Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not Keeping Mum at MOM

Just a few days ago, the premises of the Ministry of Manpower was yet another venue for grouses. This time it was not Chinamen about their wages, but 2 peaceful citizens standing up for their Burmese friends who are bearing the brunt of the government's relatively justified wrath. The police arrested the duo but not the China workers.

Legal Protest Alternative Scorned

In 2007, members of the Burmese community here staged several protests against the SPDC. The government in its typical intolerance of any political demonstration by locals or foreigners, bid its time to lessen any political fallout and decided to indirectly expel the supposed Burmese trouble-makers styled as the Overseas Burmese Patriots only recently. No forced expulsion, but just letting the Burmese activists' visas expire without them being renewed.

It is hard not to sympathise with the Burmese in their condemnation of their junta. But the Burmese probably knew that their public show of defiance in Singapore would cost them, especially when the government offered them indoor protests as legal alternatives to more visible and vocal outdoor but illegal protests.

Similarly, Seelan Palay and Chong Kai Xiong had legal alternatives to stage their protest but they deliberately planned to brush off the government in the spirit of civil disobedience. Instead of bringing their case to Speakers' Corner, they challenged the law that protests can only be held in that little patch of Singapore. This resulted in the MOM protest and a subsequent high profile arrest. Like the Burmese activists they want to represent, birds of a feather indeed flock together. All had legal alternatives to advance their cause but they chose an illegal and therefore publicity-getting option.

Activism Through Law-Breaking

By the way, is law-breaking the means to an end, or is it the end in itself? It does seem so with some activists. There is a subtext to the MOM protest and arrest. The whole idea of lawful and unlawful protests is being contested at one point, but at another point from the activists' perspective, the decision to choose either a lawful or an unlawful protest depends on publicity possibly generated. Activism is to promote a cause. Publicity helps in that promotion. Connection to the SDP, a brush with the law and the taste of forbidden fruit are tried and tested means of publicity. Singaporeans can expect more calibrated law-breaking activism from the likes of Seelan Palay and Chong Kai Xiong.