Five thousand gather to protest population White Paper


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.

* * * * *

The speakers at the rally knew what was uppermost in people’s minds.

pic_201302_25Tan 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?”

pic_201302_26Lee 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.”


* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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:

* * * * *

Will the government be moved by this event? Unlikely. Never underestimate a ruling class’ capacity for denial.

pic_201302_31I 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.

118 Responses to “Five thousand gather to protest population White Paper”

  1. 1 Jaynalim 17 February 2013 at 01:37

    Okay this is purely food for thought and probably not even on the government’s minds, since we are “the vocal minority”. Estimates seem to range from 3000 to 4000 to 5000. But let’s take the most conservative estimate and that will mean 0.1% of the citizen population turned up. Artificially transposing this percentage on large countries like Egypt would give you 8 million protestors. Even in Malaysia, if 200,000 turned up for the Bersih rallies, it’s easily regarded as more than a resounding success. Just food for thought.

    • 2 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 09:23

      Erm, I think you should check your calculations again. Also, I don’t think you can compare a large country’s population with a city’s population. It’s hard to get from the provinces tpo the capital city for just a rally.

      • 3 Jaynalim 17 February 2013 at 12:49

        Heh, I know Alex. 3000/3,000,000 (Singaporean citizens) x 100 = 0.1% Egypt has a population of 80 million, Malaysia has a population of 25 million, thats where the figure is from. Yes, I’m fully aware it takes time and effort to get to the capital from other states/provinces, which is why I said it was just food for thought. My point in projecting that 0.1% onto a large country was to put it in perspective of our smaller population that it in fact is quite a high turn out.

      • 4 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 13:35

        But 0.1% of 80 million isn’t 8 million protestors (which is what you said earlier); it is 80,000. In your Malaysia example, 0.1% of national population of 26 million is 26,000, not your figure of 200,000.

        Your point that a turnout of 3,000 would be notable when compared with Singapore’s citizen population is taken. The Malaysian Bersih 2.0 protest in 2011 had a turnout of 10,000 to 50,000 depending who you asked (source: But it would help your argument more if you got the calculations right 🙂

      • 5 Jaynalim 17 February 2013 at 14:42

        Whoops sorry, I must’ve been half asleep!

      • 6 guansin 18 February 2013 at 00:14

        Alex, some perspective needed if you want to use Bersih figures as a context here. Bersih 2.0 (Jul 9, 2011) was held under a very challenging environment when police crackdown was widespread and went mad days before the event. Bersih 3.0 (Apr 28, 2012) was a totally opposite atmosphere days before the event and the number was as high as 150,000. But the police violence on the day was severe. The latest rally, dubbed #KL112 (People’s Uprising), saw about 100,000 people and it was completely peaceful and smooth. So you can more or less gauge the scale of momentum in Malaysia when space is given by the authorities.

  2. 7 eremarf 17 February 2013 at 02:22

    It looks better in pictures than in person, I must say. Great documentation, YB (Sheeple mascot is cute!). Reminds me of the electrifying photos I first saw on the old Yawning Bread site back from GE 2006. We’ve all come such a long way, haven’t we? The times are a-changin’ indeed.

    Great observation about English/Singlish too – I was thinking about that as well.

    Re: Wijeysingha and xenophobia (think Jee Say and the organising speaker also talked about this) and how much effect it might have – I’m just glad people have made use of the platform to raise this. However small the effect, it’s progress of a sort, and any progress is welcome.

  3. 8 Roar 17 February 2013 at 03:07

    Just to clarify, it was the emcee, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who remarked about having Malay buddies himself.

  4. 11 alice 17 February 2013 at 03:15

    I’m not sure where you got your figure of 5,000, but I was there and it was in the hundreds, maybe a thousand. No need to unduly inflate numbers.

    Here’s a press report taken off Google:

    “Organisers estimated the crowd at 3,000, but AFP reporters on the scene said between 1,000 and 1,500 people had taken part.”

  5. 27 adam 17 February 2013 at 03:20

    Hi Alex, the person who made the comment about Malay and Indian friends was Kwan, the emcee. My wife and I were as bewildered as you were.
    There are many accusations of xenophobia flying around, with some saying Gilbert’s article destroyed the credibility of the event. What do you think?

    • 28 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 09:21

      Thanks for the clarfication; I’ll make the amendment.

      I don’t think Gilbert’s previous spoutings destroyed the credibility of the event. Through his hard work — and it must have been a ton of work — the event became bigger than himself. Also, the 12 speakers were more important in setting the tone of the event, and I was happy to note that none would take an anti-foreigner stance (to be distinguished from an anti-immigration stance).

    • 29 Jaynalim 17 February 2013 at 12:44

      That’s the problem with Singaporeans – always focusing on personalities over the actual issues. I didn’t like that stupid article but there were people who boycotted the protest because they thought it was xenophobic. But had they actually cared enough, they would’ve gone and taken a stand on xenophobia like the guy who gave out flyers, but they didn’t. They just didn’t care enough.

  6. 30 ricardo 17 February 2013 at 05:40

    No one seems to have considered another issue … one as important and as worrying as the falling fertility rate. This is the number of young Singaporeans who are emigrating to other countries.

    Almost by definition, these are our best & brightest. They have to fulfill stringent requirements via ‘Points Test’ for entry into these countries .. in fact, they are the new citizens which other countries welcome with open arms for their skills and qualities.

    I had a short exchange with Shanmugam on Facebook where I pointed out that most of these people emigrate to countries with MUCH higher taxes. eg in Australia, the LOWEST level of income tax is 20% … which even Singapore’s multi-million Dignity ministers hardly pay.

    Does the PAP ever consider that rising Population pressures are a major factor in these people leaving? That their Low Taxes for the Rich encourage the wrong people to come to Singapore? That their “GDP at any cost” policies disgust and repel the very type of citizens that Singapore needs?

    This emigration is not confined to the young. Even my old friend George Yeo, arguably the most beloved of ex PAP ministers, has taken his multi-million Dignity and emigrated to Hong Kong. It is likely LHL & Co. have similar plans for their retirement when overcrowding gets too much even for the Elite.

    PM Lee has already acknowledged that the problems of an even larger population, in a small place, whose infrastructure is already inadequate to support the present masses cos incompetence … all these are not his problems … a future generation will deal with these.

    Surely the best and greatest example of “arrow”.

    • 31 Do they know it's corruption at all? 17 February 2013 at 10:09

      Yeap. A lot of those going to foreign universities find jobs in the UK/US/Australia and stay on. Even more so after the 6.9 million announcement. Why should they come back to insane COEs, lower quality of life, sky high property prices and insane stress in education?

    • 32 Jay Sim 17 February 2013 at 11:44

      Yes, and i have yet to hear anyone address this. Amy Khor disappointed me when in parliament she said both foreigners can come and go as well as our own Singaporeans. This is the nature of things. Then she went on to say that we should make the foreigners feel welcomed. How about looking for ways to keep our own young Singaporeans? She did not say a word of it? Surely keeping our own is akin to keeping the Singaporean core is it not? Hence i come to believe that Singapore is more important to the government than Singaporeans.

      i hope i did not take her out of context but do watch the clip and hear for yourself.

      • 33 Chew 17 February 2013 at 12:55

        You didn’t take her out of context.
        Urging Singaporeans to make foreigners feel welcomed is moot.
        We have always made them feel welcomed, to the breaking point that Singaporeans no longer feel welcomed by this government who has gone overboard, abused our trust and goodwill and take us for granted.

