a community of singaporeans

Government using hyperbole to justify public protests ban

Posted by theonlinecitizen on October 26, 2007

By Gerald Giam

The Singapore Government has once again employed the use of hyperbole to justify its near-total ban on public demonstrations, whether peaceful or not.

In his letter to the Straits Times and TODAY, the deputy director at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) cautioned that “(t)he worst race riots in Singapore history began as peaceful processions”.

Let’s examine that statement a little more closely by looking at the history of riots in Singapore.

Riot history

Since independence, there has been just one major riot, the 1969 Race Riots, in which four people were killed. These were a spill-over from the May 13 riots in Malaysia. The riots did not begin as a peaceful procession. No permit was applied for, and none was granted.

Chinese and Malay gangs, together with foreign infiltrators, simply attacked innocent civilians at random. Clearly this was a case of the police not being able to prevent the violent actions of a few lawless individuals. Had the present permit system for public demonstrations been in place then, the riots would have still taken place.

Prior to that, there were the 1964 Race Riots that occurred on Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, in the backdrop of a very tense period of race relations. If one examines the events that led up to this riot, it is no wonder that it turned violent. On 21 July 1964, about 25,000 people had gathered in the Padang to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday. After speeches (which probably included provocative calls to action), the crowd was allowed to go on a procession towards Geylang. Along the way, some violent groups within the crowd started attacking policemen and passers-by and this provoked violent counter-reactions.

The police should never have allowed that procession to proceed in the first place. Common sense would tell you that 25,000 people going on a racially-charged procession through ethnic neighbourhoods after listening to fiery speeches is a recipe for disaster.

Looking back 51 years to 1956, were the Chinese middle school riots. Again, these riots did not take place in isolation. This was the height of the government’s battle with the communists who had infiltrated numerous organisations and schools.

The Hock Lee Bus Riots of 1955 were a result of a dangerous concoction of militant trade unions, communist instigation and anti-colonial sentiments. The riots broke out when police tried to disperse a demonstration of 2,000 students and strikers.

The National Service Riots of 1954 started as a demonstration with 500 Chinese students holding a demonstration against conscription and marching towards the Istana.

Finally, rounding off modern Singapore‘s history of riots are the infamous Maria Hertogh Riots in 1950. Three thousand angry people had been allowed to gather outside the Supreme Court as a blatantly insensitive colonial judge made a ruling that Muslims saw as a slap in their face.

In all these instances, several key factors were at play:

1. Turbulent political times;

2. Widespread poverty and social neglect;

3. Very large crowds.

Singapore 21st Century

Contrast these with some of the demonstrations that the police have banned in recent years:

· Feb 2003: Police broke up a protest by six Singaporeans (mostly young girls) in front of the US embassy to protest the Iraq war;

· Sept 2003: The Think Centre’s application to display dolls in Raffles Place was refused on grounds of “law and order considerations”;

· Nov 2003: Maid welfare group TWC2’s application to hold a symbolic march to mark International Day Against Violence Against Women was rejected on “law and order considerations”;

· Sept 2005: Buangkok residents put up cardboard cut-outs of white elephants in front of the Buangkok MRT station to protest against its non-opening. A police investigation was launched and the “culprit” was given a stern warning;

· Jan 2006: Schoolgirls wore white elephant T-shirts at Buangkok MRT’s opening ceremony, and were warned by police that if they wore the T-shirts “en masse, it might be misconstrued by some as an offence”;

· Sept 2006: All outdoor protests at the IMF/World Bank meetings were banned;

· Aug 2007: Police rejected the Workers’ Party’s permit application for a cycling event;

· Aug 2007: Police filmed a demonstration by Odex anime fans and sent four riot police vehicles to intimidate protestors;

· Oct 2007: Police reject student Andrew Teo’s application for an outdoor protest against the Myanmar junta.

Unlike the riots of yesteryear, it is highly unlikely that any of these protests would have turned violent. There simply isn’t enough political tension in the air among local residents for it to happen.

