Self defence expert Marc MacYoung describes rights as a bundle. “Rights come in bundles. Often these rub up against each other. That is where we must compromise and come up with a working solution.” MacYoung could have been describing what happened at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, when protesters from #ReturnMyCPF rubbed up against the YMCA and the state.
People have the right to freedom of speech. People also have the right to not be disturbed by others exercising free speech. People have the right to assemble peacefully for civil purposes. People also have the right to not participate in or be disturbed by such assemblies. When rights collide, the rational response is to compromise and find a working solution. Unfortunately, this did not happen at Speakers’ Corner.
It is easy to point the finger at the National Parks Board. Hong Lim Park is not a large park. It seems unreasonable to hold two events in the same space, demarcating areas for both. This is especially since a charity carnival and a public protest will need as much space as they can get, as the success of such events are judged and marketed primarily by public attendance. Plus, Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck was the guest of honour at the event, and #ReturnMyCPF is led by Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng, both of whom have axes to grind against the Establishment. This is a recipe for conflict.
However, as civil society grows, an increasing number of organisations will want to book slots at Speakers’ Corner to hold events. It is inevitable that there will be more events organised simultaneously at the park, whether accidentally or otherwise. Plus, as some events are time-sensitive, it may not be possible for organisers to shift the date of a planned event. Further, as I will argue later, this conflict occurred primarily because of the personalities involved, not because of the friction generated from sharing space. Simply laying down a rule that no more than one event may be held at Hong Lim Park is using a sledgehammer when a scalpel would be more appropriate.
Should NParks take a more proactive role in events management? Certainly a bit of research would unearth the people responsible for #ReturnMyCPF and the guest of honour for the charity carnival. A bit more imagination would reveal that the activists would focus on the minister’s presence, potentially sparking a conflict. This approach, however, would arm the state with excuses to reject applications for protests and political events, on the grounds of potential conflicts with other events. It also means adding another layer of bureaucracy to the state.
The ideal solution is for NParks to contact all parties involved should multiple parties attempt to book Hong Lim Park on the same day and time, and discuss ways to deconflict the events. Arguably, this was what should have been done well before the event to begin with. Thirty minutes before the protest, NParks’ Director of the parks division Chia Siang Jiang approached Han to request that she move her event. This is very bad form by NParks, and NParks has to review its communication mechanisms to ensure that organisers and stakeholders receive adequate notice beforehand.
That said, people can register an event at Hong Lim Park on very short notice. Han, for instance, submitted an application to hold the protest on 22 September, and the application was approved on the same day. Short of requiring a minimum of one week’s advance notice prior to an event — not always desirable for time-sensitive political activities — it may not be possible to organise a session for every simultaneous event.
The most cost-effective method the government has to prevent conflict is to make information about events at Hong Lim Park readily available. Instead of (or in addition to) lumping events at Hong Lim Park on the NParks’ website event calendar, NParks could have a dedicated calendar just for Speakers’ Corner, right under the hyperlink for registration. This would allow event organisers to pick a time and date that would not clash with other events, or at least to work out a compromise with each other.
Harpies and Hecklers…?
The crux of the issue is that the #ReturnMyCPF movement was reported and perceived to be heckling the YMCA charity carnival to gain media and political attention while a group of special needs children were about to perform a dance number on the park’s stage. AsiaOne called it ‘chaos’, while. Mothership.sg framed it as a ‘drama’.
The Online Citizen tells another story:
The activists led a march around the park, stopping in front of the stage for a few moments. When the children came up, the procession moved on.
‘Heckling’, according to the Marriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges, or gibes’. As far as I could tell nobody who participated in the march attempted to directly harass anybody attending the YMCA charity event.
But they were disruptive. And the difference is semantics.
The procession marched around and in front of the YMCA’s tent, and right up to the edge of the YMCA performance. In doing so the participants had effectively encroached upon the YMCA’s space. They were shouting so loudly it is difficult to tell what the YMCA’s MC was saying over the mic. This may not be heckling, but it is disrespectful of the people who chose to attend the charity event. Had the march occurred in the middle of a performance, it could have thrown the performers off-kilter, and indeed some of the children in the video appeared discomfited by the noise. That the procession halted in front of the stage instead of moving past it, for whatever reason, aggravated the situation by making it seem as if they were there specifically to target YMCA.
To heckle them, in other words.
‘Heckle’ may not be accurate, but perception is at least as important as action. Compounding matters was that the police claimed the protesters did not have a permit to hold a public procession to begin with. If true, this creates the impression that the organisers of #ReturnMyCPF are lawbreakers and hotheads more interested in making noise than helping people.
Working Compromises and Communications Management
Activists want to build a better world. But having a noble cause is not a license to disturb people, disrupt events, break the law and generally behave distastefully. The eyes of the world are on them. They have to hold themselves to higher standards, to demonstrate and communicate that they are fundamentally reasonable people who truly intend to help society.
This means compromises. NParks tried to reach out to #ReturnMyCPF, asking them to relocate–as opposed to calling off their event. While NParks could have communicated this earlier, instead of fighting the decision like Han did, the better move would have been to agree or to bring in a YMCA representative and discuss how to best share space between the organisers. By framing the relocation as a way of respecting the YMCA’s right to hold their event, #ReturnMyCPF could have presented themselves as respectable people.
When informed by the police that they did not have a permit to hold a procession, the better move would be to modify the event on the fly. The activists could simply have informed the crowd that they did not receive a police permit in time, and instead gathered for a mass photograph or rally. They would still have made their point — and it would not have been blunted by the YMCA’s presence in the background.
If the activists insist on proceeding with the procession anyway, then they could have at least avoided going into the YMCA’s space. While it is tempting to reach out to Teo Ser Luck and the media presence at the carnival, by respecting the YMCA’s space the activists would have demonstrated their respect for other people.
Politics is a long game of perception and communication. It may feel good to argue with the government and to hold a march anyway, but by disregarding the law and disrespecting others’ space #ReturnMyCPF has shot itself in the foot. They have made themselves vulnerable to narratives that spin them as unruly denizens of the lunatic fringe, giving the government and other political parties a reason to write them off. Activists need to act in ways that respect the rights of others, and frame these actions in ways that communicate this respect to the wider world. This would win public respect, and with that the inroads activists need to achieve their goals.
Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromise is how everybody gets what they want. Activists should do well to remember that.