In Defence of Protest Culture
BY POH YONG HAN
As the recent debacle over Yale-NUS’s cancellation of the dissent and resistance program shows, many Singaporeans remain fundamentally wary of, and averse to, “protest culture”. “Protest culture” is framed as subversive, violent, unnecessary, and a threat to the stability that has served Singapore well in the past few decades. While the government is understandably concerned, I want to show why these concerns are rooted in flawed assumptions, and make a case for encouraging “protest culture” in Singapore.
First, what is “protest culture”? Protests invoke images of mass demonstrations, riots, and sit-ins, all of which common tactics used by civic activists, often to advocate for a cause or protest a government policy. Protest culture is most commonly associated with the kind we see in liberal western democracies – the #MeToo movement, for instance, or the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States. At the heart of protest culture is a firm belief in the value of free speech, and the power of the collective in making demands on the state. Protest culture thus has its roots in the democratic ideals that enable them to take place: justice, equality, and fraternity, to name some of them.
One of the most common critiques of “protest culture” is the potential for protests to turn violent, and its inevitable damage to a country’s economic, political and social stability. Hong Kong is most often cited as an example – what was originally a peaceful movement quickly spiralled into violent chaos, paralyzing the city. In this view, the propensity for protests to turn violent means that protests pose a fundamental existential threat to the state. After all, violence has the capacity to disrupt almost everything from public infrastructure like the transport network to the political system itself. As a financial hub, Singapore is especially vulnerable to shifts in investor confidence, which is easily undermined by the perception of instability that protests and political uncertainty can bring. Given that investors like violent protest as much as Mahathir likes Singapore, many argue that the potential for any protest to slide down a slippery slope and turn into a violent mudslide means that protests of any kind should not be tolerated.
Protests, however, need not be violent. Countless protests the world over have not let to violence: the nationwide strike in 2019 by Swiss women to protest gender inequalities, the anti-racists protests in London, or Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future protests that have now spread to 150 countries (Singapore included). Equating all protests with the kind of paralyzing violence we see in Hong Kong is overly alarmist, and risks discounting the broader value of protests which will be discussed later. What Hong Kong does show though, is that some protests can turn violent, as in the case of Syria and many other revolutionary movements. However, the clear difference between the types of protests cited is that the latter is clearly existential, in that fulfilling demands of protestors in the latter camp (in Hong Kong, independence from China; and Syria, an overthrow of Assad) requires a fundamental shift in the entire political structure of the state. This makes negotiation and compromise inherently impossible, and escalation likely. Protests about climate change or gender equality, however, seem unlikely to degenerate in the kinds of violence the state is afraid of. It seems to me that a better question would be to ask why some protests turn violent, and then design rules to mitigate that from happening, rather than discounting the value of protests altogether. Further, even where protests have occasionally turned violent, the violence has occasionally been necessary in order to achieve the ideals of greater equality. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States witnessed lynching, attacks, and even murders, but who today would deny that the movement was pivotal in helping enforce constitutional rights for African Americans?
A possible rejoinder would be that even if protests – at the risk of violence – may be instrumental in the face of severe and deep injustice with no possibility of compromise by the state, why the need for other kinds of protests at all if existing channels are sufficient for encouraging “constructive” dissent? Such a view concedes that protest culture could be one way of surfacing important critiques of existing policies and institutions, but contends that protests are not necessarily the best way of doing so. As various public figures have voiced out, if you can engage policy makers and politicians through official channels such as MPS sessions, closed-door dialogues, and forums like REACH, why bother engaging in protests at all?
The main difference between “protests” and the official channels cited above is that they are two fundamentally different forms of dissent. Official channels largely take place in the private realm, involve negotiation between a limited number of individuals, and are often localized to specific issues. Protests however take place in the public realm, often speak to broader, national issues, and thus inspire a collective consciousness in the process. This makes protests highly visible in the public arena, and can be a useful way of aggregating and shifting public opinion. The disruptive nature of protests also helps challenge the view that existing channels are sufficient to address all dissent. Private forms of dissent end up legitimizing the state as the sole arbiter of change in cases where the state claims credit for a policy change that was only made after private dissent. This limits change, however, to what is palatable to the top, and makes it difficult for anyone not in power to push for any kind of change, even basic and uncontroversial reforms. Public forms of dissent such as protests help introduce transparency into the policy-making process by making visible the kinds of complex negotiations that take place when competing interests, demands, and stakeholders intersect. Protests also shift the power dynamic between the individual and the state – the solo advocate might not be able to persuade politicians of the importance of climate change, but a mass climate rally is a powerful signal that a significant population cares. Protests also serve other functions, not just for the goals of the protest itself, but also for the protestors involved. Simply joining a protest can also be a valuable form of emotional release, and a form of validation that other people also identify with similar concerns or support them. Attendees of Pink Dot who identify as queer, for example, might feel less alone, even if only temporarily, when surrounded by other LGBTQ persons and allies.
