Because this is a global thing, it is very sensitive, the police officer told an organiser of SlutWalk Singapore, scheduled for 4 December 2011. His boss wanted to know more about the nature of the event, he added. He would “help” the organisers, he assured them, and provide “advice”. Perhaps that advice might be to cancel the whole thing, give up and crawl back into our timid, patriarchal shells?
Plenty of cities around the world have organised SlutWalks. There is more than enough material on the web — pictures, news commentary, etc — to show us what the movement is about. It’s a peaceful reiteration of women’s right not to be seen stereotypically as sex objects. Yet, instead of being assured by the trove of information out there, the information sends our police into panic. “Beacuse this is a global thing,” the police said.
The gospel is that joining the world is disaster for Singapore.
Already, SlutWalk Singapore was not planning anything particularly ambitious. They would have a gathering and performances at Hong Lim Park, just like Pink Dot. There are no plans to spill out onto the streets and march by the thousands (like in the photo above, from SlutWalk Johannesburg). It’s all within the rules that have been laid out. It doesn’t go further than what other groups have already done.
But maybe our senior civil servants can’t get past the word “slut” and have begun to hyperventilate, imagining bare-breasted women masturbating on sidewalks all the way to Parliament House. Too much blood might be pouring into their penises, there’s not enough left upstairs in their brains.
Over the last week or so, the organisers were asked to apply for a police permit under the Public Order Act. Why should we? responded the organisers. Indeed, if what they are planning is within the exemption for Hong Lim Park, and no different from other events held there, why should they?
Reaching for an excuse — any excuse, whatever excuse that comes to mind will do — the police officer interfacing with the organisers then said that there was the issue of foreigners.Yes indeed, the sight of European or African boobs would be explosive. And they would be European and African boobs even at Singapore’s SlutWalk wouldn’t they? Singaporean and Asian women would not be so brazen, surely, to associate themselves with anything called “slut”, bare their breasts and masturbate in public view.
The organisers reiterated that all the slutwalk organizers are Singaporeans, and would not be showing any “lewd, obscene, and violent” images, but this statement was not enough to cut through the lurid mental images playing wildly in their minds. But foreigners are not allowed in Hong Lim Park, the police guy said, and suggested that foreigners be asked to stand to one side.
Did foreigners stand to one side at Pink Dot? At the the Save the Dolphins Concert? At anti-death penalty events? Why should SlutWalk be any different?
SlutWalk then explained again that this was intended as an event for rape/sexual assault survivors and their supporters to seek solidarity and empowerment. It was an event to stress the need to uphold the law against assault, so why was the police imposing so many regulations? Apparently, the police officer was rather “freaked out” at this point (the impression an organiser got) and said that he’d “get back” on the points they had raised.
This panicky reaction tells us a lot about Singapore. The two buttons pressed by the very thought of SlutWalk in police birdbrains are these: Sex and Global.
The notion that people are coming out to make an issue about sex is a frightening one, perhaps because the authorities are fearful of the sex-phobic, patriarchal conservatives responding in kind. Then there will be a (gasp!) controversy in which the government will be caught in a dilemma. They would have to either appease the conservatives by clamping down on the liberals, which might be bad for Singapore’s international image and hurt our GDP (oh, what terror!) or they would have to tell the conservatives (especially the Christian and Muslim ones) to shut up, which would be unthinkable because the conservatives are the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) vote bank.
You can go hoarse telling them that this has nothing to do with sex, and that the very point of SlutWalk is to stress that rape and assault is not about sex but about power and domination and the manner in which people dismiss the seriousness of it. But too late — European and African boobs have landed on police faces; they can’t breathe, they can’t think anymore. More importantly, these civil servants are in a panic because they fear a scolding from their political masters for not nipping a controversy in the bud.
Controversy we must not have. Least of all about sex, which (in the minds of conservatives and the authorities) equates with morality. And they don’t know how to deal with debates about morality beyond stressing that Singapore is a multi-racial society (as if that has anything to do with it).
Global is the other button. That it is a panic button springs from the PAP’s fear of losing power. They are acutely aware that they are running a small city-state in a less-than-democratic way that does not much meet with approval from countries, e.g. US, Australia, they so yearn admiration from. Our smallness and the brittleness from a less-than-democratic governing style make our government a little paranoid about being overtaken by trends and forces greater than them. Global is thus a scary idea. The very notion of external movements making inroads into Singapore consciousness is seen as a threat to their political control. They must be the ones SETTING THE AGENDA; no one else.
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They are so caught up in their small-minded fears, they don’t see the bigger picture and how much damage they inflict on Singapore as a whole. One cannot get all restrictive about a small matter like SlutWalk without wider ramifications, because the public will take the cue from the authorities’ defensiveness. The message that flows out is that threatening existing political interests and disrupting existing ways of thinking invite heavy-handed reactions. But all change and progress necessitate contestation and experimentation, whether one is speaking of public health practices, technological innovation or the growth of media and the arts. By imprinting an aversion to contestation and experimentation, we handicap Singapore’s ability to keep up and stay relevant to the times.
But police higher-ups may not be interested in Singapore. They are only interested in protecting themselves from a scolding. If self-protection means getting all paranoid and throwing weight around to intimidate others, that’s all that matters. As a small country, we must keep our minds small.