A tale of two May Day events in Singapore

Attendees at the May Day protest brandish their pink ICs, after organiser Gilbert Goh asks the audience to do that as proof that they are not foreigners. In a previous press conference, Goh said that foreign nationals may be barred from attending the protest. (Yahoo! photo/Yusuf Muhammad)


By Benjamin Chiang

Not since Singapore's independence have there been so many parties interested in Labour Day. Traditionally a celebration for the NTUC, the rest of us use Labour Day as another chance to do a long weekend. Unless you're a shopping mall, there has had been little impetus for any organisation to actively pull crowds together.

This year, on the 1st of May 2013, we are saw three very interesting events. The morning started off with the Stand Up for Singapore picnic at Hong Lim Park, where cupcakes were raised in solidarity. Concurrently, at Down Town East, it was more pomp and ceremony. The Secretary General of the NTUC together with the Prime Minister belted out their May Day messages, calling for a stronger Singaporean core and laying out their plans for the pursuit of happiness. The evening saw ex-NSP candidate Gilbert Goh's sequel protest to a government population paper.

Goh hailed his event as "Singapore First Labour Day Protest" (sic) and intended it as a part two from since the last gathering in February.

If anger, sarcasm and loud hailers were the meat and potatoes of the protest, the desert must have been the placards. Goh made Hong Lim Park a placard fest. Many featured word puns such as "sinkapoor" and called to get rid of "ah-loong" (colloquial for loan shark, also a word play on the Prime Minister's name). Children were also employed to add a creative slant to the messages. In all, you get the general sense that what these people are seeking is a change of ruling party. And judging by haughtiness in the air, some are very confident that it would happen.

There was shouting, there was jeering… every once in a while, a lone individual would raise a cry of displeasure. The air was so thick with hate, you could almost beat it down with a baton.

But what of the earlier event? What were they there for? Had they also a message for Singaporeans?

Stand Up for Singapore organised a picnic and a social gathering of strangers. There was food, bubbles, sandwiches, ukeleles, singing and laughing. No one made speeches, no one had any agenda apart from having a good time. Nothing was said, no messages were pushed.

Political awareness is something of a novelty in Singapore. For decades, people voted by default – it was either "that" party, or no one else. The issues we face today are nothing out of the ordinary. There were always foreigners. Transport was always a bitch. Floods used to take away lives. People were always angry and complained. What has changed? What stirred up emotions so much that everyone wants a piece of the Labour Day pie?

I think our Singapore is growing up politically. I'd hate to use the cliched words "…ever since the last watershed General Elections", but yes, it would boil down to that. Many changes have taken place before 2011. Before that, individuals and political parties could not campaign on the internet. Before, the littlest thing that you say could have been treated as sedition, dissent and/or defamation. Legal damages were pursued to cripple.

Observably, incumbent politicians today do not sue for damages anymore, preferring apologies and retractions. Pair this fact with the exciting new technologies available today, et voila, exciting grassroots activity.

The years that pave the road towards 2016 will slowly uncover the true sentiments of what Singaporeans want.

I see the Labour Day of 2013 as a fork in the road: Which one will Singaporeans want more of? Lively, happy picnics? Or do we prefer for hate, anger and loud hailers to thrust power into the hands of another party?

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, fast living and chocolate. He writes also at: www.rangosteen.com