a community of singaporeans

TOC Opinion – Police: Foreigners not allowed to complain

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 28, 2008

By Joel Tan

Singapore residents have made notable complainers over the years, in what may, along with eating, be described as the nation’s favourite past-time.

Over the weekend, however, an interesting twist on this seemingly harmless activity has arisen – the local police have made it clear that foreigners are not allowed to complain in Singapore.

What might have been a light-hearted few days of fussed-up performance was turned into bitterness for a group of singers known as The Complaints Choir. A community arts project initiated in Birmingham, UK by Finns Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, the Complaints Choir is an open-invite group that gets people to, you got it, complain, through song, about life in their countries.

Since its UK debut, the project has gained popularity around the world, and Complaints Choirs from Helsinki, Melbourne, Jerusalem and several other countries have sprung up since 2006.

Banned in Singapore

Singapore’s very own Complaints Choir, organized as part of the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival, was due to perform in various public venues like Vivo City, the Esplanade Waterfront and the Speakers’ Corner over the weekend, but had its plans hampered by the Singapore Police.

The group, made up mainly of Singaporeans, was told that it would not be allowed to perform unless members of the choir who were foreigners were told to step out- this included a handful of singers and the choir’s conductor, a Malaysian. Initially only a requirement for their Speakers’ Corner performance (only Singapore citizens may perform at the venue), this was later extended to all of the group’s public performances.

When interviewed, a member of the group said that the restriction was because of the “local context” of the group’s song, a musical setting of various complaints. The Choir has since cancelled all public performances, a move that has, according to the organizers on the project’s website, caused all their “prejudices against Singapore to be affirmed”.

Apart from why the police lacks a fair bit of good humour, the question that begs to be asked is what possible subversion a bunch of singing expatriates could have been up to; and what on earth is so criminal about a bunch of foreigners discoursing on issues with a “local context”?

“Singapore’s politics are reserved for Singaporeans”

The police’s logic leaves much to guesswork, the easiest of which is the current stance that foreigners should not attempt to mess around with local issues. This incident calls up memories of the Douglas Sanders fiasco in August 2007 where a guest speaker was denied the license to deliver a lecture on the law and sexual orientation in Asia, this on grounds that the event was “contrary to public interest”.

I do not suppose we could cite the exact same reasoning in this situation, but here is a snippet that proves to be a little more revealing.

Singapore‘s politics are reserved for Singaporeans. As visitors to our country, foreigners should not abuse their privilege by interfering in our domestic politics.”- a statement from the Ministry of Home affairs regarding the refusal to admit two foreign speakers invited to speak at a forum on ministerial pay increases in April 2007.

The sentiment is clear- foreigners should not attempt any discourse on local affairs. It seems this xenophobia has trickled down to the level of a scarily innocuous little glee club project.

A quick review of the lyrics shows nothing out of the ordinary – the usual complaints about un-civil society, education and life in general- it is nothing that has not been said before, and more virulently, at that. It seems that, however, when these lyrics are sung by foreigners, some magic in the air causes them to become the tools of sedition, and we shall all quake for fear of public (dis)interest.

The stupidity of the restrictions is most succinctly pointed out by the aggrieved organisers on their highly public website : “removing the foreigners from the performance does not change the song at all”.

Police – from law enforcers to curators of art

What is also quite worrying is the police’s immediate association, here, between art and politics. The event was not designed to be a political rally – its performance at the Speakers’ Corner was likely planned for symbolic rather than functional reasons. Why the police felt it had a need to intervene in this situation is completely beyond me – it seems the police have gone from being enforcers of peace to curators of art. Instead of seeing the event as, really, what it was – essentially a piece of socially conscious performance art – the police decided to take it heads on as public speaking of a political nature.

Even as a piece of art, the lyrics of the song, according to members of the group, had been approved by the MDA – it seems even these usually stringent filters are not enough for Singaporeans. Clearly having foreigners in a performance turns it from mere art into politicking.

Oddly hypocritical

I make no assumptions about the foreigners in question, I do not know them nor do I know how long they have been in Singapore. The sentiment behind this issue, however, one that foreigners should not take part in any public complaining about local affairs, seems oddly hypocritical considering our foreign talent drive. It seems now that while we may encourage foreigners to live and work here, and contribute to our burgeoning economy, they may not take part in any public singing that totters about a “local context”. How very, very capitalistic of us – we appreciate your work but that’s about it.

