objective calamity for Singapore (let’s imagine the other parties are thoroughly incompetent).

    Would it be wrong to hold an event such as this – one that is political in all but name – on foreign soil? Is it ‘irresponsible’? Would it really pose a threat to New York at all to have a horde of Singaporeans crowding Central Park for a day, wearing red and scarfing down chwee kway while listening to national songs? Should the American govt even consider doing anything about it?

    If the answers to these questions are “No”, we’re operating under some serious double standards.

  19. 31 Paul 20 July 2011 at 00:23

    Addendum: In the context of my imagined scenario, it should be “wearing white” of course…

    Also, waypoint’s analogy (“Would you want someone staying/living under the roof or shelter you provide with all its conveniences and amenities to cause dissent in your own home?”) is not applicable.

    Causing dissent in the home suggests family members starting to fight with each other. But in this case, the ‘guests’ are engaged in actions directed to parties *outside* the home, not to family members in the home. The M’sians who picnicked at Hong Lim Park weren’t trying to stir up discord among Singaporeans; their message was directed to M’sia(ns). As a ‘host’ I personally would not feel it is my place to interfere with the latter; that would be like telling my guests not to use my phone if they’re going to call home and argue with the folks there!

    Now, someone might ask what happens if such actions were to cause M’sians in Singapore to starting brawling with each other in public. In this case, yes the authorities should step in, but on the grounds of stopping an actual disturbance to the peace, and not to some perceived disturbance, or because of the fear of political intercourse.

  20. 32 MM 20 July 2011 at 17:33

    I was there.

    If fact we made it a point NOT to cause any disturbance. As mentioned, no speech and no banners. We realized how sensitive it would be for Singapore, with all the joint property development being planned by both govt. Surely we must not mess with all the improved relations. Correct or not?😛

    Nobody threw rocks and nobody burned tyre. You guys should take a chill pill.

    I know la, the underlying fear. Since they do it there, will they cause locals to copy the same methods? Excuse me, this is the internet age. If you locals want to riot on the street as a form of protest, you don’t necessarily need to learn it from the Malaysians, correct or not?

    The cause and effect assumptions made were a bit of a stretch la.

    Actually, I am very proud of my country men/women. These bunch looked like they would normally bo chup type. Political activism is good. Don’t make it a dirty word.

    Cheers.

  21. 33 nitegazer 21 July 2011 at 10:20

    I would like to say that I’m a Singaporean and I was very proud of the courage shown by my Malaysian neighbors both in their home country and here. Despite the fear of repression by the police and possible arrest, they have taken peacefully to the streets in their show of brotherhood and solidarity. Their actions are inspiring and makes me hope that one day Singaporeans will obtain the courage to do so as well.

  22. 34 TH 21 July 2011 at 16:28

    You deleted what you consider as “personal attack” when I called Tan Ginn Ho a coward for hiding and pretending to protest in Singapore. Yet you allow his “impotent” Singaporean men comment.
    Let me try again. Singapore or at least this Singaporean does not welcome impotent malaysian men who are not happy with the malaysian government but do not dare to protest in KL. This one particular impotent malaysan commenter who bravely says he does not give a damn and will protest in Singapore. Let me tell him that he is not protesting at all,(just having a picnic). I dare him to stage a real protest in HongLim Park.

    • 35 Dolphin 22 July 2011 at 08:27

      There is nothing to be proud of for the Malaysians at Hong Lim. It took less than an hour for them to cross over to JB, and some of them travel the reverse direction and come out of their own country for the event at Hong Lim while their countrymen were doing it in Malaysia. I do not even need to touch on the issue of impotency as it is pretty apparent. It is such a short distance away from Malaysia.

      • 36 yawningbread 22 July 2011 at 09:38

        You are making an assertion of fact: “some of them travel the reverse direction and come out of their own country for the event at Hong Lim”. What is the basis of this claim?

  23. 37 homemaker 22 July 2011 at 18:10

    Malaysians are great ppl. As for the SPF, they are not so nice ppl. Why use fear? Why claim that ppl are importing this and that? Tell me are those pr’s paying taxes? If they are then they are customers and as for the police, they are only service providers. There is no need to fear the police when you know your rights as a taxpayer

  24. 38 homemaker 22 July 2011 at 18:14

    Police should loosen up. If they don’t then there might be problems. In
    Iife we all need to make friends, not enemies

  25. 39 Xenobio 27 July 2011 at 12:29

    I will point out that there were sympathy rallies in lots of other cities around the world and nobody got into trouble anywhere else, e.g. Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth in Australia; Taiwan; London, UK; New York City, USA, to name a few. There was a memorable photo of an Australian bicycle-mounted policeman standing by smiling as Malaysians in yellow shirts walked past. He was there to just keep an eye on proceedings, not to arrest anybody for merely participating.

    These are proofs that the Malaysian and Singaporean governments’ equation of peaceful demonstration = social unrest and troublemaking is false.

  26. 40 fairness 28 July 2011 at 01:02

    Actually, the issue here isn’t about the citizenship of the people making political expressions at all. It’s really about the act of political expression. And if political expression is a human right, then it has to be a universal right that can be exercised anywhere by anyone (like the right to life, or the right to speech). And if that means that Singaporeans have to “pick up the tab” of others’ political expressions on their soil once in a while, then Singaporeans should be willing to do that – because one day we may need to impose on our hosts elsewhere to make our own political expressions (and here I’m drawing on John Rawls’ theory of justice, esp. making “fair” decisions under the veil of ignorance).

    Of course, this is all theoretical and philosophical: it assumes that every human is essentially identical and interchangeable (i.e. everyone must be “human” or at least “human enough” to possess and exercise the “rights” assigned to “humans”), and that political expression really is a “right” rather than a privilege or simply an act.

    But it is worrying that we seem to pick up on the “foreigner” thing so quickly. Is this xenophobia compatible with our so-called multicultural values? Can the harmony that we espouse “regardless of race, language or religion” be logically (as opposed to actually) restricted to just “we, the citizens of Singapore”?

  27. 41 anonima 3 August 2011 at 20:57

    It’s very common for political parties to have overseas chapters to provide expatriates a channel / platform to stay involved. This is not an issue for the host country.

    If the Tory party chapter in Hong Kong has an event, the Hong Kong police are not going to charge the participants with a crime. If the PAP had a chapter in Brisbane, the police will not charge the participants in an event with a crime.

    Why is it difficult for some of the commentators here to understand this?


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