  7. 34 K Das 17 February 2013 at 06:58

    English is the premier language today and is intractably tied to nationhood and national identity.

    How did this evolve?

    Someone was brave enough to walk into the lions’ den and take them on and close down their fire- spewing Chinese Middle Schools and their Nantah University in the 60’s and make English the medium of instruction for all schools.

    Let us appreciate and value what this man has done. This was pivotal to all achievements the nation made subsequently.

    He is not well now. I will be one grateful Singaporean who will shed tears when he is gone.

    • 35 Optimist 17 February 2013 at 10:11

      Mr Das, i agree totally. The Singapore core then was the major Chinese population who did not understand English. If one cannot controls the core, one divides the core and rules. Any similarities between then and now, it boils down to control. The power is with the people.

      • 36 Optimist 17 February 2013 at 10:19

        In the 60, Singapore core – majority Chinese (clans) who did not understand English. Now – still major Chinese but it is more like what Alex mentioned, it is bordered by language more than race. This new Singapore core is a challenge to the ruling party.

        The Chinese clans, eg Hokkein, Hainan, Teochew clans are not the core now, They can’t even pull in any crowd,

      • 37 Alan 17 February 2013 at 12:34

        An interesting episode actually occurred in the midst of the protest rally. There was one elderly Chinese gentlemen handling out small sheets of paper to the spectators at the same time advocating “Ma Cheng Fu De Wang Chan” literally translated as “Scoding the Govt Websites”.

        I asked for one and listed on it was only 7 website addresses popular with anti-establishment comments. In my mind, actually there are probably tens, if not hundreds of anti-establishment websites.

        When one young Malay chap asked for “Ada LKY mia website” and the uncle was quick to list one of them verbally and even offered to write it down for the Malay man. This must be good example of how unity knows no racial boundaries.

        PAP must be pissed to know that its public image is now going down the drain with every blunder they have made in the recent few years. One of their biggest mistake must be, as one of the speakers highlighted to the “When the PAP MPs passed the motion on the White Paper, then Shit, only they realised they did not consult the constituents”.

        By the way, I do know my PAP MPs never consulted me about the White Paper, did they consult any of you ? Incidentally, if it had only been a planning parameter or a proposal for the worse-case scenario, why do they need to go to Parliament for approval ? How many other similar “planning parameters” are they going seek Parliament approval ?

        Are they NOT simply being plain dishonest with us ?

    • 38 Roy 17 February 2013 at 11:30

      You should not forget that these “fire spewing” Chinese Middle School students and Nantah graduates were a big part of the movement that gained our independence from the British. Many of them went on to be politicians, and some of them ended up under ISA detention. The dismantling of the middle schools was as much about politics as it was about policy.
      One of the problems with this pro English policy is that it has left a large chunk of the Chinese population being proficient in neither English nor Chinese.

      • 39 Optimist 17 February 2013 at 13:36
        The above link, in my opinion, summarizes the Singapore core. It is the English educated Singaporean (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasians), that the incumbent nurtures all these years, through using English as the main medium of education, that is challenging the incumbent. The so-called “fire spewing” Chinese have disappeared. Through this white paper, the Singapore core will be challenged.

        Again, I agree with what DAS said about the old PAP. What we are debating is the competence of the present leadership.

    • 40 Dan 17 February 2013 at 11:31

      K Das may be a troll (or just an individual sorely lacking in critical thinking and historical knowledge) but I thought the issue important enough to warrant a response.

      One can of course choose to attribute Singapore’s economic success to the English language skills of its population (are those snickers I hear?).

      Yet one often forgets that in the decades prior to independence, when Singapore was a truly polyglot nation and English a language of a very small minority, the island was already one of the most affluent places in Asia, second only to Japan.

      The many languages that the early Singaporeans possessed served the island very well, allowing its citizens to tap the significant business and trade opportunities in a growing and vibrant Asia. Yet the highly multilingual milieu did not seem to have hindered the formation of a collective consciousness (one can point to the rise of a “Malayan” consciousness or the “Nanyang” spirit as examples).

      It is also worth noting that Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have done at least as well as Singapore despite not imposing English as their dominant language at the expense of their own languages. There are of course other examples of non-Western economies that use English as the medium of instruction that remain at Third World status.

      The suppression of the use of vernacular languages (not just Chinese, Malay and Tamil, but the many Asian languages dialects prevalently used in society at the time) and the instituting of English as the dominant language came at a not-inconsequential cost.

      Entire swathes of the population were disempowered and marginalised. Their experiences, knowledge, ideas and conceptions were removed from the national mainstream where they remain till today. Gulfs were created between grandparents and grandchildren, sometimes even parent and child, resulting in the rootlessness that we see in younger generations today.

      Rather than helping in the formation of a national identity, one could also just as easily make a case that the “cleansing” of the local linguistic landscape (to English as the dominant language and Mandarin, Malay and Tamil as the other official languages) retarded the development of a national identity by wiping away much of what was organically part of society in the interests of economic efficiency and dogma. In fact, more than one respected scholar has called what happened in Singapore since independence “linguistic genocide”.

      One ludicrous example comes to mind. In the celebration of 75 years of radio broadcasting by Mediacorp in 2011, one would expect this to be an opportunity to showcase our broadcasting heritage and fortify our sense of nation and history (radio was very much part of the lives of our parents and grandparents in the days before television). But decades of early content could not be broadcast because they were in dialect. And even if the regulators had made an exception, would this have any significance or resonance to the younger generation? Can a people disallowed access to their own cultural heritage form any roots?

      The statement on the “fire spewing” Chinese students simply shows a complete and wilful lack of historical knowledge or a malicious attempt at rewriting history. I don’t think it deserves a response.

      So let us all shed tears together, if not for the loss of a man, then for the loss of our rich linguistic heritage.

      • 41 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 11:57

        First, I think it’s unfair to label K Das a troll. Since I am moderating comments, I have seen several of his past comments and they won’t lend themselves to such an accusation.

        Secondly, you have brought up an important point which needs to be borne in mind. A sense of nationhood is not always contingent upon a single language. See Switzerland, India, Canada, see even Malaysia. I agree with you that we need to remind ourselves of this. One might argue therefore that a sense of nationhood was emergent even when Singapore was a much more polyglot place than now.

        However, there’s a difference in quality between the feelings then and the feelings now. I have used the descriptor “Malayan” for the aspirations of those times, because the nationalism wasn’t really a Singaporean one. By this reckoning therefore, the current nationalism we’re seeing is indeed a new one, not a continuation of the old. It is also coloured by the cultural values that come with the English language, less deferential, a bit more individualistic/selfish, you might say.

        The Malayan nationalism was not something that LKY and the PAP of old rode comfortably. At critical moments, it nearly turned against them. Again, one might argue that PAP only “succeeded” when it found a way (through the ISA and the destruction of non-English language schools) to suppress it. Furthermore, locating a narrative in economic development/middle-class comfort was the “trick” that helped them.

        The shift to a dominant English place entailed some loss, for sure. But it also means that for the first time, we’re seeing a nationalism grounded in Singapore, not Malaya, and one that the current government has yet to find an answer to.

        It’s an irony. After Singapore got chucked out of Malaysia, the PAP set out — in sometimes skin-crawling ways — to create a Singapore identity. You could say they succeeded, but this new beast is now turning around and biting them!