If the police are really concerned about law and order issues, they could simply grant permits for crowds of up to, say, 50 people. Beyond that they can step in and break it up. Surely a crowd of 50 is more than manageable by our able men in blue!

Unfortunately, two generations of Singaporeans — which include the policymakers and police officers themselves — have been brought up with ghost stories of our turbulent past and been told that any organised gathering that is not government endorsed (picture, right, link) is dangerous and could lead to riots.

I think a higher level of maturity in our developed society is needed.

Read also: Banned In The City Of Possibilities here.

Visit Gerald’s personal blog for more of his writings.


19 Responses to “Government using hyperbole to justify public protests ban”

  1. Robert HO said

    1. Nice work and research and thoroughly competent analyses and conclusions.

    2. Just to add that the PAP Junta always has SEEMING reasons for its polices which hide real, POLITICAL reasons.

    3. In this case, the SEEMING reasons for cracking down so harshly on any tiny protest and total ban on any assembly is portrayed by the LIEs as “law and order” but are actually POLITICAL, like every policy the LIEs have made.

    4. By a total clampdown on protests and assembly, the LIEs totally prevent any Expression Of Disastisfaction with their Dictatorship, which is growing more and more transparent every day [the only thing transparent about the LIEs!].

    5. No protests and assembles means no political party can ever organise any meaningful public activity except those enclosed behind 4 walls and these indoor meetings are totally useless to reach out to the public — indoors, you can only preach to the converted, so to speak.

    6. This then MAINTAINS THE STATUS QUO, which is the supreme aim of any dictatorship. When nothing changes, and nothing can change, then their Royal Highnesses and their Eunuchs can then continue to reap and rape the riches of the land.

    7. Another example of the SEEMING reasons versus the REAL, POLITICAL reasons: Blocking of 100 websites. Recently, the highly-paid liar Vivian pontificated and principled that the Junta blocks 100 websites “mostly pornographic” for “ceremonial” reasons. That is, for Principles! Ha, ha, ha!


    *Comments edited by moderator for relevance.

  2. Benny Lim said

    The riots in 1964 occurred when Singapore was part of the Malaysia. It was politically instigated by UMNO politicians in Singapore who sought to create communal tensions through accusations of Malay discrimination under the policies of the PAP Government. Meanwhile, Lee Kuan Yew was accused by UMNO of stirring racial tensions across the causeway as he embarked on his ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ campaign.

    It was tit-for-tat politics which caused the riots.

    It is a shame that the Government of a sovereign nation which claimed to be First World is suppressing its own citizens by continually referring to an event which not only happened 43 years ago but which its nation founder was partly responsible.

  3. aygee said

    well, its no different from the 377A situation, isnt it?

    some outdated and vague laws are still in place for the sake applying them when its in one party’s favour.

    what’s truly embarrasing is the deputy director’s response. we are brushed off with sily replies, as if we’re kids. “Because i say so, now go to your room!”

  4. chet said

    Shame on the government. Singaporeans deserve better. The arguments do not make sense. We know it. They know it.

  5. “(t)he worst race riots in Singapore history began as peaceful processions”. That may be true but it’s also true that the worst abuses in history took place because people failed to protest against wrong and harmful acts being done to others. For example, consider the Holocaust.

    I hope someone will respond to the MHA letter along the line I suggested above.

  6. sarek_home said

    Singapore police force can do a good job in maintaining laws and orders in outdoor political events. It was demonstrated during GE 2006. The police was in place to control traffic when the highly excited party supporters dispersed peacefully from rally sites. The following video is a good testimony:

    Some riot cars were spotted at the back alley nearby to provide support if necessary. They were seen disappeared into the darkness as people peacefully dispersed. It is time for the ministers and police to put the old mindset and riot memory aside and take a new look at the today’s Singaporeans and the very capable police and come up with the right policy on outdoor demonstrations.

  7. blackshirt said

    The government strives so hard to create road blocks to peaceful protests. This means that they really fear the power of the people. If you are a honest government and above the board, you would have no fear of its own people if your conscience is clear. If you keep on saying that you are a clean (in what context?) government, then you have to show it in your hearts and not with some ambiguous laws.

