Tuning into a world of protests

Touring protest sites in Bangkok some weeks back, I listened to music, picked up some souvenirs and had a milky, iced Thai tea. The mood was carnival but shrill whistles and placards with slogans like "Thaksin Get Out" make clear the political point.

I felt safe enough in the shutdown centre of the city. But earlier, I had passed a soi or side street where an explosion had injured dozens just 48 hours earlier. I went through Bang Na a day before a vocal protester was shot. 

These are not the first protests in Bangkok. Back in 2006, there were weeks of angry protests against then premier Thaksin Shinawatra, followed by a coup. I stood in the crowd as speakers hurled angry accusations and, the day after the military took control, stood outside Government House next to tanks and gun-toting soldiers.

Those curious about glaciers or the roots of Western civilisation must journey beyond our island. Travel allows us to learn about things that aren’t available in Singapore. Similarly, for those keen to understand human nature and politics, protest may be something else to see first-hand. 

In many parts of the world, there is the notion that ideas can be expressed in the street without threat to civil order. Whether it is Hyde Park, Harvard Square or in front of the Notre Dame, public demonstrations are common even if there have been past incidents of violence. Yet our history has taught Singaporeans to fear that protests quickly devolve into riots and recent events in Little India remind us of possible conflagration. 

The state’s approach to public assembly has nevertheless evolved. In the 1990s, a non-partisan group called the Roundtable (of which I was then a member) proposed having selected free speech venues. The Government introduced the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park although, at first, this was little used. As a Nominated MP, I was among those who believed that the corner might develop. Today, the park sometimes overflows. In recent years, we have witnessed revolutionary power of the streets worldwide, from Egypt and the “Arab Spring” to the Ukraine. Street protests are also witnessed in Asia, not only in Thailand but also in next door Cambodia. 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?

We would be mistaken to hold a naive, romantic notion that is blindly in support of street protests. It may be useful to differentiate between two different types of protest: those that voice a cause, and others that seek to change government – revolution by means other than elections. Both types can run the risk of violence.

But the revolutionary protest is played out for even higher stakes, as a volatile contest about power. Examples include the “People Power” revolution in 1986 in the Philippines that toppled the Marcos power couple, which was reprised  in 2001 against then President Joseph Estrada. In Indonesia, long-serving President Suharto was pushed out from office in 1998 by mass and persistent demonstrations.

The protest of voices, by contrast, tries to symbolise a cause and capture the attention of onlookers and the media. I witnessed this in Tokyo last November. On an evening walk in the park outside my hotel, I encountered citizens – estimated to be as many as 10,000 – demonstrating against secrecy laws proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. With Mr Abe’s party now controlling both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, they fear such laws would too easily be passed. But they were not preaching revolution. There are lessons of civility and of civil and political rights in this example, to allow and also control a demonstration.

Yet things can go wrong even in peaceful protests. At end 1999, I was at the World Trade Organisation ministers’ meeting in Seattle. Trade meetings are often technical and quite secretive. But in Seattle, the streets filled with more than 40,000 labour unionists who felt that globalisation was taking their jobs, joined by activists from green groups who decried environmental harms. Violence broke out before my eyes. Protesters smashed storefront windows at Nike World, already shut in anticipation of problems. Orchestrated by a core of anarchists, they closed down key intersections and even detained government officials. Seattle police responded with tear gas, and the National Guard was called up for “the Battle of Seattle”.

Even societies that had little culture of protests can quickly gain a taste for taking to the streets. In Hong Kong, protests there grew after the 2003 controversy about the Basic Law that brought 500,000 to the streets. Since then, the annual July 1 rally quite usually musters 100,000. Smaller protests are also common, like one in February for media freedom.

Some may succeed in making their voices heard powerfully and yet peacefully. But violence can be stoked. The truth is that not all societies in Asia are ready with the habits and discipline I saw in Tokyo. Some may also actively provoke protests to lead to a revolution, without care of the costs in disruption or, worse, lives.

In Bangkok, when protests moved into Lumpini Park, I watched as workers dismantled the stages that had blocked major city intersections for months and cost untold billions to the economy. I was drinking  my favourite Thai tea. At the start, it’s cold, sweet and milky. But drink on, and there is the tannic taste of brewed tea. We can only hope that the protests will not, like the sweet Thai tea, end bitterly.

Angry Asian citizens increasingly will turn to the streets to raise their concerns if the normal channels cannot accommodate them. But whether in Bangkok or elsewhere, the different factions must retreat from violence and be open to compromise. No one can govern from the streets.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, an independent think-tank, and associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law. He is concurrently senior consultant with the law firm Wong Partnership.