Written by Rachel Tay

What happened?

The past week saw two consecutive events that exemplify Singapore’s social control measures. 

Yale-NUS College (YNC), the first liberal arts college in Singapore, was due to have a week-long programme for freshmen, titled ‘Dialogue and Dissent’, led by Singaporean playwright, Alfian Sa’at. The project was aimed at exposing students to an array of perspectives to lay the groundwork for the academic study of dissent. Unfortunately, the programme was cancelled last Friday on the grounds that the planned activities were not approved and would have put students at risk of breaking the laws in Singapore. Professor Tan Tai Yong, the President of YNC, said that while YNC remains committed to academic freedom, it has to operate within Singapore’s legal boundaries – a position set out by the founding President back in 2012. 

Meanwhile, at the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run (YRPR) on Sunday, one 38 year-old man and one 30 year-old woman showed up for the run in T-shirts with anti-death penalty messages written on them. They were subsequently investigated for offenses under the Public Order Act starting on 15 September after the run for their act of mischief. The organising committee had attempted to contact the duo to persuade them to turn in their running bibs with the anti-death penalty messages on them prior to YRPR. Even though the duo turned in their original printed running bibs to the organisers, they turned up in printed T-shirts on the day of the race itself and were subsequently barred from running. The front and back of the shirt had the words ‘2nd chances means not killing them’ and ‘#antideathpenalty’ respectively. The woman left soon after, but the man was persistent in his efforts. He ran alone along the running route of the YRPR, but was denied access to the endpoint of the race route at Changi Prison Complex. 

Why are these two events significant?

In light of the Hong Kong protests, there is likely to be concern towards any mention of  dissent as it becomes associated with violence. The YRPR case is the latest in a long line of dissenting voices in Singapore that were subject to swift punitive measures in the name of public order. However, the issue of dissent remains an important discourse that Singaporeans must continuously engage in. Who defines the dissident? How does the media frame dissidents through their medium of public communication? What are the implications of suppressing dissenting voices and dismissing the issue of dissent as creating disharmony in society?

Journalist Kirsten Han cited Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan which consists of eight stages leading to successful social movements that bring about social changes. At the core of it lies the people’s initiative in expressing views that challenge the dominant discourse. As such, criminalising dissent might serve to reinforce the dominant state narrative and could potentially hinder Singapore’s progress when no one challenges the boundaries of the society.


Disclaimer: This article was last edited on 23/09/2019. “They were subsequently charged” has been changed to “They were subsequently investigated for offenses”; “on 15 September” has been changed to “starting on 15 September”. We apologize for any misunderstanding caused.

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