Thursday, 16 October 2014


The Sunday Times editorial/opinion editor asked,  "What would move Singaporeans to Protest"?

In her opinion, it would be "whether there are fair rules, and whether government and people play by those rules."

That is, Singaporeans will protest if they perceive the rules as being unfair, or there is an uneven playing field, like say if there were corruption.


That's why China with much corruption, and where guanxi matters more than merit, the people are protesting and rioting all the time.


They are not?

What about Malaysia which has a transparency rating of 50 (compared to Singapore's 86) from Transparency International 2013 ranking, which means that they are more corrupt than Singapore? Or Indonesia (rating of 32 - even more corrupt than China). They should be protesting everyday! Except... they are not. At least not in the numbers in HK.

Maybe I am mis-interpreting her point?

Maybe her point is specific to Singapore. That is, it is not the absolute level of corruption (so no point comparing with Malaysia, China, or Indonesia) in the country, but that Singapore is relatively corruption-free, and so there are fair rules for everyone. In other words, being used to fairness (non-corruption) for so long, a betrayal of this principle of fairness will be what bring Singaporeans "up-in-arms" so to speak.

That is simplistic, and wishful thinking.

There was no groundswell of resistance or opposition when the GRC was introduced, despite the best efforts of the opposition parties. There was no opposition to the Nominated MP scheme. There was no protest when the Elected Presidency was introduced. There was no street protest when the GRC grew to 6-seats at the largest. There were no mass protest when the minimum sum was introduced and when it was raised year by year, until recently when it was raised to $155k, and even then it was just a few thousand uninformed people, many of whom were probably just trying their luck (or just like to heckle special needs children).

Or were these new policies or rules seen (grudgingly) as mainly fair?

Why would Singaporeans protest? What would drive Singaporeans to protest? From the comment:
"They may take our lives, but they will never take away our Freedom"

In HK, replace "Freedom" with "Democracy" (though that is not being taken away. They never had it in the first place).

So in Singapore, the question must be, how do you complete this sentence:
"They may take our lives, but they will never take away _________"?
The HK students protesting China's proposal to pre-approve the candidates for Chief Executive of HK believe that they are fighting for "true democracy". A principle that they think would safeguard their identity, and their way of life. The issue is very nuanced and I don't want to get into whether they are truly being denied a promise China made.

The Opinion Editor noted that student activism were seriously curtailed in SG by the 1970s. More on that later.

What would Singaporeans fight for? Die for? How would Singaporeans complete this "mission statement"?
"They may take our lives, but they will never take away _________"?

Because that is the reality that would-be protestors will have to ask themselves: Am I willing to be hurt, beaten, injured, possibly killed for *this*?

And what is "this"? Rising COE? Increasing CPF Minimum Sum? Rising Housing costs? Rising Inflation? Declining standards in our public transport system? Increasing Cable TV charges just to watch football?

Am I willing to step up to protest what is [sic] essentially conveniences [or inconveniences?], or First World Problems?

Even "essentials" like Housing is not clear cut. For every one person who is having trouble buying a flat because of rising costs, there are 19 other people who already own their flats (and so are not affected) or are trying to sell their flats (and so would like prices to be higher, but are keeping quiet because the political and social situation is not really right for them to brag about owning a flat that they want to sell for high prices).
What would Singaporeans be willing to (possibly) die for? Or risk death for?

We are too comfortable. We've all got plans and contingencies. Our lives are too complex too intertwined to be reduced to a single principle or be resolved by championing a single cause. Our interests and affiliation are too diverse to be rallied by a single, simple clarion call, or represented by a single interest group.

As the example above notes about housing. At the peak of the problem maybe 1 in 20 persons are affected by high housing costs. Sure, parents of young adults who are unable to afford flats may sympathise, but their sympathy may be conflicted, if they (the parents) are also flat owners (hoping to cash in their flats for their retirement).

So no. I do not think Singaporeans will rise up simply because of some unfair rule change. Life in Singapore is too complex to be reduced to a single issue, and even if it could be reduced to a single issue, there is no guarantee that the majority of Singaporeans will fall on one side or the other of the issue.

