Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

Two cities, two priorities: What Singaporeans misunderstand about Hong Kong’s protest movement

Crossing well past three months, Hong Kong’s protests have attracted attention worldwide, reported by both local and international outlets, and covered from the ground-up on social media platforms like Twitter. Over in Singapore—often held in comparison with Hong Kong as a fellow ethnic Chinese majority city and Asian financial hub—the developments have been viewed with interest, excitement, confusion, or bewilderment.

It’s not easy to get a handle on Singaporean public opinion of the Hong Kong protests. A survey carried out in June showed that 75% of Singaporeans supported the Hong Kong protests, but sentiment is likely to have shifted since then, especially since both the Hong Kong police and a segment of the protesters have engaged in escalation, leading to more chaotic scenes splashed in the press. From observations of comments on social media, though, it’s clear that many Singaporeans are fundamentally struggling to understand Hong Kong and why its people are putting so much on the line to engage in such exhausting, repeated acts of resistance.

july 21 china extradition (19)

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The Singapore reaction to Hong Kong has been the subject of media interest. Singaporean establishment figures (and others) have also suggested ways to alleviate the ongoing crisis—yet in these op-eds we end up learning more about the authors’ priorities than anything about the turmoil in Hong Kong.

Let’s take a look at some Singaporean responses to Hong Kong, and what this tells us about how different the two cities are.

Why are the protesters so violent?

Protesters in Hong Kong have adamantly rejected the label of “riot” and “rioters”, but many Singaporeans have wholeheartedly embraced that framing. Many images of the protests—from the clouds of teargas to the black-clad protesters in gas masks and body armour, to Molotov cocktails and scenes of the police “raptor” unit cracking skulls in the MTR station—seem especially threatening and alarming to a populace used to more mundane routines where train delays are the worst that could happen.

july 21 china extradition

Photo: May James/HKFP.

But while the Hong Kong Police Force has come under fire from numerous quarters for the excessive use of force, many Singaporean comments online place the blame squarely on the shoulders of “rioters”, pointing to those who have hurled bricks or wielded sticks and bats. I’ve tried engaging these commenters a few times, arguing that, while we can disagree or disapprove of some protesters’ actions, the state response has been overtly disproportionate. How can professionally trained officers in full riot gear, armed with hundreds of canisters of tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, pepper spray, water cannons, batons, and even guns loaded with live rounds be judged on the same level as spontaneously organised citizens with laser pointers, hard hats, and bricks hastily pried from pavements?

The reply I usually get is along the lines of: “Well, the police need to do what they have to deal with rioters, restore order and uphold the law.” The onus is placed upon civilians not to break the law or behave badly; once they do, the authorities are seen as having the right to exercise force to bring them to heel. Within this logical universe, the way to not get hurt by the police would be not to protest in the first place. But if you do insist upon protesting (and in such confrontational ways, too), then you can’t blame the cops for taking whatever action they deem necessary.

July 13 Sheung Shui parallel trader protest

“It was you who taught us that peaceful protests are no use,” reads some graffiti in Sheung Shui. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

This isn’t a reaction borne out of any cold-blooded enjoyment at seeing the police—as one Singaporean website tastelessly put it—“whoop-ass”. Instead, it’s more likely explained by, at best, Singaporeans’ high levels of trust in those in positions of power and authority, or, at worst, a sense of resignation to domination by the powerful. State actors like government officials or the police are trusted to be able to regulate their own behaviour, as opposed to being subject to institutionalised restraints on power. There’s a lot of credulity in the conduct and claims of authority figures; if they say or do something, they probably have a good reason for it, if they target someone, that person must have done something to deserve being treated this way.

Maybe it’s about the property prices…?

Another school of thought floating around about the Hong Kong protests is that the ongoing crisis could be alleviated if something was done about sky-high property prices.

It’s a popular argument in Singapore, one based on the assumption that people can really only ever be motivated by “bread and butter” issues. This is certainly the reality in Singapore, a country where politics has been so depoliticised that people seem to think of political leaders more as managers or administrators. The city-state’s elections are almost always fought on matters of cost of living, property prices, jobs, or the management of public housing estates. Issues of civil liberties and political rights like freedom of expression or press freedom are left by the wayside, seen as too idealistic, abstract, or irrelevant to be of immediate importance to the populace. As long as immediate comforts and conveniences are sorted, politics is seen as a separate, more dangerous problem that can be left to the powerful to deal with as they see fit.

Singapore

Singapore. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

It’s a common habit for Singaporeans to assume that everyone else in the world thinks this way too—hence the belief that Hong Kong’s protests must be about economic anxieties about things like the cost of apartments, rather than about politics.

This is a framing that suits politicians just fine, which is why Carrie Lam is embracing it. When “bread and butter” is divorced from politics, elite individuals or groups like Lam, the Chinese Communist Party, or Singapore’s People’s Action Party are able to sidestep inconvenient questions about their power (and its limits, or lack thereof) as long as they deliver material goods to keep the populace placated. They can then consolidate political power as much as they want, skewing the discourse towards things they’re willing to hand out and away from privileges they’re reluctant to relinquish.

The headache for Lam and the CCP right now is that Hong Kongers aren’t buying it. And this is something that confuses many a Singaporean; people who have not only bought this argument, but are by now loyalty card-carrying customers.

Liberty without democracy / Democracy without liberty

Hong Kongers took to the streets in droves to protest the extradition bill. Singaporeans would probably have been more likely to say that the appropriate response to such a law would be not to do anything that might get you extradited.

This is the reality of the two cities: one with liberty without democracy, another with (some) democracy without liberty. And it makes no sense to ask a city without democracy to take a leaf out of the book of a city without liberty, especially when the things that Hong Kongers hold as Core Values—freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, press freedom, etc.—are rights that activists in Singapore are desperately (and not particularly successfully) struggling to reclaim.

freedom china extradition

Photo: Dan Garrett.

This might seem like a grim, uncharitable image of Singapore and Singaporeans that I’m painting, but it shouldn’t be read as a condemnation of the nature of Singaporeans. There are many reasons why Singaporean society is the way it is today; like any other polity we’re a people who have been moulded by not just our circumstances, but our politics and political leaders, both historical and contemporary. We, too, have our own struggle.

Despite the differences in political situation and public consciousness, both Hong Kong and Singapore have people who have demonstrated remarkable passion and commitment to the causes of democracy and justice. Within our own contexts, and in our own ways, there’s ongoing work to build trust and solidarity within communities, to spread education and awareness, to stand firm for fundamental freedoms and rights.

When speaking with Hong Kongers about their struggle, I’ve been reminded of a popular phrase in the movement: “兄弟爬山,各自努力.” When brothers climb a mountain, each makes his own effort. It’s a saying that recognises both unity in aim and diversity in approach.

This, I think, is a much better way to conceptualise a relationship between Hong Kong and Singapore: there’s no shortage of ways in which we can stand in solidarity with each other’s goals and aspirations, even as we diverge in method and approach. Instead of patronising, unsolicited advice, or scorn and recrimination, it would be preferable for us to support each other in our different routes up the same mountain—a summit where we can have democracy and liberty.


Hong Kong Free Press relies on direct reader support. Help safeguard independent journalism and press freedom as we invest more in freelancers, overtime, safety gear & insurance during this summer’s protests. 10 ways to support us.

fundraising fundraise banner

Two cities, two priorities: What Singaporeans misunderstand about Hong Kong's protest movement