Public Arrests and Political Obligation in Singapore

24 Mar

On Saturday, 15th March, a group of 15 Singaporean activists, led by vocal Opposition political leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan (of the Singapore Democratic Party or SDP) were arrested in Singapore for protesting against ministerial salaries and the high cost of living caused by government- imposed GST and inflation. Entitled ‘Tah Bolek Tahan’, which is Malay for ‘I can’t take it anymore’, the protestors, with the slogans emblazoned on their red t-shirts started the protest by displaying and highlighting the price increases of basic necessities such as bread and rice outside the Parliament House. Afterwards, they started to march with their placards before the police started arresting them at the neighbouring Funan shopping mall. (1) On 8 October last year, 4 members of SDP were also arrested outside the Istana (which is the place of office and residence for the President) for protesting against the Singapore’s government involvement with the Burmese junta.

That the police force has decided to publicly conduct the arrests, perhaps, signaled a recent change in tactic towards acts of civil disobedience.

Prior to the protest outside the Istana, SDP had organised a protest and vigil outside the Burmese embassy which the police had tried to disperse. They did so by harassing and videotaping members of the public who attended the event.(2) On 20 November of the same year, 50 Burmese were reported to have staged a march outside Orchard Hotel, protesting against the Burmese junta for the bloody crackdown against innocent civilians and monks while the ASEAN forum was held. Again, the police did not make any attempts to conduct any arrests.

How does one explain the recent change of tactics (if there is a change, as such)? One can argue that situational factors might have played a part in the decision to conduct the arrests. Cynics might argue that the arrests occurred only for those associated with SDP. But if that is the case, how does one explain the police reluctance to do so outside the Burmese embassy? SDP had also organised various protests for the past few years, including the Empower Singaporeans’ Rally and march on 16 September 2006 to ‘highlight the economic hardship of many Singaporeans’ while the (International Monetary Foundation – World Bank) IMF- WB meeting was going on. Instead of arresting the activists, a stand-off occurred with the police until the 19th.

Seen in this light, the act of making public arrests seem random, if not unfathomable.

Staying on the topic of civil disobedience, there is perhaps a need to engage in a theoretical, if not philosophical discussion of its validity and functionality. In that respect, Carol Pateman (1979) in ‘The Problem of Political Obligation’ traces the history of political obligation to the advent of the 17th century when the practice or idea of liberalism took root.

Prior to that era, most people considered that they were merely part of the cosmic order and that it is ‘natural’ to obey a higher order, generally, the King in a monarchy. However, liberal ideas began to emerge from philosophers such as John Stuart Mills and John Locke who started to challenge the idea of absolute rule. This signals the erosion of monarchy rule as individuals begin to develop their consciousness as ‘free and equal’ citizens (free to enter or withdraw from any social contracts)

Pateman also poses the quintessential problem of liberalism as such (p. 13):

… political obligation poses a general problem. It does so because it always continuously requires a justification of a very specific kind, a voluntarist justification. A free and equal individual can always question political authority and political obligation in general terms; political obligation can never be taken for granted.

To clarify, the author was applying the concept only to citizens in liberal states whose civil and political liberties are guaranteed. As such, it would technically not apply to Singapore since the island city state is hardly democratic or liberal, in the sense that freedom of speech, media, assembly are NOT protected.

Yet, by extending the argument further, if the problem of liberalism is that political authority can be questioned, then one can argue logically that it is reasonable, if not, expected of people, to do so, in an autocratic state such as Singapore.

Steven M. De Lue (1989) in his book, ‘Political Obligation in a Liberal State’ made the further distinction of defining the parameters of strong and weak obligation. He questioned and defined the existence of strong and weak obligations.

The former is defined as someone, (p x) ‘who has a sense of obligation towards authority and respects the state’s right to enforce general laws and policies… A person with a strong obligation will, when he disagrees with the state’s policies or laws, generally uphold them anyways.’ He will however channel his displeasure or grievances through either civil protests or established legal channels.’ He added, ‘By contrast, a person with a weak obligation chooses noncivil forms of protest.’

Applying his definition to the civil disobediences occurring in Singapore, it can be safely assumed that the actions of the protestors constitute a legitimate, though not necessary legal form of expression.

On civil disobedience, De Lue said that people who practise them, in fact, have a strong sense of obligation towards the ‘liberal state’. He wrote (p. 79),

civil challengers who engage in civil disobedience… indicate by their civil forms of protest that they do not want to threaten the state’s authority. Further, civil challengers expect that when they conduct themselves civilly the state will create room for their activity and do its utmost to tolerate it. Practically, this means that civil challengers who practice civil disobedience by violating particular laws recognise that they must pay the penalty for such an action, and in fact, they are always willing to do so…

The argument that acts of civil disobedience are derived from agents having a strong obligation towards the ‘liberal state’ might sound contradictory. However, therein lies the paradox of political obligation. It is necessary to understand that breaking a law might be synonymous with undermining authority when in fact, De Lue argues, the civil protestor was merely trying ‘to encourage the public to rethink its current views on a question.’ (p. 79).

The theoretical and seemingly abstract brief discussion about civil disobedience might appear to be irrelevant. Yet, it is helpful if we reconsider the responses of the authorities, in this case, the police. In choosing to make their arrests publicly, it has responded with a visible and physical form of state coercion which on the philosophical level, means the state or the police has decided to abandon some form of civility or its appearance.

While one could argue that the police were merely doing their job, the fact that arrests were made randomly (or only for latest protests), undermines its credibility. More importantly, in using force, it has chosen to abandon ‘reasoning’ and in turn, erodes its justification for political obligation (if it has any in the first place) from these protestors.

As such, the act of arresting the protestors at the scene of the protest itself, is larger than one of a tactical question (both for the activists and the police). Its implication is far more wide-ranging than one can easily forsee.



1. Media Release: A peaceful protest abruptly stopped, Singapore Democrats, 15 March 2008

2. 4 SDP members arrested outside Istana, The Online Citizen, 8 October 2007

3. 50 Burmese nationals protest, The Online Citizen, 20 November 2007

4. Authority, Obligation and The State: The problem of political obligation, 1979, Carol Pateman

5. Political Obligation in a liberal state, 1989, Steven M. De Lue


One Response to “Public Arrests and Political Obligation in Singapore”

  1. Alan Wong March 26, 2008 at 9:37 pm #

    There was absolutely no valid reason for the police to arrest CSJ and his team for protesting against price increases especially when they have allowed one of the PAP Minister & the Consumers Association to proceed in public holding with their protest placards calling for consumer rights to be recognised.

    I really cannot find any rationale on the part of our Gahmen in arresting one group of citizens while allowing another group of citizens to proceed with the same kind of protests.

    I can only conclude that our Gahmen is damn arrogant in abusing our Rule of Law in Singapore.

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