And even if a super-majority of Singaporeans fall onto one side of an issue, is it an issue that they are willing to die for?  Too dramatic? But that's precisely what a protest is - too dramatic.

Wanna make Singaporeans stand up and protest, risking life and limb?

Here's a four-step method.

Step 1. Reduce the amount of things the protesters have to lose.

Generally, this is a given for protests in very very poor countries. It is also why protesters are often students - they haven't accumulated anything to lose. Note that the two leaders of the GiveBackOurCPFMoney are a 22 year old blogger (is that even a job?) and a 33-yr-old who has lost his job. Their best-known supporter is a 71 year old homeless vandal, who may have been the smartest of the three (he got 4 weeks free room and board from the government for his trouble).

The HK protesters are also mostly students. And while they MAY not have much to lose (I do not know for sure), they at least put their safety and well-being on the line.

But now they are facing a backlash from other HK-ers who simply want to get back to the business of doing business.

Similarly, it is not enough to have nothing-to-lose students protesting. They must be implicitly supported by the rest of society. The rest of society should not impede them, oppose them, or publicly criticise them. The uniquely Singaporean approach - getting the parents of students to break their protest (Oct, 1956) would also undermine the movement.

Explicit support would be even better - if the rest of society joins the protesters.

But generally, non-students would have too much to lose. They are too invested in the system and the status quo to risk overthrowing the system and losing their "investment". Unless they too are poor, and the system is so weak and so poor that it cannot promise them a better future.

Singapore is too rich to protest. Not that there are no poor people in Singapore. There are. But most Singaporeans are, if not rich, at least people with a lot to lose in a social or political upheaval that might follow a successful or even partially successful protest.

In other words, Singapore has to be so very very poor that most Singaporeans would have nothing to lose, that a protest that would overturn everything is better than the status quo.

BUT, you may ask, how come HK has a protest? They are also as rich (if not richer) than Singaporeans. But they are protesting.

But it is the students who are the core protesters. At times some mainstream HK-ers have come in to swell the ranks and show support for the students, especially after the police violence. But after two weeks, the rest of HK seems (not sure if they were instigated by the authorities as the protesters seem to think) to have lost their patience with the protesters.

Ah, but if that can happen in HK where a segment of the population with nothing to lose can start a protest, it can also happen in Singapore.

Maybe. If the issue is reduced to a simple rallying call to stand up for a honourable principle.

Step 2: Simplify the cause to one that affects almost everyone (or a simply majority), and put it on "moral high ground", or give it a moral "spin".

One might think that GiveBackOurCPFMoney, might well appeal to ALL Singaporeans. After all, we ALL have CPF money.

But GBOCM appeals to our need for instant gratification ("I want ALL my CPF Money NOW!"), but many, if not most Singaporeans have been raised to delay gratification, to work for gratification. So many (needs cite) cannot support GBOCM, without feeling a little guilty about demanding instant gratification.

In other words, there was no moral high ground for GBOCM. The minimum sum was introduced because a) some CPF members were keeping wives in Batam/Bintan, Haadyai/Chiangmai, etc, b) some CPF members were being cheated, and c) members were spending all their money within a few years leaving nothing for the rest of their old age. Most people see GBOCM as pandering to irresponsibility. There is no moral high ground or principle there.

Put another way, the HK students were protesting for Democracy. (I will leave aside the issue of whether they have grounds to do so, but their cause at least has high moral grounds). GBOCM on the other hand seems like a cry for instant gratification. Base, selfish reasons. In any case, most Singaporeans have no idea what to do with their CPF.

So the question, not answered by GBOCM, for most Singaporeans was, "then what do I do with the money?"

What else are most Singaporeans pissed off about and how can those be raised to a moral high ground, or a basic human right? As noted (quoted above), Housing may not be the unifying issue one may think it is. Sure we all need homes, but most of us are in the homes we have. Rising COE? There are about 1 million vehicles on the road, so that's a lot of people. BUT... like flats, those who want cars only really care that they can't get cars. After they get their cars, they would rather others did not get cars and congest the roads. Anyway, a street protest would just mean road would be impassable to traffic, and they would have to leave their cars at home.

