Putting Protests in Perspective: Why the Right to Protest is Essential to Society

The basis of the ideological narrative introduced by the existing political establishment concerning protests in Singapore is flawed. The desire for, and benefits of freedom of assembly and expression are not unique to the “West”.

The existing political establishment has repeatedly rejected liberal democracy, deeming it incompatible with Singapore. This rejection involves the curtailment of some practices associated with liberal democracy, such as protests. Mr Lee Kuan Yew once stated, “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”[1]

Many Singaporeans, young and old, support the establishment’s ideology. While it is true that democracy may lead to “undisciplined” and “disorderly” conditions, the same may be said for any form of governance. The 2013 Little India riot [2] illustrates that even the establishment’s stance does not grant Singapore an immunity from undisciplined and disorderly conduct. One may infer that the establishment’s ideology presumes protests and assemblies contributes little to our civil society. Such a view on protests is misleading and incorrect. [3]

Protests are defined as a form of collective action and social-movement participation.[4] Nothing in its definition suggests chaos, disorder or violence. In fact, protest guidelines often explicitly exclude conduct that may be hazardous to others. For an example, see Brown University’s protest guidelines. [5] Concerning orderly conduct, it is open any political regime to regulate a protest by way of law to ensure that it is orderly. In the UK, protesters conducting a march are obliged to give written notification to the police.[6]

A protest is not necessarily a riot, it may devolve into one but that is not always so

It is clear then that protests are not necessarily disorderly, undisciplined, violent or chaotic. A protest is not necessarily a riot, it may devolve into one but that is not always so. While it is completely acceptable to impose legal sanctions on those who use wanton violence and chaos to express their frustration, it is incorrect and unfair to equate all protests with riots.

The media’s consistent portrayal of protests presents a stereotype that might cause some to doubt the above analysis. Protests are usually portrayed as violent. This is because, such portrayals are likely to attract more viewers; they are more newsworthy. Between, on one hand, a peaceful, lawful demonstration, and on the other, a riot involving tear gas and burning police cars, it is obvious which one will make the news.

Classical sociological theory proposed that people protest to express their grievances stemming from relative deprivation, frustration, or perceived injustice. [7] Grievances are at the heart of every protest. [8] Hence, the social value of protests lies in their ability  to express their grievances; to give a voice to themselves; and thereby initiate positive social change. Examples include the Civil Rights Movement in the US and women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th century. The change brought about by these movements are often taken for granted. Yet, we enjoy the fruits of their labor, even today.

Using false labels and scaremongering tactics as a pretext to ban peaceful assemblies, apart from in Hong Lim Park, does nothing to alleviate the underlying frustrations of the disenfranchised.

A subsidiary but equally important point to note is that because of the relatively small size of Hong Lim Park (compared to say, political rally sites), there is an implicit but ever present severe restriction on the size of any assembly taking place there. This limits a protest’s corresponding ability to gain visibility and traction. Such a repressive limitation adds to the frustration and discontentment of those who harbour grievances against the existing government. Given this fact, can we really fault these people for feeling oppressed?

But what about the cliché view that protests are a practice of “decadent western society”(a hollow term a globalised world) which is apparently in “shambles” [9] and therefore has no place in Singapore?

First, the desire for freedom of assembly and expression is not unique to the “West”. To think so is to adopt a defective understanding of what is at the core of a protest. As outlined above, it is about frustration and discontentment [10] there are obviously not unique to the “West”, as the regular protests many Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and even China demonstrate. Hence, it is fallacious to suggest that the desire for the public expression of frustration and discontentment is unique to the “decadent West” and has no place in our society.

Second, even if protests are really a “western” idea, the argument does not tell us why certain “western” practices are incompatible with Singapore’s cultural identity. It seems to assume that just because a practice is “western” its incorporation is inappropriate, or will necessarily have negative effects. This is untrue. We incorporate “western” practices, norms and even languages in our daily lives, and some of these have improved our society. We adopted American banking systems, British legal traditions, and German industrial technology, to name a few, and these have served us well. Rather than saying “protests are western, so let’s not have it”, we should assess the merits of protests on protests themselves.

In a globalized world, it is very strange to suggest that ideas cannot transcend geographical borders or cultural lines. It is narrow-minded to rush to stomp out these ideas as opposed to understanding their value and think carefully about why such ideas have taken root elsewhere in the world. This is especially so in a multi-racial society which has successfully incorporated multiple cultural identities into a singular Singaporean identity.

It is easy for those in power to ignore discontentment and frustration when the disenfranchised are unable to publicly express it. When we combine the foregoing restrictions on assembly with the level of press freedom in our country, we provide the conditions for stifling dissent. The responsibility of a government in a modern society is to address and resolve grievances, not put a lid on them.

For a lesson from history, consider the following account of the factors that led to the 2011 Arab Spring. [11]

Members of the middle class resented their loss of dignity at the hands of an unaccountable elite. Young people decried a future that looked especially bleak when compared to the expectations of their parents’ generation...”[12]

The above quote was directed at the Arab Spring. It does not describe the status quo in Singapore, but nonetheless touches on the frustrations of many Singaporean today. If history provides any indication, the ruling elite should have cause for concern. Stifling one’s ability to express one’s dissent does not cause dissent to dissipate; but merely amplifies it.


[1] Time Staff, Late Singapore Leader Lee Kuan Yew Had Opinions on Everything (Time, Mar 22, 2015); accessed 30 March 2017

[2] Neo Chai Chin and Ashley Chia, Little India riot: 18 injured, 27 arrested, (Today, 8 December 2013) http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/riot-breaks-out-little-india accessed 30 March 2017

[3] Skelenburg and Klandermans, The social psychology of protest, Sociopedia.isa 2010

[4] ibid

[5] Brown University, Protest and demonstration guidelines, accessed 30 May 2017

[6] Public Order Act 1986, s11

[7] Berkowitz, Frustrations, comparisons, and other sources of emotion aroused as contributors to social unrest, (1972) Journal of Social Issues 28, 77 – 92; Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton University Press 1970);

[8] Ibid n 4 p 2

[9] Lee Teck Chuan, Freedom with responsibility the Singapore way, unlike West, (Today, 1 April 2017)

[10] Ibid n3

[11] Ameera David, No Freedom of Speech on Middle East? (New America Media, 16 July 2010), accessed 30 March 2017

[12] Ishac Diwan, The Arab Spring and the Western Winter (Project Syndicate, 27 March 2017) accessed 30 March 2017

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