It seems like every month now there’s a protest taking place in Singapore. If it isn’t the Population White Paper, it’s the MDA ruling on news sites that gets people out of their house and flocking to Hong Lim Park to voice their discontentment. On the one hand, it’s good to know Singaporeans feel strongly enough about issues to actually get together and express themselves. It’s the sign of a mature democracy when rules and decisions can be questioned, discussed, and even made fun of.
But on the other hand, crowds of angry people are rarely a good omen, as spirits can quickly get roused and actions can spiral out of control. The recent events in Turkey are a good example; what started out as a peaceful protest against the demolition of a park turned into a violent and bloody riot that spread across the entire country. Had the police refrained from using excessive force against protesters and had demonstrators not headed to the protest already carrying deep resentment, the situation never would have escalated so quickly and so fiercely. Could this have been avoided? Most definitely. Could something similar ever happen in Singapore? Not really. In Turkey, the population is calling for Prime Minister Erdogan’s resignation despite his decade of economic and political accomplishments. Protesters claim he’s turning into a ‘dictator’ displaying a paternalistic style of ‘knowing what’s best’ for the country. In these regards, Singapore has some similarities. Many, especially foreigners, have seen LKY’s leadership as too strong-handed, where decisions and rules are strictly and pragmatically enforced in the best interests of citizens. At the same time, no one can say that our little country hasn’t made incredible leaps in terms of social development and economic prosperity. The problem is that as the country’s population grows and as resources and services (jobs, housing, schools, etc.) dwindle, discontentment is being voiced over a number of previously (we’re talking the 70s to 90s here) undiscussed issues: competition with foreign talent, overpopulation, and rising costs of living, along with the growing impression that the government is not on Singaporeans’ side. Back when Singapore was building itself as an independent nation people were more concerned with pressing matters such as inflation, unemployment, and sustainability. Dissatisfaction came in the form of wage negotiations, strikes, unrest, and economic disruption. It was a time when Singapore had already developed an early understanding that such outbursts can never effectively resolve conflicts, and thus models such as tripartism came into play. This approach went on to serve as the foundation to all of Singapore’s plans, ensuring that the system first caters to people’s basic needs – survival and the economic opportunity to flourish – so as not to give anyone a reason to feel not taken care of. Citizens were first and foremost represented as employees through the labour movement, and so their voices were heard. That’s why, despite having to address various issues, it is highly unlikely that protests in Singapore will ever turn into violent outburst like in Turkey. Compared to back in the days, many modes of outreach have been put in place for people to express themselves; Ministries, town councils, SG Conversation, public consultation exercises, internet forums, etc. Heck, write in to complain on The Straits Times and the relevant Ministry will respond in an instance! Unlike in Turkey, our voices are heard. Our institutions work. Our elected officials are working for us. Of course, not all whims and fancies can be entertained, but there is always a time and a place for constructive discussions. As in every other country, unattended dissatisfactions and escalating divide between the government and the governed can drive citizens beyond a reconcilable point. Thankfully everything here is designed so that such a point is never reached.