The banner went up as the sun set over Singapore. Next came the tea lights, laid out on the grass around a poster of the Goddess of Democracy. Black-clad supporters and eager press photographers clustered around the mound, taking photos of the arrangement as people added their own messages of support and encouragement.
The event, organized by local activists and advertised on Facebook only two days beforehand, drew a larger-than-expected crowd of about 400 to the park in a show of solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong.
The huge, sprawling protests in Hong Kong are the international media’s new darling, hogging the headlines and trending on Twitter. Pundits have speculated that Hong Kong’s stunning show of civil disobedience could inspire other movements in Asia. It is possible, of course, that events in Hong Kong could spark similar collection action in places like Taiwan or Macau (the Hong Kong protests themselves feature strong echoes of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement earlier this year). But there’s one city-state in Asia that is unlikely to follow in Hong Kong’s footsteps.
Singapore and Hong Kong are often compared. They’re both densely populated cities with a majority Chinese population, and had both been under British colonial rule (Singapore gained independence from the British upon its merger with Malaysia in 1963, while Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997). They’re both financial centers that have achieved impressive economic success, but are now facing issues of income inequality and rising costs of living.
Yet recent events have made it clear that there’s one aspect in which there can be no comparison: that of civil society and grassroots political activism.
As Hong Kongers thronged the streets in the heart of their city in a stubborn demand for universal suffrage and democracy, Singaporeans were caught up in their own little piece of controversy about collective action and civil disobedience.
On September 27, organizers of the #ReturnOurCPF protest – a monthly assembly against the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the management of Singapore’s pension fund – led their supporters on mini-processions that disrupted a charity event organized by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), at which special needs children were performing and a junior minister of the PAP government was a guest of honor.
Reaction was swift. Protesters were condemned for “heckling” special needs children – a charge that led to some quibbling over the exact definition of the word “heckle.” Local broadsheet The Straits Times described the scene as “chaos.” Political commentator Devadas Krishnadas labeled the #ReturnOurCPF cause “anarchic,” claiming that its organizers had eschewed “mature and peaceful ways to communicate” in favor of “confrontational methods which play on the emotions surrounding hot button issues.”
Stephan Ortmann, a research fellow at the City University of Hong Kong, agrees that the disruption of the charity event was not a good strategic move on the part of the protesters, but sees the backlash against the disruption as a sign of Singapore’s unfamiliarity with modes of activism.
“It shows that Singaporeans are still not really ready to protest. Many feel it is not a legitimate strategy. Also the event had many misrepresentations, which was unfortunate. However, I think the readiness to see fault with the protesters shows the predisposition against any non-conformative behavior which is still prevalent,” he wrote in response to a question from The Diplomat.
“There is currently more widespread acceptance of political activity of various sorts in Hong Kong than in Singapore. People in Hong Kong are also more accustomed to advocacy and demonstrations,” said Ian Chong, a political scientist working in Singapore.
There are reasons for this discomfort. Although Singapore’s road to independence from its colonial masters was marked with civil disobedience, demonstrations have been, by design, relatively absent in a sovereign Singapore.
This can be illustrated by Wednesday night’s solidarity event. It was held in Hong Lim Park, where the #ReturnOurCPF protest was also held, because Hong Lim Park is the only space in Singapore where people are able to assemble and demonstrate without a police permit. The Public Order Act introduced in 2009 stipulates that “cause-related activities will be regulated by permit regardless of the number of persons involved or the format they are conducted in.” Permits aren’t often issued for protests or demonstrations, though; even a fun run in support of LGBT rights was rejected “in the interest of public order” because it was a “socially divisive issue.”
The police showed up at Hong Lim Park before the event to remind organizers of the rules: foreigners aren’t allowed to participate, and foreign flags can’t be displayed. They later brought several foreigners in for questioning over their involvement in the event.
Although the police has not yet charged any of the individuals, the act of questioning underscores just how restrictive Singapore can be when it comes to political expression.
“The costs for protests in Hong Kong are much lower than in Singapore. There is no apparent monitoring, though people are still concerned about their jobs if they take a leading role,” wrote Ortmann. “In addition, Singaporeans are much more deeply embedded in a system of government control from housing to government-linked jobs to government-run kindergartens… this acts as a co-optation mechanism.”
This context is what makes a Singaporean version of the Umbrella Revolution unlikely any time soon. The situation in Hong Kong can also come across as more dire, even in economic terms.
“Observers note that Singapore is the second most unequal developed economy in the world in terms of income. Well, Hong Kong is the most unequal. Middle and low income people in Hong Kong feel such pressures far more intensely than in Singapore,” Chong noted.
Singaporean activist Rachel Zeng – one of the organizers of the solidarity gathering – feels that the difference in societal mindset is key. “I think the major difference is the sense of ownership in their country’s affairs. I think they have a very strong sense of community and solidarity among each other.”
But the current context and relative political immaturity doesn’t mean that such a social movement will always be impossible in Singapore. Young Singaporeans might not yet find themselves in an environment amenable to an umbrella revolution, but many continue to follow developments in Hong Kong with interest.
“In terms of activism and civil society they are miles ahead of us, especially the students,” remarked 17-year-old Ariffin Sha, who showed up at Hong Lim Park early to help set up. “It is so inspiring to see that they can do that.”
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.