Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong: What will get Singaporeans out onto the streets in Hong Kong style protests?

It’s protest season.

Protests in Bangkok throughout much of 2014, ending only when the  military stepped in and mounted a  coup.

In Cambodia, protests over electoral fraud angst sparked by the July 2013 election, continuing into July 2014.

In Taipei, the Sunflower movement protests in  March and April this year, over a trade pact with China that saw protesters occupying the legislative chamber.

In Hong Kong, protests since Sept 29, over terms for the Chief Executive election in 2017.

The question in many cocktail and kopitiam chats: Will those kind of mass protests break out in Singapore too? And would that be a good or bad thing?

In Singapore, public assemblies and protests are allowed in free speech venue Hong Lim Park, but not in other public places.

To be sure, the Republic is no stranger to mass gatherings: National Day Parades; the Swing Singapore parties of yore; and election mass rallies are testament to that.

But the country has not seen a public protest of the kind in neighbouring cities since the 1960s.

In the 1970s, a wave of student activism did break out.  There were student demonstrations against a 10-cent hike in bus fares and a tuition fee hike of $100. The arrests of student leaders like Tan Wah Piow stopped the wave.

By 1975, according to historian Mary Turnbull, it was the end of student activism.

And so it has remained till today.

But will things change? Will students and young people here take to the streets to protest?

Former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, in a column in The Straits Times last month, mused: “Bear in mind that there have been large-scale demonstrations in Seoul, Taipei and Hong Kong. Singapore has had a few protests at Hong Lim Park, each with attendees numbering in the thousands.

“Will more widespread protest spread beyond Hong Lim Park in Singapore? We need to reflect on this possibility.”

In April, law professor and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Simon Tay asked a similar question. Citing protests in neighbouring countries, he said: “The angry Asean citizen is a growing factor to reckon with, for better or worse. Could Singapore see more, and more widespread, protests in future?”

As someone who has seen protests around the world up close, Simon has some advice: “We would be mistaken to hold a naive, romantic notion that is blindly in support of street protests.”

What determines if Singaporeans will march on the streets?

I think it depends ultimately on whether there are fair rules, and whether government and people play by those rules.

If a society has fair rules to govern elections, there’s no need for people to take to the streets. The vote gives people voice and power.

If people think rules for elections are  too unfair, that’s a trigger point, because they will lose faith in the democratic process and decide that street politics is better than ballot box politics.

If people agree that rules on public assemblies are fair, then activists and leaders should play by those rules. Then there’s slim chances of things getting out of hand.

Hong Lim Park protests have been peaceful - so much so that when one CPF protest rally encroached onto the ground of another group event at the park, many Singaporeans online and off rallied against such behaviour, vilifying it. Social norms are set that way.

Will Hong Lim Park remain enough for Singaporeans? Will more want to take part in public demonstrations beyond that 6,000 sq metres?

So far, there’s little indication that such a desire is strong in any except a small number of activists who want to march to the Istana or Parliament House.

Walter Woon, former attorney-general, said in his inimitable way: “We have already seen how a small accident can snarl up traffic. Imagine what a march on Parliament would do.”

For now, the valve that is Hong Lim Park remains sufficient for  Singaporeans to let off steam peaceably when they want to mount a public demonstration. It’s been good for 14 years.

For how long more? Your guess is as good as mine.

muihoong@sph.com.sg