In the February of 2014, the students of the Nanyang Technological University staged a peaceful demonstration within the university campus to protest against the denial of tenure for professor Cherian George. He had been allowed to teach for another year at the university since his tenure was denied in 2013. March 2014 would be his last day in the university. A group of 1,500 students staged a sit-in at the roundabout near the School of Art, Design and Media.
On the same day, a lecturer at the Temasek Polytechnic was re-detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The next morning, a group of 80 Muslim students staged a sit-in at The Plaza at the Temasek Polytechnic to demand for information of his re-detention.
In that afternoon, a group of more than a hundred students from the Yale-NUS College gathered at UTown at the National University of Singapore University (NUS) Town to also conduct a peaceful protest to demand for further information and transparency on the basis as to how Prof Cherian George and the polytechnic lecturer were denied tenure and detained, respectively. They were joined by hundreds more students from the National University of Singapore who gathered below the university’s Central Library and another few hundreds who congregated at Campus Green at the Singapore Management University.
By evening that day, the government had mobilised thousands of police who stood guard at these school campus, as the university professors and student union leaders tried to negotiate with the students to end their sit-ins. The government had also sent in the army and police to the other tertiary educational institutions in Singapore, in anticipation for further sit-ins at these institutions. At midnight, the students continued with their peaceful sit-ins and demanded that the government released their decisions behind the tenure denial and re-detention of the lecturer. This was the largest ever demonstration held in Singapore, outside the government-sanctioned The Speaker’s Corner at the Hong Lim Park, which the government had designated as the only place in Singapore where demonstrations were officially allowed.
Just after midnight, Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean held a press conference and labelled the peaceful demonstrations by the students as illegal protests and gave the police orders to arrest the students, under the ISA. By 3am that night, more than a thousand students were rounded up and detained by the police. The parents of these students protested against the government’s actions and demanded for official explanation from the government.
Meanwhile, discussion online about the peaceful demonstrations, now labelled as illegal protests, was furious, and erupted when news spread that the students had been arrested under the ISA. A number of government leaders and professors denounced the government’s actions and called for the government to release the students.
Just a few days ago, the government had released Budget 2014, where the government had announced further top-ups to the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme and Wage Credit Scheme (WCS). Many Singaporeans felt that the measures did not go far enough and wanted more to be done. The government had refused to implement a minimum wage in 2013, and there were renewed calls for the government to implement a minimum wage, even by the PAP Members of Parliament (MPs), this time, by even more of them.
During the parliamentary debate of Budget 2014, Minister Lim Swee Say, who is Minister without portfolio, extolled once again that a minimum wage needn’t be implemented in Singapore. He continued to claim that the WIS and WCS was sufficient for the lower-income Singaporeans and were better than a minimum wage law, which was similar to claims he had made in 2013. This time round, the opposition MPs and even the PAP MPs took him to task and had stronger words against him, expounding how even in the other Asian Tigers, Japan and even Malaysia, that there was minimum wage and that the Singapore government was failing its people for not implementing a minimum wage. However, Mr Lim continued to stand his ground.
In 2014, income inequality in Singapore has risen to be the highest among the developed economies. Real wages for the lower income Singaporeans continued to remain stagnant, for more than one and a half decade now. Singaporeans were growing impatient at inaction by the Singapore’s government to make bold moves to reduce income inequality in Singapore. Calls for more social assistance and easier access to assistance have also fell on deaf ears.
By the middle of March 2013, the students continued to be held in detention – for more than 10 days now. Professors at the Yale University had spoken out against the detentions and demanded that the students were released. Eventually, the President of the Yale University released a statement to demand an explanation from the Singapore government to ask for why the government had gone against the spirit of critical thinking and discussions within the university campus, and requested that the government released the students and conduct a proper investigation. The Singapore government did not address the President’s statement directly but released a statement to say that all activities conducted in Singapore should abide by the country’s rules and laws, and that the government will act according to what it believes would be in the national interests and security of Singapore. This infuriated the professors at the Yale University further, who demanded that the university pull out from the collaboration with the NUS.
Meanwhile, several online petitions to demand for the release of the students had garnered over 35,000 signatories within 10 days and was submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office. By Day 15, there was still no news about the release of the students. A meeting was held by the professors at the Yale University, which demanded that the president pulled Yale University out of the collaboration, which otherwise a vote of confidence would be called. The president of the Yale University announced Yale’s intention to pull out of the collaboration. Several international companies in Singapore, such as Google, also started voicing out their concerns about the government’s actions.
