Why Singapore will not replicate Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests

Author: Dylan Loh Ming Hui, RSIS

On 27 September, hundreds of people staged a ‘Return Our Central Provident Fund’ (CPF) protest rally at Hong Lim Park, Singapore. Simultaneously in Hong Kong, the Occupy Central movement, combined with student-led classroom boycotts, morphed into a bigger and broader pro-democracy protest — paralysing key financial and administrative locations such as Admiralty, Civic Square and Harcourt Road.

Pro-democracy protesters wait for the arrival of Letitia Lee See-yin, leader of the anti-occupy 'Blue Ribbon' group, in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on 7 October 2014. (Photo: AAP).

Some internet commenters were quick to draw similarities between the Hong Lim Park protests and the larger protests in Hong Kong. On the surface, there are commonalities. In both countries, discontent has been fuelled by a cocktail of rising costs of living, high property prices, an influx of foreigners that are seen as threatening local geographical, cultural and social spaces, and the rise of a more vocal and politically conscious youth.

In Singapore’s case, a series of protests at Hong Lim Park were organised and spearheaded by two relatively young activists — Roy Ngerng (33 years old) and Han Hui Hui (22). The leaders of the protests in Hong Kong were even younger, with one of the main protesters Joshua Wong a mere 17 years old.

The supposed similarities have led some to ask will — or when will — Singapore do a ‘Hong Kong’? The short answer is it won’t. There are three main reasons why the protests in Hong Kong will not be replicated in Singapore.

First, the institutions and structures present in Hong Kong are supportive of democracy, as opposed to Singapore’s, which inhibit it. Prospects for democracy in Hong Kong are supported by three key factors: a vibrant and relatively independent media landscape, an autonomous intellectual and academic community, and fiercely independent unions.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, among many others, voiced their support for the protests. In addition to that, many private companies such as Swire Coca-Cola HK Ltd, the leading soft drink manufacturer in Hong Kong, have publicly stated that they support their workers who have gone on strike. This structural support, coupled with a history of peaceful and lawful protests in Hong Kong, creates the necessary material and socio-cultural conditions for the present protests.

In Singapore the situation is dramatically different.

Singapore’s media is tightly controlled. Legislation such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act grant the Minister wide powers and discretion to allow or disallow newspapers from operating.

The relationship between unions and the Singapore government is also a symbiotic one. The secretary general of the National Trade Union Congress is also a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. And while strikes can be legal, the requirements for legality are so onerous that they are very unlikely to happen unless sanctioned by the National Trade Union Congress.

Academics are arguably autonomous, but self-censorship is still very much present and political advocacy is mainly restricted to pen and paper. Compared to Hong Kong, Singapore’s social institutions inhibit democracy and are unlikely to support, or create, the conditions for a massive protest.

Second, Singapore lacks the capacity to mobilise mass protests. Unhappy as some Singaporeans may be, discontent is ultimately not sufficiently strong enough to catalyse the small sporadic protests in Hong Lim Park, and the faceless online demonstrations, into a bigger and broader movement.

Besides, unlike in Hong Kong, there is no single issue that unites the dissident camp in Singapore. Protestors in Hong Lim Park have rallied for various causes with concern over the Central Provident Fund being one of the more recent examples. CPF is a mandatory savings plan for working Singapore citizens and permanent residents. They each contribute around 20 per cent of their gross income to the CPF. In recent years, there has been unhappiness over restrictions placed on the utilisation of this money.

Unlike in Hong Kong, protests in Singapore are more opportunistic, fluid and localised.

Finally and most importantly, the root of the problem in Hong Kong and the chief reason for acts of civil disobedience is the absence of fair and transparent universal suffrage. With no such option, and facing the prospect of political limitation, the only way to affect change is to turn to the streets.

Dylan Loh Ming Hui is a research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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