On the 16th of February, the largest gathering of protesters post-independent Singapore has ever seen, numbering more than 5000, congregated on the open field of Hong Lim Park (also known as Speakers’ Corner) in a historic bi-partisan protest against the Population White Paper, a plan by the Singapore government conceived out of the challenges of an aging Singapore population.
The anger and disbelief of the protesters, and indeed, most Singaporeans, even MPs of the ruling party, who are apparently not privy to nor consulted with during the conception of the plan, was palpable – young and old, kids and older folks wave placards, shouted slogans and made known their anger in public, a rare sight in the somewhat authoritative state of Singapore where public dissent was often frowned upon and the rights to hold a protest often withheld below so many layers of bureaucratic red tape that it was often not feasible. More than that, the fear of reprise against any public remonstration of dissatisfaction loomed over Singapore for many years following very public legal cases and (some say, secret) persecutions.
The Government’s unveiling of the plan to have 6.9 million people eventually in the very small island state of Singapore by 2030, and worse, to have only slightly more than half of that figure to be made up of native Singaporeans blew up well in its face, especially after the devastating defeat at the Punggol By-Election at the ends of the Workers’ Party. This initial uproar caused several members of the ruling party, including Khaw Boon Wan and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself to backtrack, saying the 6.9 million figure was only a worst case scenario for planning purposes.
It was then promptly pointed out to these leaders that in the past, the ruling People’s Action Party has always exceeded their “worst case scenarios”, made worse by members of the old guard (whom many consider incompetent and the source of problems today) like the clueless Mah Bow Tan exhorting Singapore to “go for the maximum”, creating a classic “facepalm” situation and possibly bringing about the coup d’etat for the ruling party come 2016, where the General Elections will take place.
There was then an extensive parliamentary debate over the white paper, with members of the opposition Workers’ party offering up several alternatives, but the result was never in doubt – as under the party whip, Parliament passed motion (pun intended) on the White Paper, with 77 ayes and 13 nays, prompting cries of “wayang” (play acting) on the whole idea of a debate – that the ruling echelon had already made up its mind, and that the debates were merely all a show.
I witnessed history being made yet again (after the 2011 General Elections, the Punggol East By Election rally, the victory celebrations of the by-elections) that rainy day at Hong Lim Park. I came to photograph a protest, but in the end, I photographed the spirit of the true Singaporean that day, a collective anger at the status quo, a dissatisfaction with the government for turning a deaf hear to many of our concerns, and more importantly, a renewed spirit which cast off the apathy and apolitical mindset of old, a spirit that craves for change, and a belief that we as a nation can, and must, determine our own fate.
We are Singapore, and this is our home. And I’m glad to say, we have matured.
The General Elections in 2016 will be very interesting indeed. The voice of the people cannot be ignored now. We have shown that we care, and we will act, if needed, to be heard.
For more pictures of the protest, please visit my Flicker set. My instagram feed also contains additional images during my live tweeting. Images are copyright – please ask permission if you wish to use them! 🙂