Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The first fruits of civil disobedience

Seelan Palay: Noticed the "opening up" of Speaker's Corner to demonstrations on the front pages of papers today. Here are excerpts from what I consider to be the best response to it.

The first fruits of civil disobedience
By Alex Au, Yawning Bread

Things got a little crazy Monday afternoon. I received so many calls from reporters that my cellphone battery was completely flat by 6 pm. This had never happened before.

The reason? The Home Ministry held a press conference in the morning in which they provided details of the new regulations pertaining to demonstrations at Hong Lim Park. Reporter after reporter, from as far away as Australia, wanted a reaction from me.

There was a certain pattern in local reporters' questions, and as the day wore on, the repeated direction of the interviews began to seem too familiar.

I could see that all of them were angling the story in way flattering to the government. The changes were presented as a big step ("Don't you think this is a really significant liberalisation?") and an act of magnanimity from almost out of the blue ("Did you expect them to go this far?")

Other questions suggested it would be churlish of citizens to spurn the government's offering and not quickly plan some demonstrations, as if demonstrations can be whipped up on demand like so many trade shows, divorced from the tidal forces of social and political issues.

One reporter whom I was on the way to meet for an interview tried to be helpful, messaging me in advance so that I could formulate my answers in good time: "Please think of possible assemblies, demos, parades you can organise."

She (and perhaps other reporters too) seemed somewhat taken aback when I refused to laud the changes. They are nowhere near what I consider satisfactory, or in any substantial way respectful of our civil rights, I emphasised. They are as small as a pea. What's the point of taking a magnifying glass to marvel at the icing on a pea?

To all of them, I kept repeating that the freedom to demonstrate is meaningless unless it is applicable to all of Singapore. For more of my views, just read what I wrote in Demonstrations to be allowed in Hong Lim playpen.

The two words "civil disobedience" were nowhere to be found in any of the questions. Yet, if a journalist wants to do justice to the news, this aspect should be central to the story. The government's retreat, not only over demonstrations, but also over the question of political films, podcasting and vodcasting during elections, cannot be understood without acknowledging the recent history of civil disobedience.

The victory belongs to Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin this coming 1st September when the rules are set to change. They stood their ground for about 5 days and nights when the police tried to bundle them out of Hong Lim Park in October 2006 during the World Bank Summit, generating heaps of bad press for the Singapore government.

Reporters trying to record opposition leader Chee Soon Juan's words while he was surrounded by policemen to prevent him from continuing his march, October 2006.

More police officers ring Chee Siok Chin at Hong Lim Park, October 2006.

I am convinced that the so-called "liberalisation" was simply to give the government a bit more manoeuvering room the next time something similar happens. Why am I sure? Just consider this: Did anybody ask for the right to demonstrate at Hong Lim Park? If there was no outstanding request, then who was the government trying to please by making this move?

Read the complete article at Yawning Bread.