      • 42 CC 17 February 2013 at 13:11

        Since we touched on the removal of our mother tongue language as signs of cleansing & rewriting history, I thought it will be interesting to share this recent article from HK who affirms it as cultivating a “Singaporean identity”. In perspective, we have achieved neither.

        ” National education in Singapore is designed to lead students to develop a firm belief that they are only “ethnically Chinese”—not “Chinese”—so that the possibility of a fifth column could be eliminated at an early stage. Their textbooks are thus not as recommendable for import into Hong Kong as their delicious satay beef.”

      • 43 eremarf 17 February 2013 at 15:35

        @CC – I’m not sure if I understand you, but haven’t we achieved a Singaporean identity? It’s not difficult – if only because local identities always surface organically whether authorities want it to or not.

        E.g. When linguists look at the spread (and rise and fall) of distinctive, place-specific, language features, television plays a surprisingly minimal role. Local English dialects in America/Canada generally diverge from each other, instead of converging on a Hollywood norm.

        Not saying that “linguistic genocide” of Chinese dialects (and nowadays also loss of Tamil, and Malay, and Mandarin to some extent) in Singapore was a good thing, but there are now a few generations of Singaporeans who grew up “rootless”, and perhaps because we are so rootless, we have sunk new ones in the sounds (and sights and smells and feels and thoughts) of this place we grew up in. Maybe exterminating our mother-tongues is what freed my generation up from older cultural allegiances to root ourselves firmly in Singapore. That’s who we are – we don’t go further back into South China, or the Indian sub-continent, or the Malay archipelago. We’re just Singaporeans (most of the time, that is. We’re all schizophrenic owners of multiple identities and group memberships actually).

      • 44 Norm 17 February 2013 at 23:00

        LKY, in the book “Keeping my Mandarin Alive” is quoted as saying “[most Singaporeans] will have average level English with low level Chinese or vice versa.”

        I think this is true today, as a result of LKY’s language policy. The question is, is this a good thing? To not be truly proficient in any language? It works for business purposes, and to attract MNCs, but what cost does it have in terms of identity?

        I take Alex’s point about the all-English protest saying something about formation of a Singaporean identity. However, I wonder if this is the sort of identity we want. Few people are literate or express themselves well in any language. Our popular culture is full of people failing to sell themselves to the White World. The ones who succeed sing, write or act in mother tongue. There are loads of bananas, people are culturally conflicted.

        Would it be better to have a language policy where mother tongue is first language, and English second language?

      • 45 Helen 18 February 2013 at 07:48

        This is a great post. I truly believe we would have thrived and survived as a prosperous trading nation, with our dialect and multilingual roots. It’s hard to imagine for many, but you can speak English well, like Germans do, just by teaching it at an early age. You don’t see Germans and the Swiss trying to create a national identity by forbidding French, and forcing everyone to speak English. Because it’s just stupid. I think there’s some implicit assumption by K Das that cutting off our dialects was a good thing. But I can only say I’m sad that our grandparents found TV and media and their grandchildren so shockingly foreign to them in their later years. A grave mistake made for political reasons.

    • 46 Dan 17 February 2013 at 16:43

      Thanks Alex. You are in the best position to judge if K Das was indeed trolling. Since you believe he is not, then I can only see the quality of his post as a reflection of his critical thinking skills and knowledge of national history (I am being somewhat facetious here of course).

      He notes that English is now the premier language and ‘intractably’ tied to nationhood and national identity and calls for society to show appreciation for the man who ‘bravely’ introduced English as the national medium of education. This is fallacious logic for there is nothing unique about the English language that makes it an intractable binding agent. Had a different language been introduced as the medium of national instruction at the time (or had vernacular schools been allowed to continue, as was the case with Malaysia), it could just as well be another language (or perhaps still English) tying us to our nationhood and national identity.

      He implies that the ‘fire-spewing’ Chinese Middle Schools and Nantah students were a hindrance to nationhood and national identity, but the reality was that these were the crucibles where a sense of local identity emerged (for example, the student newsletters and newspapers were rife with passionate articles calling for an end to colonialism and the building of a new independent nation with solidarity among the races). These Chinese students were the main force opposing British colonialism and were in fact, the critical element that brought about an independent Singapore.

      Also forgotten was that many of these Chinese students paid a steep price in their belief that Singapore could exist as an independent nation. Their opposition to the merger with Malaysia in 1963 and insistence on an independent Singapore led to the arrests and detention of many of them. In a way, one could see them as among the earliest to feel a sense of identity as “Singaporeans”. Indeed, not a few were as proficient in the National Language of Malay as they were in their mother tongue.

      Perhaps that was why I took offence at this post by K Das. The perfunctory conclusions based on unthinking and misinformed perceptions does grave injustice to the many individuals who gave so much to the founding of an independent Singapore. The lack of reflection on the human cost of the government’s language policies is appalling and demands a response.

      • 47 Bilingual 17 February 2013 at 23:01

        Well said, Dan. Thank you!

      • 48 K Das 19 February 2013 at 01:22

        I would like to respond to some of Dan’s remarks with some general observations.

        He is Dan and I am Das and the commonality between us, it seems to me, is that we are, perhaps, acutely Singaporean and we see some aspects of our post-Colonial history in different light and perspective. Still, I admire his robust rebuttals on the points I made.

        I suspect his perspective and interpretation of events could have been shaped mainly by his learning whilst mine mainly through living. I have lived through Colonial times (pre and post war), Japanese Occupation, Malaysia days and Independence thereafter.

        I have seen Hock Lee riots, Bukit Ho Swee fire, racial riots of the 60’s, the City Council and the 1959 elections, the campaign for Referendum, Operation Cold Store arrests, and many more events. As a young boy I had seen a Caucasian running for his life, skull split, blood flowing and a parang-wielding mob in hot pursuit of him at Kampong Kapore during the Maria Hertogh riots – all vivid history, seen and absorbed.

        The Chinese Middle School students in early 60’s fought the government ostensibly over the issue of Chinese education and job discrimination. They brought civil unrest by staging strikes and lock-ins with leftist trade unions, farmer’s and clan associations egging them on and delivering them food provisions for them to cook and eat behind the barricades. To many the students were simply used as cannon-fodder by the leftist camp leadership with people like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan to advance their political struggle. After the crackdown, closure of Nanyang University, revamping of the education system, things changed for the better for the Chinese educated and hundreds of Nantah graduates found jobs in the public sector.

        For me, a troll is no less despicable than a eunuch.

        And thanks Alex for speaking up for me.

    • 49 Dan 19 February 2013 at 11:39

      Thank you, Mr K Das, for your sincere response.

      I have but one observation in this case, which is that you are in esteemed company when it comes to extrapolating an individual’s subjective experience to arrive at a definitive view on historical developments.

      I have but one wish in this case, which is that young Singaporeans develop an interest in their own history, actively go find out more, and form their own views, rather than unthinkingly accepting conventional wisdom or common narratives.

      Sources include oral histories from senior Singaporeans like Mr Das (and many others) of course, but also the valuable work done by professional historians (both local and foreign) in recent years, most of which are based on historical records and sound methodologies.

      • 50 K Das 20 February 2013 at 09:37

        Thanks Dan.

        The point is many people like us, including the ever indefatigable Alex, constantly keep thinking about our nation Singapore, that we so deeply care for and love.