There is irony in going to a street protest on foot to protest expensive COEs while making the roads impassable to traffic.

Or is there?

In any case, there are no human rights that proposes that we all have a right to own a car. There is no moral high ground for needing a private vehicle. The car is (also) a status symbol.

Also, while there are those who want cars, there are also those who realise how silly it is to want to own cars in Singapore. Against the car aficionados are the cyclists, the climate/ environmentalist, and nature lovers. Build a road through Bukit Brown? There was an objection raised by the green lobby.

Okay, how about the environment, climate change, and renewable energy? Can they be the group to protest? They can protest, but they would not have the numbers to be significant.

Same also for animal lovers. When the puppy was euthanised, the internet was polarised. Some excoriated the woman for euthanising the puppy for "convenience". Others defended her for protecting her children. Animal welfare/rights and environmental concerns are not mainstream enough to lead to a groundswell uprising of a significant number of the populace to publicly protest policies relating to these issues.

Public Transport. The standards and reliability are not as high as what Singaporeans are used to. Protest? The reason Singaporeans are unhappy is that the public transit is taking their time from getting to work on time or getting home on time, or early. Somehow, a protest which requires sitting around all day would seem to take away even more of their time.

So no.

Can all these minor complaints be reduced to a simple, single cause or principle?


Foreign Workers/Talents coming here and crowding our public transit, raising the prices of our homes, and taking our jobs? Well, unemployment in Singapore is low, About 3%. Most foreign workers are here to do jobs few Singaporeans want (e.g. construction). Certainly there are sufficient angst and anxiety about foreigners in our midst. But about 20% of our households have foreign maids. Most of our businesses cannot survive without foreign labour, and critics of foreigners are sufficiently intolerant and bigoted (witness the uninformed denouncement of Joseph Schooling as a foreign talent) to open themselves up to charges of xenophobia.

There are thoughtful and targeted criticism of foreign labour in Singapore, but ironically, they get tarred with the same brush of xenophobia/xenophobe because of the unthinking bigots. So they can't even get to moral high ground.

Step three: The protest has to be over a life-and-death issue

The HK students' protest was over a way of life issue. The pushback from the working class HK-ers was a livelihood issue.

In Singapore, do we have a way of life? (No, Courtesy isn't a way of life. At least not in Singapore. Yet. Maybe.).

Well, we may be unhappy about losing our hawker heritage which one could call a "way of life". But what would we be protesting? The "invasion" of new hawkers from China and Philippines? The unwillingness of hawkers to slave away for low profits?

The problem is most of the complaints Singaporeans have in recent years are not life-and-death issues.

High COE. Unreliable and overcrowded public transit. High prices of property. Inflation. High cable charges to watch World Cup and EPL. These are conveniences or even luxuries. First World Problems.

What would be life and death or at least basic livelihood issues are Retirement Adequacy and Income Inequality. These are very politically relevant issues.

BUT, there would only be grounds to protest if a) nothing is being done about it, or b) something is being planned that would exacerbate the problem.

Which brings us to the next step

Step Four: Do nothing about the life-and-death/livelihood/way of life issues, or do things with very little impact, or better yet, do things to exacerbate the problem.

The problem of retirement adequacy and income inequality are known and there are official attempts to address them.

GBOCM is not exactly helping - to those smart enough to understand the issue. GBOCM is not the solution. It is the problem.

CPF Life is part of the solution. It is not a complete answer - $1200 monthly allowance is only a start. It probably needs to be more.

Some CPF critics have called for higher interest rates for CPF savings. What is their basis for such call, are these higher rates sustainable, and what is the investment strategy to ensure higher returns are all questions conveniently ignored. It is easy to call for higher interest rates. But any investment that offers higher interest rates will come with higher risks.

Income Inequality is another germane issue. And again, there are some attempts at improvements, and some steps (wage ladder) are being taken. And as long as there are steps taken, there is no (or less) need for protests.

Protests may also arise when there are viable credible alternatives that the government dismisses out of hand or shows that they are unwilling to consider.

In summary, Singapore is a long way from a street protest. The conditions just aren't there.

But I could be wrong.

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