Thursday, September 01, 2005


This piece was eventually published in the Straits Times (see above).


Yoyo said...

Sending a riot police to disperse 4 silent protesters and initiating police investigations into white elephants cut-out displays are just plain clumsy - "calibrated" or not.

Residents shocked at 'white elephant' police probe

By Aaron Low
The Straits Times
Publication Date : 2005-09-03

News that the police are looking for the people behind several "white elephant" cut-outs displayed near the unopened Buangkok MRT station has caused a stir among many residents of Punggol South as well as other Singaporeans.

Residents were shocked that the Sunday incident, which coincided with a minister's visit, has escalated into a full-blown police investigation.

Punggol South Citizens' Consultative Constituency chairman Sunny Leow said the general reaction on the ground was one of disbelief.

"I just heard someone calling in over the radio to ask why the police are investigating cardboard elephants when they should be looking out for terrorists."

Sources told The Straits Times that several grassroots leaders of the area have been called up by the police to help in the probe.

It is also believed that the police are looking for the cut-outs, which were removed on the same day.

The police are investigating following a complaint they received. When contacted, a police spokesman declined to comment, saying that investigations are ongoing.

The incident is being looked into under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. One of its rules is that permits are needed when exhibits and posters are put up for public display.

However, some Punggol South residents, like administrative assistant Thong Hwee Hong, 30, said they could not see what was wrong with the display.

"I thought they had a valid point to make," she said.

The eight "white elephant" cut-outs were apparently put up by some residents to reflect what they thought of the unopened station, which is part of the North-East Line.

Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who saw the cut-outs during a community visit, was amused.

He later assured residents that it was a matter of time before the "critical mass" needed to justify the station's opening would be reached.

The following day, Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong asked the Land Transport Authority to give him an answer in "a month or so".

The police investigations have unsettled some Singaporeans in other wards as well as overseas.

Newton resident Ong Yang Peng, 60, worries that a probe could "degenerate into intimidating residents who simply wished to express their feelings or frustration over the apparent futility of their complaints".

Eugene Quek, 32, who works in Paris as a research assistant, said in an e-mail that he felt "exasperated" that someone made the complaint.

"The cut-outs are neither offensive nor obscene. They were placed unobstructively on the road divider. Even the minister felt 'amused'."

The Buangkok MRT issue has been simmering since 2003. At the opening of the North-East Line, then-deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC MP Charles Chong wore ties with elephant prints.

Yesterday (Sept 2), Chong, who is also adviser to Punggol South grassroots organisations, urged residents to help the police in the investigations.

"My advice to the residents is to extend whatever help the police require as I am sure the police have more important work to do," he said.

Cherian said...

The white elephant campaign provides a new twist, because it was probably mounted by or with the support of government/party grassroots representatives. The government may have to take a hard line anyway, because it knows that if it doesn't, the opposition will replicate the tactic, and then it will be difficult for the government to apply a double standard. If there is a strong response from the government against its own grassroots, this will certainly be at a cost to its moral legitimacy. While the campaign may have indeed violated the letter of the law, most people are going to find it hard to swallow the argument that it was detrimental to the public interest. The government will certainly warn its grassroots leaders not to do this sort of thing again, but it looks like a sign of things to come. Creative, peaceful political expression that ignores laws on assembly/expression will be a real challenge. Even a relatively calibrated response is going to come across as heavy-handed.

Aresha said...

Oh my god, you have a blog!

I'm midway through your book - paid a hell of a lot to get it shipped to Australia which is where i'm studying at. It's brilliant so far!

I must say, in my quest to stand up for the rights of our non-'engrish' society your book has come in very handy in filling me in on the little grey areas I didn't understand.

My Australian tutor recommended your book to me after watching my presentation on 'free speech' in singapore. She was contracted under Mediacorp Radio for a while and then left because she couldn't understand our 'system' of press. She was amazed at the footage I showed of Chee Soon Juan's arrest outside the istana - for a rally that never happened.

I also e-mailed another foreign journalist who's an indian but lives in NY. He was offered to write in ST but got booted out and had 4 weeks to leave the country because he wrote an article on racism in singapore which never got published!

It's very disappointing to know that this is how things work in the country - cest la vie.

I'm trying to slowly reach out to people on the stance that singapore is becoming too chinese a nation and for now, i'm using forums to have my say.

Thanks for the book. It's inspired lots of little journalism students. ;)

Jiang Wei said...

Brilliant stuff. If only the press had the courage to publish more of your articles, it would certainly help to raise the (rather desultory) level of discourse in Singapore.

Goh Meng Seng said...

Hi, very insightful comments you have here! ;)

However, I am a bit doubtful about the viability of using non-voilence actions to erode the power base of PAP government.

As a nation, we have been developed in a skewed way with singular persuit of material well being. With the general lack of interests in politics, I doubt such non-voilence confrontation mode will have little effects on the general sentiments.

Of course, it would be great if Dr. Chee wants to experiment with it but I seriously doubt its effectiveness.

One NKF saga could well be more effective in invoking the political awareness of the importance of checks and balances rather than the 4 men protest outside CPF. The raised but crashed expectation of a election for the presidency is more effective to bring across the message of what RIGHTS we have as citizens of this country.

Goh Meng Seng

Anonymous said...

The Man is proud of his methods, and he is not afraid to hide it:

"Repression, Sir, is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love-it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they're conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict."

The Void Deck said...

Pwoaahhh! Brudder! Tok kong read!