By the middle of April, the government had still not released the students. A group of Singaporeans decided to organise a protest against the government’s actions. At the end of April, Singapore saw its largest demonstration. More than 20,000 Singaporeans descended onto The Speaker’s Corner to protest against the government’s actions and demanded the release of the more than 100 students. Roads had to be closed as the Hong Lim Park could only accommodate 10,000 people and protesters were spilling onto the streets.
By early May, the government released about 80 of the students. The students released claimed that they had to sign documents where they said that they had to admit their wrong-doing, and would be charged if they would participate in future “illegal protests”. Still, there were another 30 students who were withheld , as the government claimed that they were the leaders and instigators of the “illegal protests”. Singaporeans continued to demand the release of these students for a proper investigation.
By end-May, the government had still not released the rest of the students. A larger protest was held at the Hong Lim Park, where at least 50,000 Singaporeans attended. This time, the protesters demanded that the government released the students and enact a Freedom to Information Act. They advocated that as the students had initially demonstrated for information to be released, that an act which allows for the people to rightfully obtain information would prevent the current fracas from happening.
Two other protests were held at the Hong Lim Park in June 2014, and were attended by between 100,000 to 150,000 Singaporeans. At the first protest, Singaporeans continue to demand for the release of the students and the enactment of the Freedom to Information Act. By the end of June, it was clear that the government was not acting according to the people’s demands. Also, the capacity of the Hong Lim Park for demonstrations was clearly insufficient. At the second protest in that month, on top of the demands in the first protest, protesters also demanded that the ISA be abolished and to allow for peaceful demonstrations in Singapore, and not restricted to the Hong Lim Park.
In July 2014, the anger towards the government for not sufficiently addressing the low incomes among the poorer Singaporeans and the rising income inequality, add to the detention of these students, resulted in the largest demonstration ever. 200,000 Singaporeans gathered at the Hong Lim Park over two days to demand for the release of the students, an enactment of the Freedom to Information Act, the abolishment of the ISA and for peaceful demonstrations to be held in Singapore, and on top of these, a minimum wage law, higher transfers of investment profit by Temasek Holdings and GIC back into the CPF, higher medical subisdies, and higher and more easily-accessible social welfare assistance.
By the end of July 2014, the Yale University had fully pulled out of Singapore, and the students at the Singapore campus were transferred to the New Haven campus in America. Some multi-national companies were also relocating their businesses out of Singapore. The National Day Parade (NDP) in 2014 was a sombre affair, attended by the lowest number of Singaporeans in history, where half of the seats at the Marina Bay Floating Platform were not filled. Instead, the protest held on the same day organised on the same day attracted even more people, where the same demands were made by the people. As the Singapore flag flew past the Hong Lim Park, many Singaporeans wept as they sang the national anthem.
The NDP Rally 2014 by the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the most welcomed in the history of Singapore. PM Lee continued to speak of an inclusive Singapore, where all Singaporeans would benefit from the growth of Singapore, and where there would be equal opportunities for everyone in Singapore. Singaporeans did not buy it. Gradually, the mainstream media were becoming even more critical to the government’s actions and speeches. Online, the people ripped apart PM Lee’s speech as nothing more than hot air. They demanded that the government respond to their demands.
Finally, after 180 days, the government relented. There was no way that the government could prevent Singaporeans from finding out about the protests that had been occurring at the Hong Lim Park anymore. There was no way that they could under-report the attendance by Singaporeans at the protests.
At the end of August, the government announced that the 30 students held under detention would be released and that the ISA will be abolished. By January 2015, peaceful demonstrations would be allowed in Singapore, and the government would study how best to address security issues prior to that. The government also announced that a minimum wage of $1,200 would be implemented by October 2014, with a review to increase the minimum wage to be conducted, with the new higher minimum wage to be announced in Budget 2015. The interest rate for the CPF Ordinary Account was also raised to 3.5%. The government also announced that there would be significant increases to the social welfare assistance for the poor, where for the first time, they would conduct a study to identify the poverty line, and to increase accessibility for all households and individuals who fall below this poverty line and who require assistance. New initiatives will be announced in Budget 2015.
A new era emerged in Singapore. By the end of 2014, the people had the right to request for any information, with the Freedom to Information Act passed. The government reacted to narrow income inequality among Singaporeans. With a minimum wage, and increased and easier access to social welfare assistance, more families and individuals benefitted. Lim Swee Say was asked to voluntarily resign from government. Teo Chee Hean was asked to step down as the Deputy Prime Minister and became a backbencher, while another minister was moved up to replace him. The people’s power won, and the PAP was finally held accountable for their inactions. The people started to look forward to the general election, which would be held in 2015 or 2016. If the government wouldn’t take bolder moves to protect the people by then, even as they focus on attracting businesses and investments into Singapore, the people wouldn’t hesitate to do what is right for to protect themselves.
This article was written in March 2013.