Singapore—Dissent has been much in the headlines lately, what with the whole world keeping its eyes on the protests in Hong Kong for the past four months. Back home, a recently canceled one-week course on dissent at Yale-NUS College drew concern from the president of Yale University, while a couple who wore anti death-penalty t-shirts to a run supporting former convicts found themselves investigated by police.
Two sides to the coin
The issue of whether authorities overreacted to the t-shirt wearing pair was debated online.
For historian and activist Pingtjin Thum, it was an example of “systemic oppression. He wrote on his Facebook account, “the real damage is fear and intimidation being sowed in the wider population, with the clear lesson not to express an opinion contrary to the official government position.”
For Polish blogger Michael Petraeus, whose blog “Critical Spectator” has shown support for government policies, the issue of the runner’s statement shirt had “nothing to do with quashing dissent or muzzling the public. It is about preventing a precedent and protecting the democratic order of the country.” Mr Petraeus went on to explain that Singapore’s democracy, “being very fragile, has always set strict rules in place to prevent conflict from erupting through an uncontrollable chain reaction.”
East vs West
In the west, dissent is considered to be foundational to democracy, and people regard it as a right to speak up on issues that they disagree with. American historian and playwright Howard Zinn said, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it,” while author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”
In Asia, dissent is considerably less tolerated both historically and in the present day, with a 2018 Amnesty International report showing that the repression of dissent has become an “alarming and intensifying trend” in several countries such as China, Cambodia and Bangladesh.
Youth today stand out
Interestingly, there are a number of young people, many of whom are in their teenage years, who are making names for themselves as dissenters in today’s fractious, and I dare say, even dangerous environment.
These are young people who are standing up against the status quo and have chosen to make a difference. Presently, you can barely open up any news site and not hear about Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who is all of 16 years old. Ms Thunberg took a boat from Europe to the United States last month to participate in the UN Youth Climate Summit, as well as to testify in Congress about the current climate crisis.
Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong, age 23, has been hailed as one of the heroes of his city’s largely unorganised protests, is also in the US as of the writing of this piece, drumming up international support for the demonstrators, who have been the target of increasing police brutality.
Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, now 22, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her years-long struggle for the rights and education of children, especially females, in countries where there is oppression against them. When she was 15, she was shot in the face by a gunman from the Taliban.
In the US, teenagers and young people have taken the lead in the gun control issue, especially after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on February 14, 2018, when a shooter took the lives of 17 people and injured 17 others. Some of the students from the school have made it their mission to change the law concerning the right to bear arms.
Even Thailand has its own version of Greta Thunberg, a 12-year-old named Ralyn “Lilly” Satidtanasarn, who has declared war against plastic.
Beyond Hong Lim Park
There are some who would argue that dissent is simply not in Singapore’s DNA. There is a proper venue for dissent, Hong Lim Park, the only area in the country where protests are legally allowed. There are rules and conditions governing public protests, to put safeguards in place. However, such rules and conditions can imaginably put a damper on the spontaneity and passions that fuel demonstrations.
What then, is the future of dissent in Singapore? Will the country produce world-changers such as Greta Thunberg or Joshua Wong, who are not without detractors in these parts?
Perhaps middle ground can be found between Hong Lim Park and the protests in Hong Kong. Perhaps part of the freedom necessary for the youth to develop critical thinking and innovation may be given to them, alongside the order, prosperity, and peace that they already have. -/TISG