  8. 51 Nizam Ismail 17 February 2013 at 08:37

    Reblogged this on Fikir and commented:
    Excellent coverage of the Hong Lim Park protest by Alex Au.

  9. 53 The 17 February 2013 at 09:02

    Will history repeat itself? George Santayana certainly thought so.

    This paragraph could be describing Singapore instead of the UK:

    /// … For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country.

    They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted. They now learn that a one way privilege is to be established by act of parliament; a law which cannot, and is not intended to, operate to protect them or redress their grievances is to be enacted to give the stranger, the disgruntled and the agent-provocateur the power to pillory them for their private actions. ///

    • 54 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 09:14

      For readers who are not so aware, I would caution that the referenced speech is by Enoch Powell, a politician known for his extreme rightwing views. Mainstream Conservative and Labour politicians would not want to have anything to do with him.

  10. 55 Chanel 17 February 2013 at 09:14


    The word xenophobic has been freely, but wrongly used by the mainstream media to denounced and belittle serious concerns of S’poreans. Xenophobia is defined as the IRRATIONAL fear of foreigners, so the question to ask is: are our fears “irrational”? With foreigners making up close to 40% of population, we are one of the most open to foreigners

    • 56 Helen 18 February 2013 at 08:04

      I feel the same way. The word xenophobic is a way to ignore and label Singaporeans genuine concerns. In fact, a nation which has so far peacefully accommodated 2 MILLION foreigners can only be said to be extremely fantastic and tolerant.
      I don’t know about stereotyping of foreigners – but Singaporeans are equally stereotyped as kiasu and money-minded at times. I think we dismiss geniune observations, while not applicable to many foreigners, in an effort to be politically correct. There is a lack of understanding that Singaporeans are 1) being pushed out of jobs at an alarming rate 2) emigrating at an equally alarming rate 3) many foreigners are unwilling to work with locals/hold prejudices/are disrespectful of local norms. In the past many could overlook these, but imagine being one Singaporean in an office with 10 foreigners. You are going to come up against some serious cultural differences, deny it or not. I worked in an Singaporean company where if you didn’t eat Chinese dumplings like the rest of my colleagues, you could not fit in. I think it’s easy to just brush these differences under the carpet and call it xenophobia.

      • 57 Helen 18 February 2013 at 08:26

        Just to clarify, what I mean is that the sheer numbers of foreigners in some positions exacerbate communication and cultural issues that arise when people of different cultures come together. Add that to job and housing competition ( which is not an anxiety, but a reality for many, if not most working Singaporeans), and many people will find ways to interpret their changed environment based on their own observations. But it’s certainly healthier to direct dissatisfaction at government policies rather than foreigners.

      • 58 HiveMind 20 February 2013 at 11:27

        “but imagine being one Singaporean in an office with 10 foreigners”. I’m a Singaporean Indian. I actually have mixed feelings about the influx of foreigners, as I have benefited from it.

        I vividly remember finding it very difficult to get a job in the early 90’s in Singapore (after I graduated with a US degree in Comp Sci). Almost all the government public sector agencies did not bother to even call me up for an interview (I suspect my CV was immediately binned once they saw my Indian name). I fared slightly better with the MNCs, in that I at least managed to get to the second interview before being rejected.

        The common element in all these enterprises were that the HR, Admin and Finance folks were predominantly Singapore Chinese, and I suspected they were giving preference to their own kind (a feeling that were shared by others of my own ilk). It was only in the mid 90’s when things start to become more equitable for folks like me. The MNCs brought in foreign HR professionals, who practiced true meritocracy, and less of hiring along racial lines.

        As simplistic as it may sound, the current controversy about the white paper is more about the Singapore Chinese suddenly finding that they are being displaced and no longer in a dominant position, with respect to the Singapore minorities and other foreigners. Where the Chinese Singaporean used to be the majority in most office settings and clearly formed the bulk of the senior management team, now the inverse is true. The parallels between what is happening here and the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US (loss of majority status, loss of dominance, reversal of status quo,etc), are indeed striking.

  11. 59 Roar 17 February 2013 at 09:40

    Sorry, I made a mistake on who the emcee was. It wasn’t Dr Tan Cheng Bock, it seems but yeah, the emcee was the one who commented on having Malay buddies himself.

  12. 60 Constance Singam 17 February 2013 at 09:50

    Thank you Alex for that analysis. I was most comforted by your analysis of the use of English as a sign that perhaps we are beginning to gel an identity as Singaporeans. There is hope yet that we will live by the values enunciated in our National Pledge. If nothing comes out of these protests, and they are very important, historically and politically, we will find that we are becoming reflective about who we are as Singaporeans, what is important to us as Singaporeans and the important values that defines us as one people.

    I too was uncomfortable when the mc tried to prove his credentials as a non-racist by listing his friendships with Malays and Indians in race terms.

    Keep up the good work. Connie

  13. 61 Uniquely Singapore 17 February 2013 at 10:23

    This is the article written by Gilbert Goh. Your readers can judge by themselves whether it is xenophobic and whether people who espouse such views are xenophobic…

    • 62 No issue with Gilbert' s view 17 February 2013 at 12:25

      I don’t see anything xenophobic about his view n comments about the various foreign nationalities in Singapore. He is just making a general observation of each nationality. Many of those I know somewhat agree to various degrees what he observe. I suspect more of the average Singaporeans who r public commuters, go to the normal wet markets or supermarkets n food courts n hawker centers feel more like him.
      Anyone who disagrees with his article, why not conduct a broad survey to find out? Online may not be broad-based enough, get an institution to go to the street n conduct a survey as a project or thesis. It must be more or less close to what Gilbert noted to get an accurate reading of how Singaporeans feel about the various nationalities.

      • 63 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 13:38

        Are you suggesting that so long as Gilbert’s stereotypical view of communities is popularly shared, then there cannot (by definition) be anything objectionable about them?

      • 64 No issue with Gilbert' s view 17 February 2013 at 14:57

        Well, if it is really the view of most Singaporeans, branding Singaporeans as xenophobic is not going to stop them feeling that way. You can choose to persist on denying the existence of this view. Right now many Singaporeans r learning to cope with it but if the white paper were to bring in million more immigrants, I believe we will really turn xenophobic. Right now many of us r just learning to live with it n not xenophobic. Of course, there is a small minority who r very vocal n vuglar in social media n should be discouraged.
        It is up to you to accept his n many Singaporeans’ perception. Carry out a survey if you have doubts.

    • 65 Alan 17 February 2013 at 12:55

      Frankly there is really nothing xenophobic about the article. At worst, it is just a piece of his own personal prejudiced observations about the different categories of foreigners.

      Of course, such prejudiced opinions cannot apply wholesale to all the different categories as a whole. Just like many foreigners have also commented that Singaporean tourists visiting their countries as generally demanding, rude, greedy, kiasu, kiasi, materialistic, etc.

      I personally think his personal opinions about foreigners can easily apply to a segment of Singaporeans as well. Afterall, we are human beings living on the same planet. As far as social etiquette is concerned, we Singaporeans also have a long way to go to achieve the level of sophistication as much as these foreigners do. So just take it with a pinch of salt, live & let live is the motto to go.

    • 66 Michelle 18 February 2013 at 03:29

      I actually found Gilbert Goh’s article really objectionable for two reasons.