Perhaps it is unfair to read the actions of the police in such a large, expansive way. I have my doubts that xenophobia was on their minds when they came up with their odd conditions for the Complaints Choir.

What is more likely is a simple chain-of-command affair: get rid of any potential sensitivities before someone higher up on the ladder of neuroticism catches wind of it. Do we blame them, really? Given how anything can offend in this country, the police’s simplistic solution was simply a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived problem: how would Singaporeans react to a handful of foreigners complaining about Singapore?

It is something we have to ask ourselves. Is it really that big a deal? Do not the conditions that bug all of us bug those who live, but might not have been born, here? Are we going to be so ridiculously exclusive as to say that birth-right determines bitch-right? And on a higher level, would not foreign, potentially more objective input on local affairs serve a greater purpose than the highly partisan noise we hear all the time?

I find it ironic that our government leaders, particularly the Minister Mentor, find it fit to comment on the affairs of other countries, but that the act of returning the favour often finds itself unwelcome and most spitefully turned away.

This issue will likely attract bad press from onlookers, both locally and abroad, and far be it for me to say that whatever noise they stir up, it will be far worse than a little bit of complaining.

In the meantime, foreigners be warned: complain at your own risk, we cannot guarantee your sanity.

About the author: Joel “is currently a national serviceman awaiting release and the start of the rest of his life.” Joel also writes on his personal blog, The Daily Backtrack, here.

Read also theonlinecitizen’s report on the incident.



21 Responses to “TOC Opinion – Police: Foreigners not allowed to complain”

  1. Alan Wong said

    It’s exactly these actions on the part of the Gahmen that really pisses me off.

    What a gracious Gahmen that we have, real hypocrite leaders!

  2. blackshirt said

    The government has again displayed their dark side, their fears and their ineptness. In the long term, our art scene will lack the form and substance of the “first world” due to this restrictive state of control. At most, it will be refreshing but not outstanding.

  3. otak69 said

    The police are just keeping their options open.

    If foreigners are in a crowd concerned, would the police still be able to use their usual modus operandi on the locals with alternative views?

    The police are just staving off a potential international PR disaster.

  4. Gary Teoh said

    this government can not accept criticism,it is worst than a communist country

  5. FirePhoenix1003 said

    Those who followed procedures and apply permit, permission denied.

    While the illegal cigarettes peddlers from a kampung of South Sulawesi are smarter. They don’t ask for permit. The just swim into Singapore undetected, stayed in Singapore for months in the drain in Woodlands area to sell illegal cigarettes without being caught by our elite security forces.

  6. Boon said

    Standard from SG Gov, control the masses. They want robots not people that have a point of view.

  7. insens said

    FTs can work here. FTs can take up PRship. FTs can not serve NS.
    FTs CANNOT complain.

  8. bunch of idiots said

    I can just picture the next parliament – some old Eunice Oleson and Mr Siew asking the same questions, and the same idiot Ho answering, ‘oh, the police probably carried it too far but…’ Can you just see it??

  9. guojun said

    Perhaps it would be best if people started performing spontaneously. Then there’d be arrests and questioning no doubt, but message gotten across. Think our MM will activate the SAF? haha…

    Yes, we can see it happening already. Gahmen wants robots…because robots don’t ask questions. In this aspect, Gahmen only relys on its far-sightedness to recruit gd people…in this aspect they are engineering their own downfall. You just have to see the scholarship selection criteria to know already. All you need is good results, good CCA, leadership positions.

    Assuming people are good then ok lor. But megalomaniacs/charismatic dictators also have these qualities…

  10. […] It was lucky that we got *ahem* invited (to quote from chillycraps) to the performance, since all public performances were cancelled as the police claimed that foreigners should not meddle in Singapore’s politics. […]

  11. […] had sent in their lyrics for approval and were cleared by the MDA. An excellent follow-up article here by TOC as […]

  12. aygee said

    guys, perhaps its not the Govt in this instance?

    I bet what happened here was quite possibly an individual within the Police who’s a bit over-zealous, because he wants to be seen as “on the ball”. someone who wants to score points? who has nothing better to do, and uses this to show he/she is doing something?

    why we dont hear anything from MDA or MITA(or whatever dept that looks into Arts and Media)about this situation? why the police?

