A Case Of Vociferous Backlash: Singapore’s New Wave Of Activism

Not too long ago would Singaporeans balk at the idea of standing up for your own rights. Not too long ago did the country share its disdain for then-Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan’s public protest outside the Central Provident Fund building that has photos still immortalised on photo wire agencies like Getty Images.

But, take a look around now. It has become very clear: Singaporeans aren’t willing to stay silent anymore.

Gone are the days when it was popular for anonymous commenters to use pseudonyms to thrash Singapore’s top brass on anti-government watercooler sites like Temasek Review (and its various reincarnations). Today, a simple cursory glance on an article on the National Library Board’s recent decision to pulp two books that were deemed to have contained messages that are against its “pro-family” stance reveals plenty of well-thought-out critique.

And yes, real names and real faces are on them.

Within just a few hours, Bernadette Chow had launched a petition page demanding the library organisation reinstate both books. How one person’s petition page got out there is difficult to trace in the individual silos of non-hashtagged tweets and social networks of people influential in their own right — LGBT or not. However, it has indeed gotten out there — some 2,450 signatories as at press time, to be exact. Another petition has more than 3,800 signatories.

Another groundswell of support can be seen in a video by artists advocating for the Media Development Authority (MDA) to scrap its proposed arts term licensing scheme where artists would be trained by the MDA to rate its own works and risk being fined if they classify them wrongly.

The video is from arts community group ArtsEngage, which last year released a manifesto decrying censorship of art and championing its politicisation, in the wake of drama surrounding film Sex.Violence.FamilyValues and urban artist SKL0.

A position paper released by ArtsEngage on MDA’s new scheme highlights that the “self-classification” that the scheme tries to accomplish does not remove the possibility of works being banned. Its paper has gotten more than 1,700 signatories — scrutinise the list and familiar names like artists Ivan Heng, Noorlinah Mohamed and even activist Leow Yangfa are on it.

Today, the second #ReturnOurCPF protest was held by Nominated Member of Parliament nominee Roy Ngerng, whose blog and allegations of misappropriation of Central Provident Fund monies has gotten him embroiled in a lawsuit by Singapore’s prime minister. Factor that into the sea of rallies and protests held at Hong Lim Park — yes, Pink Dot falls under that according to organiser Paerin Choa — and time has revealed that the word “protest” is no longer a dirty word in our culture.

But within the vortex of biting comments, petitions and protests, something is missing.

A pressing need to engage where it matters most

There is something about the culture of activism that makes cynics quick to dismiss any groundswell of support. That is the lack of engagement — not within groups that support the cause, but to the group that the orchestra of voices and messages is targeted to.

And we are talking about direct engagement here, not the sort of passive-aggressive deal where different camps publish statements on media outlets and use that medium to fan the flames publicly and engage opposing camps where they have to be accountable for. All eyes are on them, anyway.

Has this passive-aggressive mix of new-wave online bashing and mob of meetups where rhetoric is mixed with vigour actually worked?

Maybe, it has.

Take for instance, the three-page feature of Pink Dot’s progress on national broadsheet The Straits Times, which is a remarkable increase in coverage from the media outlet’s coverage of the first Pink Dot installment some six years ago.

The article speaks of finding a “middle ground” between those in religious camps and LGBTs with its straight allies (notwithstanding the logic in both camps actually having some overlap). Such neutral reportage would not even exist six years ago, let alone a lengthy mention on the subject of LGBTs.

In the media cycle, the shift is most evident — where it would be hard-pressed to conjure reports of speeches at Hong Lim Park when it first became licensed as a space for protests to be held, spotting a news article now on one of Han Hui Hui or Gilbert Goh’s rallies is but all too common.

So, maybe, it has changed the receptivity of the medium in which such public sentiment usually ends up on, all and sundry.

However, when the media cycle dies down and the activism ends in the final big message, what happens? Well, the public waits for the next big story. And what if that does not come? The individual struggles live on, but the absence of headline news makes it unpopular, not in fashion.

Then, where is the link? It will take a lot of gumption but nothing rarely moves with two camps bickering on a public space. The middle ground that The Straits Times talks about has to come from an ugly but necessary process: dialogue.

Only when both camps can sit down at the same table, respect each other’s differences and hash out a shared solution together can progress be made. Negotiation is rarely the art of compromise — it is the establishment of a new world order, one in which both camps don’t have to budge on their stance, but can work out an arrangement to coexist with most objectives met.


But, as Paerin Choa revealed to the media at the Pink Dot press conference this year, Revered Miak Siew of the pro-LGBT Free Community Church has tried unsuccessfully to reach out to Pastor Lawrence Khong from the Faith Community Baptist Church to engage in dialogue.

So, it will take some time before opposing camps can put aside their emotions and enter a closed-door discourse with the sole objective of reaching a conclusion that all sides can agree on.

And when the maturity is present for something like that to occur, all the drama that appears on the front-page or above-the-scroll may actually give way to something less messy and more constructive: opposing parties actually managed to settle something without having to go through the public back-and-forth and scrutiny.

This may sound like an ideal situation that never truly happens, but the only factor preventing it is ego — the ego of a camp not willing to engage and choosing to stand firm for fear that any shift in thought may result in the loss of support from within. What those who get caught up in all the bickering sometimes may fail to realise is that they are all fighting for the betterment of a situation. That alone is enough goodwill to skip the mudslinging and use that energy to personally reach out instead of throwing what others may see as a tantrum.

Once activism loses its vanity — new-wave or old-school — can progress be made.

Pink Dot photo: Kyle Malinda-White for Popspoken


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