Singapore's Failed Occupation

Almost two weeks after Singapore's “Occupy” protest turned out to be an utter failure, nearly alone among Asian cities, the city-state’s political observers are still trying to figure out what happened.

Bloggers have looked at Occupy (fill in the blanks) protesters in Wall Street, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and Greece, many of whom are still in their sleeping bags and tents. In Singapore, the Raffles Place site where the protest was to take place saw almost nary an occupier despite the fact that Singapore’s international financial community is as developed and presumably culpable as any in the world.

The island nation’s bloggers are as vociferous as any on the planet. And, although the event’s Singapore Facebook page scored 3,000 “likes,” and 75 people said they would show up at Raffles Place in the middle of Singapore’s financial district, almost nobody did

"There is no lack of reason for an ‘Occupy Raffles Place’ protest,” wrote a blogger who calls himself “Diary of a Singapore Mind.” “We have higher income inequality than most places like New Zealand and Australia where people turn up to protest income inequality. There is no lack of corporate greed and excessive executive compensation - the ratio of top executive pay to ordinary workers is higher here than in most places where people protested. The social contract here, which has been broken by the high cost of living and rising poverty has left many here feeling their sacrifices are not being repaid but still...there are no protests.”

There is also the resentment over ministerial salaries. Singaporean ministers are probably the world’s best-paid except, of course, for those who are stealing money outright in some of the world’s kleptocracies. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pulls down an astronomical S$3.04 (US$2.45 million) annually. By contrast, US President Barack Obama receives about 25 percent of that amount – US$500,000. Run-of-the-mill ministers receive S$1.57 million annually. There are 24 ministers.

Singaporeans, the blogger wrote, “were good at organizing protests in the 1950s and 1960s. We protested against colonial rule. We protested for independence. We protested for workers' rights. Even in the 1970s, some Singaporeans protested against the Vietnam War.”

But, he said, Singaporeans have over the years “lost their ability to stand up for what is right. There is habitual apathy, a mind-your-own-business attitude and many Singaporeans under years of authoritarianism have learned to leave solutions to the government because political participation by ordinary citizens always comes with a big price - police action and humiliation.

The blame fell mainly on the organizers, whom critics accused of a “lack of audacity. “ The event was discarded as a “joke,” for its lack of organization. However, the one thing the Occupy Wall Street movement has been famous for its lack of cohesion and the fact that Twitter, Facebook and other social media could bring out hundreds, in some cases thousands of protesters without any organization at all.

According to The Online Citizen, a quasi-opposition blog: “Kirsten Han commented on their FB page, “Please, if you want to lead an action you have to be the first to stand up and be counted. I was there. The press was there. As far as we could tell you weren’t there. If you can’t even stand up first then please don’t snark.”

In their defense the organizers said: Just because we didn’t talk to the media doesn’t mean we weren’t there. We are obviously very disappointed with the lack of ground support. We take the blame for lack of logistics and planning, and we apologize for any inconvenience caused.

But perhaps there are other reasons that contributed to the no-show. First, a strong police statement served as a useful deterrent in a country where the most obtuse know the police and the courts will jail anybody the government wants jailed.

The police statement, released to the press in advance of the event read:”Police received reports that a netizen is instigating the public to stage a protest gathering at Raffles Place on Saturday, 15 October 2011 in support of a similar protest action in New York. Police urge members of the public not to be misled and participate in an unlawful activity.

They didn’t. Memories of heavy-handed actions taken against previous public protests in Singapore stirred some fear within those who initially had intended to go. In 2008, Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democrat Party, and a few protestors were arrested for staging a rally walk from the parliament.

Second, what are the Occupy protests about? The Occupy Wall Street protest that sparked off a chain reaction round the world was fueled by a deep sense of discontentment – but with what exactly? As part of the Occupy Wall Street’s statement of purpose:

We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

Though it sounds vague, some such as the Business Insider argued there are legitimate reasons for the Occupy Wall Street Protest: The problem in a nutshell is this: Inequality in this country has hit a level that has been seen only once in the nation’s history, and unemployment has reached a level that has been seen only once since the Great Depression. And, at the same time, corporate profits are at a record high.

“Could the failure to Occupy Raffles Place be attributed to a countenance of malcontent: that a majority of Singaporeans are not so disenchanted with the corporate “greed?” wrote blogger Tng Ying Hui, printed by The Asian Correspondent. “ In other words, those who had been most vocal and vituperative in their attacks are just a tiny fraction of the population. Or perhaps, the majority disagrees fundamentally with the method of showing their discontent?

As the country is going through a transition, Tng wrote, “it becomes harder to assess what lines can be overstepped. No longer can people with certainty say the government will clamp down relentlessly, but the converse is true, too. This murky delineation creates ambivalence that on one hand incites more vocal denouncement of the government on the internet, but on the other, perpetuates a culturally entrenched inertness in reality.”

(With reporting from Asian Correspondent)