    I remember reading Cherian George’s book: Air-Conditioned Nation – a lot of rules and regulations in Singapore are quite vaguely written.

    So much so that it’s very open to different interpretations and the Police can simply shut things down and make interpretations that suit their needs.

  13. […] Singaporeans like to complain. And you, too, complain that foreigners are not allowed to complain. Just as you complain about Singaporeans complaining. Then again, you are Singaporean too, so […]

  14. Daniel said

    look like MDA or MITA or the police try to cover their own backside. There is blalant lack of coordination between various government departments that inhibit the development of Singapore’s vibrant culture.

    I applaud MDA for allowing the choir to perform but thumb down to them in not fighting for the choir performance to continue. What is the point of having going to different channels just to ask for permit ? Is MDA just really function as a expensive censorship board with no power to authorize approval for performance ? Isn’t this the world class government who claim efficiency ? So next time, you have to seek approval from MDA, and police or whatever department that has any stake at risk. This only discourage people from trying thing because of so many red tapes and bullshit.

    So is there a law to forbid a foreigner to participate and collaborate in ART work ?
    If not, why are we emphasizing foreign talent so much and yet treat them no more than ‘shit’ ? Any foreigner who work and contribute to the economy should be given voice and be allow to complain because it is human right. Complain forms the basis of needs. Without complain, do you think the government will buck up or even bother ?

    Ask yourself, isn’t some policies like increment of financial support the result of complain due to the poor ? Be constructive and it could takes years instead of weeks/months to implement help. This is how gracious our govt is.

    Be mindful that this money-faced government is reactive and only respond to complain. It is only proactive if it makes and saves money for them. If there is no complain, they will assume the public agree to their policy. This is Singapore, land of Voiceless, therefore at least it is Land of Complain to keep thing under control to public.

    People can choose to disagree but so far this is what I observe all along.

  15. It disgusts me that the government or some individual/group within the government chooses to emphasize and maintain this “us vs them” mentality when it comes to issues of opinion, culture and thought.

    You increase the quota for foreign migrant workers, residents, yet you refuse them the right to perform a harmless song about what it means to live in Singapore.

    And if that’s not bad enough, you screw with us citizens and the international image of Singapore by playing such kindergarten games in inter-department turf wars.

    It has happened before during the IMF-World Bank meetings, and it has happened again.These double-standards reek really bad of incompetency, lip service and hypocrisy when it comes to the macrocosm of national interests.

    Have you fellows actually thought of the damage and costs that such childish actions have brought upon Singapore? You think you’re doing good, but in fact, you’re just bringing shame to the world.

    We feel ashamed and aghast at headlines of every major news agency covering something so puerile as this.

    If this is the kind of unsophisticated attempts at managing creativity and managing our grand narratives of national history, we don’t need your talents and can kindly do without them. then I have only two words to say.

    Bugger off.

  16. lee said

    Now we know why the civil service top brass (ie Police, MDA etc), staffed by pen pushing scholars are being paid such high salaries. They are more beholdened to the PAP govt than to the people . As such they are likely to protect their own backsides and golden ricebowl.

  17. Lee said

    Well, the police don’t allow the foriegners or Singaporeans to protest, complain, or mass rallies.They said it’s bad for our country.
    Then…, i really need to question the police, go Geylang and have a look.Why are there so many foriegners illegal prositute doing illegal things but the police did not take a serious action on them?I called the police so many times but not much action had been done.So many illegal gambling den in Geylang, but did the police take any serious action on them?Or just yaya action?Seriously speaking, or of you should go Geylang and have a look and you will know our police are not doing their job.

  18. Steven said

    Even if citizen want to complain, they need a permit to do so. 😦

  19. noone said

    Straits Times: people support it so good reason for ban

  20. Well, if you think that person’s remarks are the epitome of good sense and intelligence, by all means..

    The rest of us will have a laugh.

  21. muzz said

    im a caucasian aussie living here due to my dads work. i admire your government for taking this tact with those foriegners, it is not their country, they are here by privellege and as such should respect the law of the land. i only wish the aussie government would be the same in its handling of immigrants and they like who try and impose their social beliefs/mores/practices upon us.

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