The candles were lit as the sun set over Hong Lim Park in Singapore’s Central Business District. The crowd of about 200, many dressed in black, was gathered for Singaporeans in Solidarity with Malaysians, a small gathering organized to support protests against election irregularities during the recent general election across the Causeway. The event had been organized after Malaysians had protested twice at Merlion Park, by the Singapore River, resulting in nine warnings in one case and 21 arrests in the other.
Towards the end of the evening, participants stood in the park with their candles and sang Majulah Singapura, Singapore’s national anthem. As far as protests and gatherings go in Speakers’ Corner, it didn’t stray very far from the norm.
Then they began to sing "Negaraku". Malaysia’s national anthem.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Attendees said that the plainclothes policemen – easily identified by their habit of following people around with handycams filming the proceedings – seemed perplexed. The news spread to social media in no time at all, and the discussion began. Is it okay for Singaporeans to be singing a foreign national anthem in Hong Lim Park? Were there foreigners in the crowd? Has this crossed a line?
Some didn’t think it was a very big deal, while others called for the arrest of any non-Singaporeans. The gathering, along with the preceding two protests, sparked an earnest discussion of whether foreigners should be allowed to demonstrate in Singapore, and whether Singaporeans should participate in actions regarding foreign affairs. Central to this debate was the link between the two nations, not just politically and diplomatically, but between ordinary citizens as well.
The hotly contested general election in Malaysia held in May 2013 did not go unnoticed by its Singaporean neighbors. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), was facing its toughest challenge yet, just like Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) had in the 2011 general election. It struck a chord; the PAP had held on to power in 2011, but some felt that a change in government in Malaysia would serve as an inspiration for Singaporeans in the next election.
The experiences of young Malaysians also paralleled that of young Singaporeans. “This is the first GE that I've ever paid serious attention to,” says Malaysian student Woon King Chai. “This is the first general election that I have ever voted in. I was 20 years old back in 2008, and felt like I didn't know anything about Malaysian politics then.”
Despite the outpouring of support for the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PKR) online, BN was once again voted into government. But it was not so clear-cut: complaints about election irregularities – from phantom voters to delible indelible ink – surfaced.
“It is clear that to have a clean and fair election process in the near future would be an uphill task after witnessing the amount of irregularities happening in certain states,” says Malaysian first-time voter Adrian Phung.
Disappointment at the way the election was carried out led to massive protests in Malaysia, with smaller solidarity actions staged by Malaysians living overseas.