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.
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 in Hyde Park, Harvard Square or in front of the Notre Dame, public demonstrations are common, even if there have been incidents of violence.
Yet, our history has taught Singaporeans to fear that protests may 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 then, I was among those who believed that the corner might develop. Today, the park sometimes overflows.
In recent years, we have witnessed the revolutionary power of the streets worldwide, from Egypt to 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 be reckoned with, for better or for worse.
Could Singapore see more, and more widespread, protests in the 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 types of protest: those that voice a cause, and others that seek to change a 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 over 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 in 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 the end of 1999, I was at the World Trade Organisation ministers' meeting in Seattle. There, the streets were filled with more than 40,000 labour unionists, joined by activists from green groups.
Violence broke out right before my eyes. 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 over the Basic Law that brought 500,000 to the streets. Since then, the annual July 1 rally usually musters 100,000.
Some may succeed in making their voices heard powerfully, 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 provoke protests actively to lead to a revolution, without care of the costs in disruption or, worse, lives.
Angry Asian citizens will turn increasingly 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.
The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law. He is concurrently a senior consultant with the law firm Wong Partnership. This is an excerpt of an article which first appeared in The Straits Times.