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.
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.
The links between the two countries meant that many Singaporeans watched events unfold with interest. Less than five decades ago Singapore and Malaysia were one country, and many have families and friends on both sides of the border. Germaine Ong is one such Singaporean; her father’s family is from Kelantan in northern Malaysia. “I paid attention to [the election] insofar as my Malaysian relatives and friends were keeping me updated through their posts on Facebook and Twitter,” she says.
There are also many who often cross the border on a regular basis. “We often talk about the half-a-million [Malaysians in Singapore], but forget about the many tens of thousands of Singaporeans who run businesses, derive income, secure manpower, source products or even just simply have their holidays in Malaysia,” says Bersih 3.0 Singapore, the Singaporean chapter of a Malaysian movement for clean elections. “Like it or not, both our countries need each other and must stand together.”
It was this thought that led to the organization of Singaporeans in Solidarity with Malaysians. “Human rights and the pursuit of justice are our common goals regardless of nationality and I think it is important to stand in solidarity with them and show our support,” says organizer Jolovan Wham.
The event drew suspicion and alarm from many within Singapore. In an opinion piece for local newspaper TODAY, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security Bilveer Singh wrote,
Equally troubling was the role of the Singapore organizers of the protest movement in Hong Lim Park. Selectively hiding behind universal norms and laws, and repeating that the rally was an event by Singaporeans and permanent residents, one cannot run away from the fact that it can have serious deleterious consequences for the well-being of Singapore and Singaporeans.
Other criticism of the protest centered on the Malaysians importing their issues into Singapore. It’s their own business, let them take care of it. Why should they bother us with it?
But Teo Soh Lung was there that day, and isn’t bothered by such concerns: “I don't see the danger. In London, everyone can protest. If people didn't protest, maybe Mandela would still be in jail. Same with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
“For Singaporeans to turn around and effectively say 'We stand by you' is tremendous in many ways,” says Bersih 3.0 Singapore. “Both our countries have actively discouraged their citizens from having an opinion on 'foreign' matters, despite the fact that the right to these opinions are founded on universal principles including the declaration of human rights.”
The paths of Singapore and Malaysia diverged upon separation in 1965. It would be overly simplistic to make direct comparisons between the two parties – there are significant differences in context, demographics and social construct. Yet parallels remain, as well as familial and emotional connections between ordinary citizens.
“The way I look at it is Malaysian society will always compare what they have with what Singapore has,” says Woon. It’s more than likely that this happens in reverse as well, with Singaporeans looking towards Malaysia. Whether both governments like it or not, this link looks like it’s here to stay.
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.