This is why the criticisms against the MRT protest are flawed

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The police are currently investigating a recent protest on an MRT train organized to draw attention to the Singapore government’s detention of alleged Marxists in 1987 under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The protest involved 7 people wearing blindfolds silently holding up a book on the detentions.

The incident attracted plenty of negative comments online. However, it appears most of those who opposed the protest appear either confused, or are only capable of making personal attacks rather than developing meaningful critiques. This is unfortunate, since it is always good to hear well-reasoned views on controversial issues like these so that we can understand where both sides are coming from.

Nonetheless, if we try hard enough, we can group these comments into three categories. First, those that disapprove of the act of protesting itself. Second, those that disagree with the protesters’ views. Third, those that disagree that the ISA should be abolished. Let us analyze them.

1. Disapproval of the protest itself

Whether it was illegal or not misses the point – the real question is: was it right or wrong?

Those who disagree with the protest itself can be grouped into three categories. First, people who criticize the lawfulness of the protest, rather than its rightness or wrongness.

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Indeed, protesting without a permit is illegal, but to say that “it is illegal and therefore wrong” is a very shallow form of criticism. Many people would agree that the protest was illegal or at best, barely legal. However, whether it was illegal or not misses the point – the real question is: was it wrong?

Just because something is illegal does not make it wrong; similarly, just because something is not illegal does not make it right. The rightness or wrongness of any action is independent of its legality. For example, the Germans who hid and protected their Jewish friends during the Nazi era broke the law, but they arguably did the right thing. On the other hand, cheating on your spouse is not illegal, but many would consider it wrong. Simply arguing for or against something because it is legal/illegal obscures the real issues at stake.

Hence, while it may be possible that the protesters broke the law, my point is that our appraisal of human conduct should take on a more sophisticated form than simply claiming “it is against the law”. Instead we should ask: was what they did wrong? If so, tell me why; don’t be lazy – don’t just tell me they broke the law.

The second category of comments appear to be expressions of disgust and contempt at the protesters. Some said that they had “too much time on their hands”, while others called them “attention-seeking”. I found the latter criticism intriguing. It has a paradoxical status of both hitting the nail on the head and missing the point at the same time. Of course the protest was attention-seeking – the whole point was to bring public attention to the 1987 detentions, but just because it was attention-seeking does not make it wrong or worthy of contempt, especially given the serious issue at stake.

The third category of comments were plain personal attacks.

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Ironically, I found many statements protesting against the protest more vitriolic, sensationalist and hateful than the protest itself, which was silent, passive, and non-inflammatory. So, on the whole, it seems like the protest against the protest was more disruptive, and more of a protest than the protest itself.

The protest against the protest was more disruptive, and more of a protest than the protest itself.

To be fair, a small number of people managed to identify the key issue at stake:

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This attracted responses such as:

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Notice how this exchange is far more constructive, and how it actually engages the rightness/wrongness of the protester’s conduct. Sadly, these are in the minority.

 

2. Disapproval of the protesters’ views

The protest was aimed at drawing attention to the 1987 detentions; the poster put up by the protesters read: “justice for operation spectrum survivors”. If there were to have been any debate about the validity of the protest, this should have been the focus. Posts such as this brought up the issue:

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Unfortunately, nobody opposing the protest seemed to be interested in talking about it, except perhaps this person:

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Whether or not we agree with what Mr Neo is saying, at least he is addressing the point of the protest. So what did the others focus on?

 

3. Disagreeing that the ISA should be abolished

Instead of addressing the protesters’ point, many comments focused on why the ISA should not be abolished.

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Other comments found a way to interweave vitriol and personal attacks against the protesters.

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The personal attacks aside, these criticisms miss the point completely. As I noted earlier, the protest was not about abolishing the ISA, but about “justice for the survivors of operation spectrum”. This is clearly evidenced from the protest ‘signs’ put up.

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The main point the protesters were trying to make was that an investigation is due, and that the government ought to come clean about that incident. This was the only post so far that managed to separate out these two issues:

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The others, on the other hand, seem to miss the point completely.

The use of security legislation to prevent terrorism is not an all-or-nothing issue. It would be very simple-minded to think that way.

However, even if the ISA was a key issue, nowhere did the protesters claim that we should remove all national security legislation and strip the police of all powers, thereby leaving Singapore vulnerable to attack. Hence, critics who accuse the protesters of trying to invite a terrorist attack in Singapore simply do not understand what the ISA debate is about. As Daniel Yap, from The Middle Ground (writing in his personal capacity) put it:

“Few can lower their ideological lenses enough far enough to see this nuance.”

The use of security legislation to prevent terrorism is not an all-or-nothing issue. It would be very simple-minded to think that way. The debate is not whether we should have the ISA or have no security legislation at all. Instead, the debate is about whether there is scope for our national security measures to be altered in a manner that strikes a satisfactory balance between preserving, on one hand, national security, and on the other, ensuring persons are not wrongfully detained and that the use of security powers are not abused. Many people seem to miss this point.

Ironically, the very same people who accused the protesters of being “idiots” and “brainwashed” did not themselves appear to demonstrate the ability to separate out the subtleties that surround the issues at hand. Tragically, what they saw in the actions of others as worthy of censure, was no more than a vivid reflection of themselves.

Conclusion

The point I am trying to make is this: it is completely fine to oppose something; and this applies both to people who protest and people who protest against protests. But for the sake of intelligent and constructive discourse, people need to come up with better arguments, and actually address the issue at hand. I do not expect people to write eloquent and thorough commentaries on Facebook, but surely we can at least avoid personal attacks and engage the key questions at stake, rather than spread hate and vitriol against the people we disagree with?

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

Note: all the Facebook posts featured here are public posts. Out of respect for privacy, we do not publish Facebook posts that do not have their privacy settings set to ‘public’.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, legal theory and political philosophy.

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