Some might respond to this by arguing that even if protests were useful in concentrating political attention on particular issues, they often fail to actually change policy. In contrast to the kinds of “constructive dissent” permitted by the state, where backdoor negotiation often leads to tangible policy outcomes, protests everywhere from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Pink Dot rallies in Singapore have failed to actually materialize into concrete policy changes. In this view, protests are nothing more than a kind of “social theatre we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right”, ephemeral, and impractical especially in Singapore’s context.
Such a functionalist view of protests however adopts a “cause-and-effect” analysis that is overly simplistic. Protests may not have an immediate effect on policy, but they help lay the seeds for future policy change in many ways. For one, protests often take time to grow into a collective movement, and implant their message in the national consciousness. This takes patience, hard work, and a firm belief in the purpose of the protest. Before Pink Dot was the widely known icon it is today, with a record crowd of 26,000 in 2014, LGBTQ issues were still on the periphery. Although the goals of the movement – particularly to abolish 377A – have not yet materialized, the movement has certainly helped shift public debate in the direction that activists desire, first by highlighting LGBTQ discrimination as an important topic of discussion, and then by gathering mainstream support and elevating it into the national consciousness. Regardless of whether official laws have changed, awareness and activism have certainly gathered momentum.
Critiques of protest culture would argue this is precisely the sort of thing the state is trying to avoid – in this view, protests, like any form of “activism”, are deeply divisive, and would likely polarize the nation. Protest culture, however, need not lead to a slippery slope of divisive identity politics, if it is rooted in a thoughtful, engaged citizenship. This cuts to the heart of the state’s distrust of protests – a fundamental lack of respect for, or trust in, the citizenry by the state due to paternalism. Such paternalism views protestors as petulant children who make demands without considering the complex challenges that policymakers face and inevitable trade-offs they have to make. Protests are seen as outlets for populism, racism, and xenophobia, rather than a meaningful intervention into existing debates. This may well be true – in Germany, the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement has launched protests in several cities across Europe. The state however simply has to trust that its citizens are capable of resisting bigotry – in London, for example, tens of thousands marched to protest against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism. The paradox is that to cultivate the kind of civic-minded citizenry necessary to counter the potentially incendiary impact of protests, you first have to create the spaces that enable such civic-mindedness to flourish – “liberal hotbeds” like Yale-NUS included. Even if it were to lead to “identity politics”, however, it might not necessarily be bad for the state. Protests and counter-protests are all products of a healthy democracy, and thus help engage a wider public in important discourse that is often overlooked because it involves only a small minority of people. Particularly on divisive issues without clear normative positions, protests could serve as proxies on public opinion and might help the state weigh in on issues where it is uncertain how to act.
This is not to say that protest for protest sake should be encouraged, but that thoughtful, civically minded protest culture should be allowed to flourish and even cultivated. To do so, the state should promote the kinds of critical thinking in its educational framework, and allow civil society to generate the kinds of productive conversations that might lead to more diverse and inclusive policies. Protests fundamentally shift the culture of decision-making from a top-down bureaucratic one to one that is ground-up, participatory, and collective, which is not only not a bad thing, but a decisively good one. The idea of an all-knowing state that views itself as the pinnacle of knowledge is outdated, as even top government leaders say regularly in public. In an age of increased complexity and in which the population has grown to demand more of a say, protest allows all people to make their voices heard, helping to surface opinions that might change Singapore for the better, but might otherwise never be heard or taken seriously by the state.
The Economist once branded Singapore ‘the nanny state’. Well, the state must be a victim of its own success, because the children have grown up. It is time to loosen the reins and free up more discursive spaces for protest culture to take place. Rather than see protests as a threat to the survival of the state, the state should see protests as a natural product of an active citizenry who no longer need to be coddled by a benevolent technocracy. Protestors are not seeking to topple the government – at least, most of them are not. Those who are can be punished accordingly by both the state and the court of an informed and enlightened public’s opinions. The majority who are not violent, however, should not suffer for the few. By encouraging the kinds of civic consciousness and active citizenry that protest culture both enables and represents, the state and the society are both made more resilient. If anything, protests are borne from a deep love of the state: they are motivated by a strong desire to see Singapore succeed, in spite of the odds.
Poh Yong Han is a senior (fourth-year undergraduate) at Harvard University concentrating in Social Anthropology and East Asian Studies.
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