An Interview with Artist-Activist Seelan Palay
Is it the end of protest in Singapore?
Are all Singaporeans apathetic on politics?
Don't we have to right to peaceful dissent?
Artist and activist Seelan Palay should be familiar to New Sintercom readers. He has a blog Singapore Indian Voice and recently he stood by and fasted for his beliefs outside the Malaysian High Commission. His laudable lone action was in protest of Indian marginalisation in Malaysia and the use of the draconian Internal Security Act against some members of Hindraf. Seelan is one of the latest activist to revitalise Singapore's activist scene. Previously he was involved in anti-death penalty and the 400 Frowns campaigns, and became an inspiring testimony that not all Singaporeans are deaf and dumb to the injustice around us.
I do not think that I am courageous, I am simply expressive. - Seelan
We get to hear Seelan's views in this interview on his thoughts about his latest protest. Thank you Seelan for the interview, and for playing the small but important role in bringing about change in Singapore.
1. You have the honour of having the last protest for 2007 and the first for 2008. The first and last word, in a way, because of your protest of outside the Malaysian High Commission over the arrest of the Hindraf 5 under the ISA in Malaysia. It was deliberate and dramatic, and actually quite effective! What were your thoughts in the first and last 5 minutes of the protest? Apprehension, excitement etc?
Thank you for this interview. I realized that my protest was the last for 2007 and the first for 2008 only near the end of the fast when a visitor mentioned it. However, I do not take that as any kind of honour, at most, it is somewhat amusing. In the first 5 minutes of the protest I wondered how long it would take for the police to arrive and in the last 5 minutes I was glad to know that I could effectively finish my 5 day fast without the disruption of apprehension. I was not actually looking forward to eating that much.
2. Did people come by and support you? Were there people who heckled you? How was the police? In the video, they looked like they were trying to intimidate you!
About 60 Malaysians and 20 Singaporeans visited me within the 5 days. There was one occasion when a Malay motorist who claimed to be Singaporean heckled me. The police arrived at around 3pm on Monday. One of the officers mentioned that they had received a complaint regarding my presence there and advised me to leave. He also asked me for a permit under an entertainment licensing law, to which I replied that I was only fasting and that I was not there to entertain anyone.
3. But this is not your first encounter with the law. In 2006, you were arrested by the police for your 400 Frowns satire of the 4 Million Smiles PR campaign by our government. In the end the police released you right? Did they give you a warning?
Yes I did have an encounter with the law during the time of the IMF summit in Singapore, however, it was not for my 400 Frowns project but for flyers (factsheets on IMF/WB policies) that 2 friends and I were planning to distribute to the public. The police confiscated my computer and brought me to Clementi police station for questioning. I was released after hours of investigation. I had a warning issued and computer returned about 6 months later.
4. But yet you were convinced enough to stand for what you believe in recently despite an earlier incident with the police. Were there other brushes with our men in blue before that? Clearly that is very courageous and untypical of the man-on-the-street Singaporean like me who complains about this and that but doesn’t take the extra step to do something about it! How difficult or easy was it to break out of the shell and say, “I want to protest and as long as it is peaceful, I am right”?
I have had brushes with the police when I was involved in the Anti Death Penalty campaign in Singapore. I do not think that I am courageous, I am simply expressive. As an artist, I do not think it is good to censor oneself. What usually hindered me before was my Mother’s concern and worry over my safety, but I think that complication is getting better resolved now. I do not think we should harp too much over the word “protest” and put it on a pedestal of sorts. Protests happen all over the world, every single day. Perhaps it is “harder” to do in Singapore, but I think that is simply a hurdle in one’s mind.
5. Since your High Commission protest, have the police come around to harass you or they have left you alone?
They told me as they left on Monday that the matter will be investigated in any case (whether I leave or not). So far, I have not been contacted by them again. But of course we should always be prepared.
6. You also took part in the original Hindraf protest in Malaysia last year! How was the feeling like? How did you come to know of it? The Malaysian police claimed the protest was violent and arrested some of the crowd. Did the Malaysian police provoke the crowd and maybe even their police provocateurs in the crowd tried to fire up everybody to be violent? If there is a similar event there, would you go over again?
I got to know of it through Isrizal, a fellow activist. I then checked online to see if it was confirmed and got the bus up to Kuala Lumpur along with Kai Xiong, another fellow activist. It was the first time I experienced a mass street rally along with water cannons and tear gas administered by the Malaysian authorities. The fearlessness, solidarity, conviction and determination of the people gathered that day was immensely uplifting. The pain they went through for their cause was utterly tragic. The crowd was peaceful, but the 30,000 marchers were blocked by the police in their attempt to reach the British High Commission. The stand-off lasted 6 hours and ended only when the police used rubber bullets and water cannons.
I heard that the situation at the Batu Caves — the leading Hindu place of worship in Malaysia — was worse. About 1,000 people including women and children who had not been part of the rally, but were just there to pray, had been trapped in the temple compound the size of a football field. It’s not clear who had locked the only gate into the compound, but people said it was the police. A large contingent of officers had massed outside. Then rubber bullets and teargas were fired into the trapped crowd who had no other exit and who naturally broke down the gate in their attempt to escape the choking gas, leading to a melée.
Yes I would attend a similar event again.
7. This won’t be your last protest in Singapore surely and you are the new breed of politically active Singaporean. But is it realistic that the entire attitude towards peaceful protest can change overnight? Dr Chee Soon Juan has been doing it for the past decade and still the tide has not turned. Do you think change can happen fast enough by the next General Elections?
Surely the entire attitude towards peaceful protest cannot change overnight. It has in fact taken over 40 years for that that very attitude to be indoctrinated! I believe that Dr Chee Soon Juan’s efforts have had an impact. It goes to show that he is in it for the long run, and will not compromise his ideals. I do not know whether change can happen by the next General Elections, but I do know that those that believe in the universal idea of freedom will not give up, or give in.