My initial reaction on hearing that Gilbert Goh had planned to carry out the burning of an effigy of transport minister Lui Tuck Yew was shock and disappointment. There’s got to be a better way to express one’s dissatisfaction with the government and their increasingly authoritarian system. A pile of ashes is not going to contribute much to nation building, not least if it distracts from much more important questions around an economic model of state control in key industries that leaves citizens short-changed. I’m still glad that the act didn’t go ahead, but when The Online Citizen reported that the government had gone so far in 2008 as explicitly stating that burning of effigies would be legal at Hong Lim Park, it became clear that there is another side to this story.
Fight for your rights
Singaporeans are losing their rights and even their constitutional freedoms at an alarming rate. The right to freely run a website with 50,000 visitors and the constitutional right to move freely throughout Singapore have both been diminished recently. The right to go to court to have unlawful government behaviour stopped was also tossed out of the window last year. The right to “protest” at Hong Lim Park remains, but we would do well to remember that even this limited right to express dissent had to be hard-fought for by Chee Soon Juan and others. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t believe that the ruling party gave up such a permission without calculating the pros and cons. Singapore’s ruling party has often been criticised both locally and by international observers for being tremendously intolerant of dissent. I believe the decision to allow demonstrations at Hong Lim Park was a tactical face-saving exercise, a decision made to show the world that the PAP can liberalise and take criticism. The naming of the location “Speaker’s Corner” – after a location in London’s Hyde Park by the same name – probably betrays the fact that this decision was designed for international consumption.
So the fact that the government came out in the state controlled media in 2008 and explicitly said that effigy burning would be allowed is important. When the Ministry of Home Affairs says that something is allowed, we should be able to take them at their word. But were they bluffing? Perhaps threats to arrest Gilbert for putting fire to a likeness of the transport minister were misplaced. But it is not hard to see that the political winds have changed since 2008. At that time it may have been a relatively safe PR move to say that such provocative acts are allowed, because probably no one in government believed anyone was about to go ahead and do such a thing. But now times have changed, politically the heat is on, people are angry, and suddenly it seemed like a valid way for Gilbert and others to express their feelings. And the official stance was actually the opposite of what was reported previously – in fact such behaviour would have seen Gilbert arrested.
Call for clarity
Singaporeans deserve some clarity and even consistency from the government. If something was legal once, how can it become illegal now, without any legislative changes? A failure to clarify will leave the impression lingering that such behaviour is in fact illegal and probably would never have been tolerated. The implication that previous claims to the contrary were lies is hard to avoid. Lies put forward by the government to show the PAP’s critics that the ruling party are open-minded and liberal in the face of criticism, when in fact the truth is – and always has been – the opposite. Gilbert apparently, perhaps inadvertently, called the government’s bluff, and the accusation of dishonesty is staring LHL’s government in face. Will he come out and “clarify”?