      Firstly it is xenophobic, for its attempt to pigeonhole the behaviours of whole groups of people with an emphasis on their objectionable behaviours, thereby implying that these groups cannot possibly integrate with Singaporean society without subsuming their own identities. Imagine being told that you could not possibly integrate with Australian culture because all of your people are kiasu or all of your people don’t drink alchohol. There’s no consideration for the individual, merely the stereotype. Surely you would bristle too.

      And what’s considered objectionable by Gilbert Goh? It’s things like “Likes to talk aloud in public places oblivious to local environment.” or “The PRC Chinese are also the ones who demonstrated at MOM twice last year against local employers for errant salary payment and may be troublesome on law and order issues.” That’s it. PRC bad behaviour is akin to acting like SIngaporean aunties at a Great Singapore Sale and also protesting laws that are wrong and exploitative. Hey, does that sound like something going on at Hong Lim Park? Not to mention, he cherry picks the Ferrari driver case while ignoring that a second accident involving a Singaporean driver in a Lexus happened at the exact same spot just a few weeks later. If an accident does not fit Gilbert Goh’s narrative, did it even happen? This implies a narrow minded mode of thinking that when a group doesn’t fit in with Gilbert Goh’s notion of a good, polite society (which one must surmise is a society where everyone talks only in quiet voices and doesn’t congregate in large groups), then they are exhibiting “bad” behaviour.

      Secondly, its’ vaguely misogynistic. “Husband snatchers” is a term that places disproportionate blame on the other woman, but not the husband. It takes two hands to clap. Pictures of pretty women when he favours the ethnicity, pictures of a profusion of men when he does not. “Caucusians” are the local dream gals husbands. Argggggghhhh. Yes, that’s right, make a sweeping statement about Singapore girls, their wants and desires.

      I wouldn’t normally care about his article but for his emergence to prominence as the organiser of one of the most important demonstrations in Singapore history. I think political movements need to come from positive ideals about freedom and fairness. I think they are tainted when they become about preserving fairness for one group and heck care about the rest. Heck care about what Gilbert Goh says about PRC and female stereotypes because what the government does is so much worse. If we’re building a better society, then we absolutely need to point out what is wrong with these kinds of morally relativistic notions, that they excuse awful actions by our party just because there’s a larger enemy. And I’m glad that everyone involved in this demonstration, including eventually Gilbert Goh, saw that and will continue to see that.

    • 67 V 18 February 2013 at 12:46

      Yep, we can judge for ourselves. But there are people who boycotted the rally simply because they disagreed with the organiser or that article you linked.

      What about the mothers who protested with their babies? The fathers pushing the prams. The angry young man holding up a minimum wage placard? What about the many, many disenfranchised people who are young and old, one girl had a huge sign that said, “They don’t care about us” What about them? These people stood in the rain for three hours to stand up for their rights.

      But sadly, naysayers had nothing else to do but not lend them support because of a petty, puerile personal grudge. To them, I have this to say: The issues at stake here are far bigger than any of your egos.

    • 68 Dogmeat 25 February 2013 at 22:05

      Everyone has their own prejudices projected to groups of people based on skin colour and nationality. That’s unavoidable nature of people. However, it is morally distasteful to be the one propagating and affirming these regressive thoughts in broad public forum. Let people form their own opinions by the actions of those who actually represented these groups.

      Why do we want to be held responsible for promoting negative beliefs that disparage others, even though could be right more than 50% of the time, that would unjustly discriminates against the “exceptions”? Because race XYZ are known to be lazy, it is ok to spread it around, and inevitably someone will act upon this belief.

      Maybe the action wanted out of this is just a vote. But the costs on the image of the Singaporean society is far too great.

  14. 69 honeypotraider 17 February 2013 at 10:39

    The singing of national anthem really brings back memories to the time I had to stand in morning assemblies, mouthing what I felt then was fairly tripe song.

    Living aboard for more than a decade really changed that, I have not heard the anthem being sung for such a long time, and this rendition was really beautiful, and how different it feels to be still holding on to the red ‘booklet’ of a passport. It reminded me of Rasa Sayang, the malay folk song, and to think a small hiving microcosm of people on this planet of 6 billion share the same distinct roots that I grew up with, the emotions well up…

    It is very sad that the ruling PAP government sees only one priority in this nation, that is to maintain economic merit, and at any cost, even ignoring the cries of concern from the ground. Surely, this one way dialogue is not working.

    Oddly, I must add, one of the commenter use to teach me English as well. 🙂

    • 70 Jaynalim 17 February 2013 at 13:00

      I haven’t sung the anthem for more than 10 years. And as a student none of the words had any meaning in them. But yesterday, for the first time, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks when I sang and half way through, I choked and couldn’t continue.

      • 71 eremarf 17 February 2013 at 14:44

        The singer recounted to the crowd: my children (beside her on stage) asked me ‘Why are there so many people? Why are they so angry?’. And I told them “They’re here for you. They’re here for your future.”

        That really got me.

  15. 72 aSingaporean 17 February 2013 at 11:03

    From my conversations with friends, I know that many of them who are in the civil service did not turn up at Hong Lim for fear of being identified. Other friends who are lawyers or who deal in the media publicity face similar concerns. However, they are clearly aghast at the government’s plans and in the 2011 GE, they had already unanimously voted against the PAP. They are the non-vocal majority who are speaking up at the ballot box. Things are now so bad that ex-establishment figures are publicly speaking up against the PAP.

    • 73 No issue with Gilbert' s view 17 February 2013 at 12:33

      Agree with you. Most Singaporeans r kiasi, kiasu or no chap.

      I spoke to at least ten friends who voted against PAP. Only two agreed to go Hong Lim Park. The rest either scare their face might be showed on YouTube or simply feel that going to HLP is useless, just wait for GE 2016 to vote against PAP. Tak boleh tahan them. They can speak vehemently in private but keep quiet in public.

  16. 74 Sunny 17 February 2013 at 11:07

    Alex, could you write something to reassure my kiasi swing voter friends that a change in government will not result in massive job losses and economic collapse? Can you also write something to convince them that current batch of opposition candidates are good enough to stand in parliament? I believe they are the key to whether a change in government can happen come 2016. They are very angry with PAP, but would vote for PAP as they are very afraid of the unknown when new government takes over. You need to write something which I can show to them, so that they can change their mind to give opposition a chance. Do your part and I will do mine, to convince them. Thanks.

    • 75 kala 17 February 2013 at 13:59

      The present government is very much just in auto pilot mode. No new creative policies from them, just extending stale old ideas and policies that don’t work anymore. Even when there is a change of government, the civil service will still continue to operate to ensure all public functions continue base on old policies.

      I don’t see how we will collapse just because there is a change of government.

  17. 76 mirax 17 February 2013 at 11:21

    It is rather striking to me that we are so assiduously watching out for xenophobia these days but ignore the deep vein of racism that has always existed in our society and finds so much expression from our ruling elite (starting with LKY) down to the humblest heartlander. Ever watched any local comedian? All the jokes are race based in some way. The race baiting in websites from TRE to SBF to the hardware zone is appalling. Yet none of the conversation is about this.

  18. 77 Clement Mesenas 17 February 2013 at 11:26

    You are so right Alex — pointing out the use of English as the unifying, communicator language of Singapore and Singaporeans.

  19. 78 mirax 17 February 2013 at 11:29

    I was not perturbed at all by Gilbert Goh’s comments because they were so typical of discourse here in Singapore and definitely mild – even, well intentioned as he forewent the easiest, darkest target, our subcontinental brethren. Going by the internet and real-life discourse, I had problems understanding the hissy fit over his comments.