    When there are a few protesters, they are considered as trouble makers to the government. When you have a few thousands, then there is really something wrong with the government.

    When the thousands of Burmese people walked the streets and got seriously oppressed, the Singapore government was only “repulsive”. If you read very carefully, they seldom (or not at all use the words “human rights” in any of their speeches or responses. And that, said so much about how much they are “concerned”. They were careful not to use the terms “constitutional rights” or “human rights”.

    All you have is a government that fears its own people.

  8. Gerald said

    “what’s truly embarrasing is the deputy director’s response. we are brushed off with sily replies, as if we’re kids. “Because i say so, now go to your room!””

    Aygee, I’m just wondering if civil servants themselves think the application of the law is ridiculous, and so purposely give a silly explanation that is bound to get ridiculed by people.

  9. […] Pseudonymity: Do also read Gerald Giam’s Government using hyperbole to justify public protests ban […]

  10. Well, I believe the government has seen the massive rallies at GE2006 and is fearful.

  11. Enough said. Hehe.

  12. epilogos said

    The Singapore Police Force has tended to err on the side of caution. That’s their job. It is up to their masters, the government, to set the tone. Right now, it is status quo. They might want to shift a bid towards allowing for peaceful demonstrations.

  13. Andrew Loh said

    The authorities’ explanation is a load of crap. “Hyperbole” is exactly the right word to describe it.

    What do you call this?

    See more pictures here (scroll down).

    *That’s the official website of the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), by the way.

  14. familyman said

    And that is why the govt has indicated that the burmese junta is the ‘only game in town’. No choice. Just like the PAP junta. And if the public should have any wise idea to oppose our compulsory annuity scheme, delay of CPF withdrawal to 67, imposition of means testing for c ward, by any public display, just watch out. That is what Chee Soon Juan is trying to tell us all this time. And before long, we will see that all election rallies will need to be held indoors. or the time for rallies will be shortened. or something – we will become less democratic, not more. They assaulted the gay minority by calling them human wrongs – we did nothing. They assaulted the peaceful monks and raised the prices of oil, we did nothing, could do nothing publicly to protest. Soon we will not be able to do much else.

  15. […] protest. Singapore’s history is tainted with violent protests no doubt but the context for instigated and orchestrated mayhem was specifically present  as a powder keg. The thin blue line to ban street protests including […]

  16. aygee said


    i think the civil servants just take the easy way out – use the same lines and arguments used by the old guard, using LKY-style pragmatic responses. its the easiest way, isnt it? I’m the govt, so i’m right and you’re wrong. so there. no more talk.

    Unless you’re the PM’s son, you cant go against authority and convention. 😉

    i have seen the HK police in action with my own eyes during WTO and the countless, sometimes violent, demonstrations that happen in here in HK. and they always acted in the utmost professionalism.

    i remember the WTO riots. even when they were severely criticised for their “overhandedness” in quelling the riots by the media, the Commissioner stood up for his men. He said something along the lines of “We allowed you to make your statements. But when you resort to violence and become a nuisance to the public, we will respond in a like manner. we will shut you down.”

    As Cherian George’s blog said it succinctly, we have still a long way to go in terms of good and civil public discourse.

  17. talking cock said

    talk so much for what? status quo will remain. just remember your dissatisfaction long enough till the next election & do what you need to do.

    *Comments edited by moderator.

  18. macabresg said

    Sometimes it’s really important and necessary that we have peaceful protests to pressurise the government. Sending letters and petitions may not have the intended impact because it does not physically show ‘people power’.

  19. watched this movie said

    Bobby – about Robert Kennedy assasination in 1968. PAP is taking a leaf out of that period, where people congregating were jailed and taken off the streets, even before they could do anything concrete. That was a good show, and showed eerily what is happening here. Go watch. Same with the Myanmar junta, where we are symbolically making a lot of empty noises, but I *think* the PAP govt is just happy the way things are going – everything kept under a lid – no mess – no fuss. Whatever is happening is Pakistan – martial law – Lee Kuan Yew has said the same thing will happen in Singapore.

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