As brudder Goh Meng Seng say, non-violence activism cannot take off here yet. Non-violence activism nice theory and nice try but boh pakai so far leh. It is matter of when and under what conditions. The conditions here not conduicive coz Sgporeans not enuff tulan abt politics in general in Sg to achieve critical mass for sustained activism. If use Frustration-Aggression hypothesis variation, Sgporeans not frustrated enuff to be aggressive and engage in prolonged coordinated activism. Civil disobedience, a subset of activism, is small here and not sustained coz ppl not enuff tulan. If NKF scandal everyday happen, which ppl now see more of specific pian lui-tipu orang than of general transparency issue anyway, then maybe activism can take off. Now Sgporeans merely sometimes tulan, sometimes kaopei as a result but never go piahchwee or advocate on streets yet on their weekends.

On gahment using calibrated coercion, hehe, more like compelling cajolement leh. Coercion implies use of physical and direct force but like Cherian kong, since 'Marxist' conspiracy, this type of style sibeh untrendy liao. Civil disobedience works as a change agent only if gahment use physical force and then lose moral high ground. But gahmen don't force ppl per se, they mainly just give enuff carrots for ppl to comply or agree with them most of the time. They cajole ppl to guai guai nod their heads. So which is stronger? If pit the Civil Disobedience Spear against the Calibrated Coercion Shield, the Spear will shatter the lousy shield. Ahbathen. Obigood. But if Civil Disobedience Spear pit against the Compelling Cajolement Shield, wahhh hard to say leh.

hehe yah, the White Elephant case damn interesting in terms of new ways to cucuk and jisiao gahment!

Cherian said...

Civil disobedience won't work, say Goh Meng Seng and The Void Deck. Only time will tell. I think it hasn't worked so far because organisers have failed to attract enough participants. Easy enough for the government to crack down on 3-4 protestors without the public getting too upset. Experience elsewhere shows that it's a different matter when the crackdown is against dozens or hundreds, and not just against "professional" protestors but also men (and women) in the street. Is it unthinkable that organisers will be able to attract that level of participation for their civil disobedience campaigns? Seems unlikely, but it's not impossible. Depends on the issue and the public mood.

black feline said...

i have this idea to start a satire cafe in singapore...bake my own pastries...each pastry will reflect issue of the day/week/ buangkok bread in the shape of a white elephant..peanut shaped cookies..named Madam G cookie..etc what say u? any legal issues to pre em ? currently im screaming in Dubai..because it's such a wonderful place..every single day is a surprise!

Cherian said...

What a great idea! I'm no lawyer, but my guess is that there will be some legal issues - though not the same as the white elephant trap. Since you'd sell the pastries in your own premises, I assume that the public entertainment licensing rules won't apply. (Same goes for t-shirts I wonder?) You'd still need to be careful of libel laws, contempt of court, contempt of parliament, and also avoid being accused of inciting the public in any way. But that still leaves a lot of room for creative political expression. Just look at what the Talking Cock guys have gotten away with. Maybe you should go into partnership with them. But I wouldn't advise that you call your cafe Eating C***.

Anonymous said...

hahaha... interesting hummour from our interesting lecturer... :)

creating public outrage in singapore seems to be quite futile. I can't imagine something along the scale of the tiananmen event. Even so, what will it achieve? what's happening now is more of a undercurrent of grumbling obedience. So what if the citizens start to make noise and protest? what good will it ultimately do?

singaporeans are ultimately more concerned about $ and comfort in life. if such protest leads to stock market crashing and the economic goes downhill (unlikely but possible), who would want to risk it?

better to keep quiet and enjoy the fruits of labour from forefathers than to embark on an uphill thankless fight for democracy.

i wonder who is monitoring all the political blogs in singapore now.


Ted said...


Just like to tell you that you can probably get Dr Cherian george's book in your nearby university library (I assume you are in a uni).

And oh, there is such a goldmine of books on Singapore politics that i think is quite hard to obtain in Singapore itself. Try hunting for them.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
panaphobic said...

erm a bit late but oh well.

Aresha: i'd be careful about one-sided stories. So many of those floating around regarding ST.

Kaixin: I am not one to preach the benefits of civil disobedience mindlessly. Protests should not be held for the sake of it.

But your sense of futility to me, is the major problem why we as citiziens simply cannot get things done. It is precisely that type of mindset "what good will this do", that results in our grumblings being a mere "undercurrent".

It seems very simple to me, even though you wonder what good this will ultimately do. An undercurrent is easy to ignore, easy to placate, easy to deal with (calibrated coercion?). A mass showing of 1,000 people is IMPOSSIBLE to ignore and difficult to placate, and requires more tactful dealing than simply hauling all 1,000 asses into jail.

If you found out, that 100 people were marching the streets for a cause you believe in, will you sit at home? Or will you haul you ass down?

It is precisely the amount of futility that Singaporeans feel, because we're all cowards, that we need to know that we're not the only ones who believe in this.

Thankless fight for democracy indeed. Let us hope you will never be in a position whereby someone you love is put in jail and you want to air your grieviences about the public law system and end up having to keep your mouth shut for fear of seditious charges.

And I think our forefathers fought for independence from the colonial rulers, in other words - they fought for the right to rule themselves.

An australian bloke I spoke to told me how difficult it was for him and his family when he went on strike from his company for half a year with no pay. They were scrimping by, the wife had to take on extra jobs. I wonder why he can find it willing to risk economic stability to fight for what he believes in, but we singaporeans will just close the checkbook, and close one eye.

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