    Btw, I am an indian Singaporean woman.

    • 79 Nine 18 February 2013 at 00:12

      Same here. Given the level of online vitriol that we’ve seen directed at foreigners over the past couple of years, I found GG’s comments to be pretty mild in the scheme of things. Also, I noticed that his problematic article was dated May 2012 so part of me wondered why it was only being circulated online on the night before the protest.

  20. 80 Tan Tee Seng 17 February 2013 at 11:37

    I sang the national anthem for the first time after many years and yes with gusto. It was a little cheesy initially but it became a statement of reclamation of my rights of citizenry. I thoroughly liked the feeling.

    • 81 mirax 17 February 2013 at 13:06

      I am one of those who was always enthusiastic about the national anthem, even , gasp, in school, where the singing was desultory at best and the majority of my schoolmates mispronounced the words. It is nice to see adults break into the anthem spontaneously nowadays. The best example was the during the PE by-election celebration. The entire coffeeshop in my street – at Hougang Ave 5- sang the anthem with passion and gusto. Especially the ah peks and ah sohs.

  21. 82 Jony Ling 17 February 2013 at 12:02

    I don’t think the Chinese core were as racist as one of the commenters above seemed to insinuate. Many of the activists fought for other races as well. It seems the commenter is truly n whole-heartedly brain-washed by the old lion, or whatever animal he is referenced to.

  22. 83 yuen 17 February 2013 at 12:06

    > values, community, identity, culture, history and place became important

    really? that maybe so in an abstract way, but the rally and the hostility to the population plan do not indicate that; these were motivated by material considerations: competition for jobs, crowded transport system, housing prices, queuing to buy HDB flats… and most biting of all, the way a relatively small no. of people in control benefit from economic growth, partly driven by imported foreign labour, while others get just consolation prizes

    PAP has always been proud of its ability to deliver goods; it is obvious a large proportion of voters feel not enough has been delivered lately

    • 84 eremarf 17 February 2013 at 15:10

      @yuen – maybe you underestimate these sentiments. I remember early in the rally this young speaker (sorry missed your name, was it Samantha?) the same age as I was (born ’81) with family all over the globe, who spoke eloquently (with a beautiful Singapore English accent) about how she chose to come back to Singapore instead of taking an Australian PR after studying there.

      She’s a talented young person, with global opportunities (in-demand skills, overseas family, overseas education), but she chose to make Singapore her home.

      Maybe she’s the rare case, and many of our young people are more pragmatic than sentimental, like Ricardo worries about above. But there are people who do feel more strongly about sentimental things than pragmatic things. And for the first time in history, these are Singaporean sentiments, not Malayan ones, or ones founded on ethnic origins (c.f. Dan, YB above). Which makes me feel hopeful about Singapore (yes I’m one of the non-pragmatists – maybe it just means I don’t like material stuff so much, and prefer other stuff).

      I don’t know how you would interpret these data:

      But obviously people support policies partly due to pragmatic reasons (richer people vote more Republican regardless of educational background). But also partly due to sentiments/ideology/etc, e.g. more educated people are less likely to vote Republican than less educated ones.

      I know I’m conflating lots of stuff here, but I’m just throwing up food for thought. Maybe better heads can make things clearer.

      • 85 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 15:30

        Nizam Ismail said something along the same lines. Based on my scribbly notes, he said when he was on stage at the rally, “The issues in the White Paper are emotional issues…. The White Paper has to appeal to our hearts; you don’t win hearts of Singaporeans by ruthless efficiency.”

        I think eremarf is right: people approach issues in many different ways. Some are more based on pragmatic calculation, others grasp issues more subjectively. One of the good things at yesterday’s event was the way the various speakers covered the spectrum.

  23. 86 WP, WP? 17 February 2013 at 12:15

    I was very happy to see the large turnout at the event. A dismal showing would have sealed the fate of Singaporeans forever and added a label of ‘yellow’ to ‘daft’.

    What I am curious about is the timing of the release of the White Paper and indeed the need for the White Paper in the first place.
    The ruling party can certainly implement any decision regardless of Parliamentary debate. So why issue one?

    And if it was meant to engage the public, it certainly did an abysmal job of it.

    The other thing I can’t get my head around is the apparent lack of support from WP in this event. Given their public opposition against the White Paper, surely it would only be consistent to also stand with the Singaporeans at the event?

    I think their “pussy-footing” the “ability to form the Govt” is doing them more harm than good. If their concern is the ability to perform their executive functions well, I think that is rather unfounded. Civil servants, especially those at the top, are fairly pragmatic. They are old hands at ‘turning their rudders to suit the winds’, having to move from one Ministry to another regularly. I am confident they will serve their new masters well under a change of Govt.

    • 87 Raylow 17 February 2013 at 14:39

      The WP is a political party with seats in Parliament and quite rightly they feel that their platform is Parliament.

      You should know by now that their methods are quite different from those of SDP who think that taking to the streets is the only way.

      • 88 yawningbread 17 February 2013 at 15:22

        Is your characterisation of SDP accurate and fair?

      • 89 Chow 17 February 2013 at 17:34

        I can agree that the WP feels that they’d be more effective in Parliament but I can’t agree with your statement on the SDP. Maybe it’s just how the press/PAP has been portraying the SDP; that they are ‘fanatics’ and ‘hell-bent’ on ‘mayhem’ to destroy us.

        Actually, what’s so terrible about ‘taking to the streets’? The news, being news, often report the violent ones but many others take place without violence and society breaking down overnight and in some cases, are effective. I was in Hong Kong in December and I saw news reports about demonstrations (which happen almost every weekend) and I witnessed a protest sail where a whole flotilla of ships went sailing up and down Victoria Harbour with banners protesting over some thing or another. Yet nothing bad or untoward happened. Their society didn’t collapse at all.

      • 90 Robox 18 February 2013 at 02:39

        @Raylow, so what has the WP said or done in Parliament, the only place in Singapore where they enjoy immunity from any prosecution, to bowl you over?

        I’m talking, of course, about besides proposing a further increase of the population of foreigners from the current untenable one by more than half a million more, to an even more untenable 5.9m.

      • 91 eremarf 18 February 2013 at 13:10

        Nowadays, the trend is for excessive police force on protesters, isn’t it? Look at how the Occupy Movement went in the US. So much police resources activated to deal with harmless protesters (the US is on its way to becoming a police-state – look at how the LAPD dealt with Chris Dorner, look at their domestic use of UAV drones, look at how much power their anti-terrorism laws gives gov’t over people).

        We live in market-states today (not nation-states). And the state exists to defend and serve the market (mainly it’s biggest actors), not the nation (i.e. the people). It’s just curious in Singapore because many big actors in the market in SG are also government. Roy at The Heart Truths has a nice bit on it. ( – section “The Problem Is That The Government Is Also The Business”).

        Back to protests, the meme that protests are violent and destabilizing is way obsolete and needs to die now. Protests are only violent, people are only violent, when they have no legitimate avenue to political power and expression (and if you wonder about violent protests/riots in democracies – look more closely – the people rioting are the disempowered and voiceless, in spite of living in so-called “democracies”).

      • 92 eremarf 18 February 2013 at 13:20

        @Robox: The WP says quite a bit, don’t they? They’re available here:

        I don’t agree with the WP on everything – but they do represent some of my views (some of their arguments are very good), and they do represent lots of Singaporeans.

