Cycling in the West, Disorder in the East

September 10, 2008

Last year, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the opposition Workers’ Party applied for a police permit to organize a mass cycling event at East Coast Park. The application was rejected. Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee explained the rejection in Parliament like this:

 

You may be well-behaving, but there may be other people whom you come across when you cycle who may stop you, may want to debate with you and that may attract a crowd, and therefore will result in problems the police want to avoid.

 

On 1 September 2008, The Straits Times carried a front page report of the PM Lee cycling down West Coast Park. The event was organized by the People’s Action Party Community Foundation. According to the papers: “Much to the delight of spectators, PM Lee and MPs like Mr Seng Han Thong made their entrance on bicycles at the PAP carnival at West Coast Park yesterday. Thousands thronged the park yesterday for the PAP carnival. Mr Lee and a host of ministers and MPs made their entrance on bicycles, much to the delight of the spectators.” Naturally, this raised questions of double standards. Why did the Singapore Police Force (SPF) grant the PAP a public permit, and not to the WP? In response to a letter from the public, the Singapore Police Force explained (9 Sept 2008):

 

Why WP didn’t get permit for event

I REFER to last Thursday’s letter by Mr Tan Ghee Gay, ‘Why ‘no’ and ‘yes’?’, regarding police decisions with respect to the Workers’ Party’s (WP) proposed mass cycling event last year, and the carnival on Aug 31.

Police do not issue permits for outdoor political events in public places due to the potential for disorder and unruly behaviour. This applies to events organised by all political parties. For this reason, police rejected WP’s application to hold a mass cycling activity in East Coast Park, to commemorate its 50th anniversary in September last year.

The event on Aug 31 was very different. The permit was issued after taking into account the organiser and the nature of the event. It was organised by the PAP Community Foundation, which is a registered charity and not a political party. The event was not assessed to have the potential for disorder and unruly behaviour. It was a carnival that involved children and families from various kindergartens and educational institutions. The Prime Minister, as guest of honour, and a few other guests, made their entrance by cycling a short distance. During the event, a sum of $664,000 (which had been raised earlier) was distributed to 17 charities, including Beyond Social Services, Children’s Aid Society and Chung Hwa Medical Institution.

DSP Paul Tay

Assistant Director (Media Relations)

Singapore Police Force

 

Beyond the obvious pedantic reasoning and tiresome intellectual tap-dancing that we’ve come to expect when civil servants try to justify specific political interests, there are several deeper concerns that this episode raises.

 

#1: The PAP logo and presence is perceived to be part of the everyday life of Singaporeans. The SPF’s explanation that the PAP Community Foundation is a registered charity advances the conclusion that we are expected to see the PAP symbol as neutral and non-partisan. The suggestion is that Singaporeans should view the PAP CF and this particular cycling event as a national institution and event that are not aligned with any political interests.

 

Such explanations are disingenuous because we are expected to believe that the PAP’s interests and values are nothing less than national interests and values. In social science-speak, this is the legitmisation and naturalization of dominant interests. We are led to believe that the interests of a small ruling elite are ‘natural’ and the way things should be.

 

#2: Just because the PAP CF is a registered charity does not mean its politically neutral. In fact, organisations like our community centres, residence committees, and the People’s Association were set up by the PAP to do two things: to counter the community services offered by the communists in the 1950s and early 1960s; and to serve as a bridge between political leaders and citizens. These organizations still serve the second function.

 

#3: The SPF’s explanation attempts to put the PAP and WP into unflattering binaries. Reading the letter, the choice between PAP/WP is that of safety/disorder and family/unruly behaviour. All this serves to demonise the WP and lionize the PAP. As an apparatus of the state, the SPF has no business producing such discourses, which amounts to playing politics. There was also no need to go on about how much the PAP CF raised for charities. After all, how is the amount of money raised by a charity any business of the Singapore Police?

 

Sometimes I feel that critics of the PAP and the civil service go one step too far. They tend to exaggerate the flaws of the Singapore system, while ignoring its virtues like its honesty and efficiency. Nevertheless, one particular chronic criticism has always been hard to refute – the strong informal link between the ruling party and the civil service – because this link exists and is even acknowledged by the PAP. In 1959 MM Lee Kuan Yew proclaimed:

 

The mass of the people are not concerned with legal and constitutional form and niceties. They are not interested in the theory of the separation of powers and the purpose and function of a politically neutral civil service under such a constitution.

 

 [Lee, Kuan Yew (1959), Speech at the Official Opening of the Civil Service Study Centre, 15 August]

 

It looks like the strong symbiosis of the PAP and the civil service is set to continue. This is perhaps to the benefit of a life of bureaucratic efficiency. But it’s certainly to the detriment of local politics and a maturing society.

 

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One Response to “Cycling in the West, Disorder in the East”

  1. sushibar Says:

    只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯


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