        I think WP has been very conspicuous in avoiding engagement with civil society (not just this time, but in the past as well). It’s obviously very deliberate, and I’m sure they have thought about it and have their reasons for it.

    • 93 Ty 17 February 2013 at 14:44

      I read that WP boycotted the event to not antagonise the government. And that just makes our only opposition voice in parliament a lot less credible.

      I love WP, but sometimes they should just grow a pair.

    • 97 Anon s9jV 17 February 2013 at 15:18

      About the timing – I thought the best and most plausible observation (my view, given the tendencies shown so far) – having read several blogs (sorry I can’t remember which one this point came from) – was that the release of the white paper came right after the loss of the Punggol East ‘bye’-election to reassure international investors.
      It had to appear decisive, possibly, to allay investor fears that existing and future labour supply and policies might be changed thereby adversely affecting any foreign investment presently in Singapore or future plans for investment in Singapore.
      The above might be expected if the government decided to modify or change existing policies and plans to moderate the growing dissatisfaction felt amongst Singaporeans.

    • 98 Nine 18 February 2013 at 00:06

      “What I am curious about is the timing of the release of the White Paper and indeed the need for the White Paper in the first place. The ruling party can certainly implement any decision regardless of Parliamentary debate. So why issue one?”

      This boggles me too. What did the PAP think was the point of the White Paper? They didn’t bother with a White Paper before they increased the population from 4m in 2000 to the current 5.3m, so why one now? They could have continued to keep the immigration floodgates open, white paper or no white paper. Instead the White Paper has simply served to crystallise the electorate’s unhappiness with the PAP and unleash a torrent of criticism from all fronts even from their own backbenchers. And the 77-13 parliamentary vote demonstrated starkly to Singaporeans that the best way to stop the PAP from pushing policies we don’t like is at the ballot box in 2016.

  24. 99 georgia tong 17 February 2013 at 14:57

    Experience the same emotion of tears rolling down my cheek as I sang the National Anthem yesterday at the rally. Never felt such emotion throughout my 12 years of school life singing it at the assembly. The white paper has pushed us to our limit of endurance of one flaw policy after another.

  25. 100 Jonno 17 February 2013 at 15:31

    Population white paper is not about Singaporeans’ aspirations – far from it! It has a simple economic motive to provide pure cannon fodder from our Statutory Boards & GLCs to make money from the masses. But, it has a number of glaring flaws. It assumes the following:
    1. Singapore can continue to import food to feed the masses. Singapore has no hinterland, so we depend on our near neighbours for our food supply. Already, Singapore faces creeping food inflation – @ 6.9M in 2030, what would be food costs be like?
    2. White paper assume foreigners are willing to come to Singapore to work. Already, the traditional immigrant sources from PRC & India are doubtful – in another decade, would they venture abroad when their homeland’s GDP is on par with Singapore’s? or, conversely, their cost of living is much lower than Singapore? White paper assumes the status quo but the world is dynamic.
    3. White paper assumes that Singapore can import essential resources to build & sustain 6.9M population. But basic resource prices have risen & are still rising – oil, minerals, building materials – Singapore will have to compete with larger, increasing wealthy countries like PRC & India. Already, Singapore has problem importing essential building items especially sand.
    4. Has the white paper consider the social implications of integration & harmony? Doubt it! Singapore could face problems down the road which would increase security & policing costs. This would then deter the rich from relocating to Singapore – this is one of the key point of attracting well- heeled foreigners – low tax & safety/security!
    There are more flaws but overall, it is very poor white paper!

  26. 101 George 17 February 2013 at 15:56

    The estimate of 5,000 people at Hong Lim Park on Sat (16 Feb 13) is quite accurate.

    The size of Hong Lim Park is given as 0.94 hectares or 2.3 acres in Wikipedia. Assuming this is gross area, if I subtract one acre (arbitrary, but generous) for the buildup area and the event’s stage and tentage (which, by the way, is also partly filled with seated people) that leaves 1.3 acres.

    1.3 acres is equivalent to 56,628 square feet (at 43,560 sq ft per acre). If we allow a density of 9 sq ft per person (i.e.3 ft by 3 ft for each person) which is also very generous in a crowd situation, we have enough space for 6,292 people!

    I was there and most people definitely had less than 9 sq ft of space each as most of us were standing shoulder to shoulder. At one point, you were barely one foot in front of where I was standing.

    There were also people on the wide balcony of the building (standing two layers thick) within the park and a smaller group taking it all in on the overhead bridge.

    In fact, when I used the SLA’s OneMap area measurement tool, I get over 84,700 sq ft, taking into account only the tufted area in front and to the sides of the stage where people can view the speakerson stage. That yielded space for a crowd of over 9,000 people based on a generous density of 9 sq ft per person!

    So reports that 5,000 people had attended the protest is NO exaggeration. In contrast, compare this to the ‘paltry’ 2,000 reported in the govt-controlled Main Stream Media, the govt’s propaganda mouthpieces! This sort of journalism can only do the country more harm than good, for numbers do matter. IMO, by such ‘reductive’, or is it cowardly, reporting (?) the MSM is unwittingly also doing a GREAT disservice to the govt leaders by withholding from them the true situation on the ground through their misreporting and misinformation. By deflating the figures they have belittled the real passion and true feelings of many Singaporeans. This sort of self-censorship is only a whisker away from perfidy and a deliberate breach of faith.

  27. 102 gentleaura 17 February 2013 at 16:48

    Alex. You forgot to note that the White Paper was also in English (I’m not aware that there is a version in another language) , with a concerned reader writing to the press to ask why wasn’t it translated.

    Therefore, I think a more in-dept analysis is needed to determine this Sat’s event on the voting population demographics?

  28. 103 A Young Singaporean. 17 February 2013 at 18:14

    With the amount of fear mongering and fear of being marked. I believe it is a success and respect to those who turned up.

    I would question the reason why some people are there though. Xenophobic or simply unsatisfied with the ruling government.

    However I don’t see why there is a need to emphasize on speaking Singlish. I really really doubt that is of any concern.

    Those who are not satisfied, are you pro-ruling party, pro-opposition or pro-Singapore? Do you know what you’re really asking for ?

    I’m Pro-Singapore. I want the best for our nation. Not to go against any party.

  29. 104 Jentrified Citizen 17 February 2013 at 19:23

    Reblogged this on Jentrified Citizen and commented:
    Jentrified – an incisive report by Alex on the protest against the 6.9million proposal. He fleshed out the details and insights that were conveniently and deliberately left out by our local MSM. Shame on our local media for sucking up to the government and deserting the very people its news is supposed to represent. Good journalism? Look to the online sources and forget about the MSM here.

  30. 105 Uniquely Singapore 17 February 2013 at 22:51

    Yes xenophobia has become so mainstream that many commenters here do not even recognise it. This is the definition of xenophobia: “hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture”. Does that apply to many online commenters in Singapore?

  31. 106 Anon pF1H 18 February 2013 at 00:11

    To alice of 17 feb, 16:44 –

    You’re saying alex is undermining his credibility because he cited a figure of 5,000 given out by the organisers? He didn’t hide his source. He said in his article where it came from. Then as you can see, he showed his own calculations in his follow-up article.

    Are you forgetting that you yourself said “I was there and it was in the hundreds, maybe a thousand.” What are your sources? Just your own eyes? Where are your calculations? From all the pictures and videos circulating, it’s quite obvious that 5,000 is closer to the mark than “hundreds”. Who has more credibility?

    Are you from PAP IB?

  32. 107 Jace 18 February 2013 at 00:34

    I’m not sure about this essay’s point about English, as its exclusive use also marginalises some segments of Singapore society. And IMO it reflects a detachment from the ground if one thinks we’re a monolingual society or moving towards becoming one.

  33. 108 FoT 18 February 2013 at 06:29

    Dear Sir,

    I’ll like to draw your attention to the following article entitled “擦枪走火的擦边球” on

    On one hand, I do agree that English is the unifying language for many fellow Singaporeans. However, to suggest that English is the unifying language for all Singaporeans would perhaps be too much of a generalization and an overstatement. Many Singaporeans, especially elderly folks like my parents, do not speak or write English. However, surely that does not make them any less Singaporean.

    Over the years, this group of people have tried to make a good honest living in Singapore despite their language handicap. It is not difficult to imagine the difficulties in their daily lives as they strive to understand various policies affecting their lives. Even until today, majority of the information around us is still predominantly in English. For someone who does not read English, even taking the MRT and looking at the network map could be a chore. To call up the ministries and to look through government websites would simply be out of their reach. Despite being marginalised all these years, my parents have tried hard to raise me up in spite of the inadequacies within the local system.

    As a 30 year old, many of my friends, and countless others in Singapore have similar life experiences to share. I sincerely hope to bring your awareness towards this issue which has not been resolved all these years. It would perhaps be good not to further exarcerbate this matter of sensitivity by unwittingly alienating them from the social landscape.

    May I suggest that one reason as to why the event was held in English could simply be the fact that the event organiser was, which mainly reached out to the English educated readers? Publicity was solely done over the internet, hence targeting the same group of audience.

    I do acknowledge, understand and feel the warmth knowing that many Singaporeans speak a common English language, especially one that is unique in the face of foreigners. But let us not forget that Singaporeans consist of people from all walks of life, young and old, regardless of race, language or religion.

    Nevertheless, I’ll like to thank you for your hard work towards changing the social landscape in Singapore through this blog. It has been very enlightening reading many of your articles. It is my sincere wish that more consideration can be made towards different segments of the society. Even though these people may never read your blog, they perhaps carry the sentiments as you have towards many social issues. May I suggest that a common spirit, a common goal, common understanding and bonding amongst all Singaporeans should be the real unifying force, rather than a language itself.

    Blessings to you and best regards.

  34. 109 Soo 18 February 2013 at 13:31

    i agree with FoT… English was just the language used by the organisers and the speakers.

    i think, correct me if I’m wrong, that there is a danger that while we are screaming against xenophobia, we may be committing acts of xenophobia by insisting that only English be used when communicating with foreigners, for example the SMRT campaign where Mandarin announcements were introduced.

    And another point which has been raised by a commenter, that most sgreans have been welcoming of foreigners. It’s just that the ratios/numbers are too much now, that’s why sgreans are asking the govt to do something about it.

  35. 110 George 18 February 2013 at 13:41

    The clarion call from the organiser, Gilbert Goh, went out over the blogosphere. Naturally, it was in English which is virtually the lingua franca of the blogosphere (and formal schooling) here unlike in China/Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and India. None of these latter languages have a blogging community of any critical mass or significant following in our context, even if they exist, which I am sure they do, but in a very small way.

    So it is quite a representative sample -those who turned out to protest at Hong Lim Park- of an across the board feeling and reaction of Singaporeans in general.

    Such a debate is unhelpful nor to the point. In any case, the two BEs we just had should be instructive – Hougang is largely lower middle and working class with a significant dialect base and PE a largely upper-middle class, English/Singlish speaking ward. but, in spite of their demographic differences, the majority in both wards obviously share the same/have enough common feeling towards the PAP.

  36. 111 George 18 February 2013 at 13:53

    Not forgetting that it was a fairly multi racial mixed in both the attendees and the speakers. The different age groups, gender, and I would venture to add, even social-economic class, were also fairly well represented. Don’t ask me how, but I could just feel and sense it from the appearance/body language/verbal cues of the people present! 😉

  37. 112 Norm 18 February 2013 at 15:21

    Singapore has a significant Chinese-speaking population, despite the abolition of Chinese schools in the 70s. Take a taxi, I would wager that at least half the time you’ll be listening to a Chinese radio station. Immigrants from the PRC and Malaysia add to this population.

    It is fine to postulate about a Singaporean identity but I am not sure if the exclusive use of English in protest speeches is representative of this.

    A Singaporean culture and identity will likely take quite a bit more time to develop. As Europeans like to say: Why is America like yoghurt? Because you leave it for a couple of days and it develops a culture 🙂

    • 113 yawningbread 19 February 2013 at 11:13

      Many readers seem not to have grasped what I really said. I wasn’t saying that Singapore has become an exclusively or even predominantly English-speaking place. I am saying that whereas in the past we were in language ghettoes, we now have a common platform that is English. To take your example, even a taxi driver who is more comfortable in Chinese than English can still speak the latter.

      My argument was that the development of this common platform corresponded to and signalled the development of “a shared appreciation of culture and place”.

      • 114 George 20 February 2013 at 18:15

        Indeed Alex,
        English is the medium, and the HLP protest has clearly demonstrated that the message has been effectively put across to the different demographic and social economic classes lines.

        I personally know of people who are highly educated, own more than one landed property, including in places like Sentosa Cove, who felt very strongly against the 6.9 million.

        So the 5,000 at HLP are in good company across the board.

    • 115 V 20 February 2013 at 16:53

      “A Singaporean culture and identity will likely take quite a bit more time to develop. As Europeans like to say: Why is America like yoghurt? Because you leave it for a couple of days and it develops a culture.”

      This is true. Except people (the government) keeps throwing in all sorts of things into the mixture that the yoghurt we’re expecting might not come into being.

  38. 116 reservist_cpl 19 February 2013 at 11:53

    Y’know, wrt the anthem and pledge. When the villagers of Wuhan revolted, they actually put up a banner that said “we love communism”. It’s suspected that that might’ve had some effect on their demands being granted eventually.

  39. 117 Norm 19 February 2013 at 13:55

    Point taken Alex. However, some of the commenters are perhaps questioning whether (1) there is indeed a common linguistic platform and (2) even if there are the beginnings of one, if this is sufficient or even necessary for the formation of a Singaporean identity.

    These are important questions for political parties and protest organisers to consider. When I talk to Chinese-speaking taxi drivers, I do not sense that any of them are cognisant of what, for example, Dr Vincent W said at the recent protests or political rallies. That goes for basic substance, much less nuance.

    A final, tangential, point: most of the Chinese speeches at recent political rallies are NOT direct translations of the English speeches. The content is often entirely different.

  40. 118 Amelia 13 March 2014 at 10:29

    ‘the Paper dilutes the Singapore core’ (from another article)… hold on a minute. I thought that the overwhelming majority of Singapore is made up of people whose ancestors are migrants ! And now migrants from these same countries our ancestors came from, is met with hostility. This seems more about protecting their jobs, remaining comfortable while not needing to strive as hard as migrants do. At the very least, migrants will bring us out of our complacent lull and remind us not to simply plod along, but to strive hard for our country and to give the best of ourselves. Protecting Singaporeans from ‘migrant threats’ would only cause a decline in economy, more complacency, and will bring us on a downward spiral. Come on, Singaporeans !

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