18 December, 2019
2019 will be remembered as a year of mass street protests, including violent ones. The sharp disruptions to normalcy highlight the resistance to the dysfunctional status quo and the quest for political and socio-economic change in increasingly polarised societies.
While taking to the streets in protest is not new, this year’s unrest in at least 18 countries in different corners of the world is characterised by the breadth and intensity of the protests.
What else can we glean from these protests and what do they say about governance today?
At its core, protests challenge governmental authority and state power. Protests are a means of demonstrating social, economic and political discontent, often in the quest for change to safeguard the protestors’ individual and collective futures.
What is unique this time is the pervasive use of social media and the significant participation of young people, who are themselves adept in using social media.
But each protest has a different spark. It could be about corrupt, repressive, or inept governments, high costs of living, inequality and social injustice, or inaction over climate change.
In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp calls sparked the country’s largest protests in over a decade, as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.
[From the link:
The proposed WhatsApp tax, as well as proposals to increase VAT and gasoline taxes, inflamed anti-government sentiments. That led to the demonstrations, in which protesters called for regime change and revolution.In other words, Lebanon has a lot of problems. The "WhatsApp tax" was just the last straw. The govt is also...
...threatening the pensions of retired soldiers. Additionally, some reportedly believe corruption is preventing the country from getting the aid it needs.So it is a little misleading (if not outright disingenuous) to suggest that people will simply protest over a 20 cent tax on WhatsApp calls. With the implications that this might happen in SG.]
Similarly, each protest has different objectives even if they evolve and produce different outcomes. Bruce Lee’s aphorism on adapting to the circumstances comes to mind: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water.”
In Hong Kong for instance, originally peaceful opposition and protests have degenerated into manifestly violent ones. Protestors, even without leaders, succeeded in forcing the government to reverse its course on the proposed law on extradition of criminal suspects to China.
The protests have now evolved into a riot act of the government’s failings in dealing with basic needs such as housing, social inequality, and broader questions on Hong Kong’s future.
Emboldened, protestors are insisting that China honours, in form and in substance, the high degree of autonomy promised under the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong.
Social media amplifying divisions
The adroit use of encrypted communication platforms enables the protests to scale up efficiently and effectively. Social media enables the swift and widespread articulation of grievances; it can also rapidly mobilise supporters, communicate messages and coordinate strategies, share evocative memes, and crowd source ideas and funds.
[This is a point about HOW protestors can coordinate their efforts. But regardless of HOW they coordinate, they will eventually be confronted by Law Enforcement officers who will try to stop them, and maybe arrest them. This requires the protestors to analyse the risks to their life, limb and liberty. And to decide whether what they are protesting are worth the risks. No matter how well they are coordinated, it may perhaps reduce the risks, but not totally eliminate it. And that risk is what they have to decide if they are willing to bear.]
This year’s many protests also underscored the growing concern, particularly among the young, with climate change. As the scientific prognosis for our planet worsened, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen activist, became the face of anguished opposition to “business as usual”.
At this year’s United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York, she denounced the lack of urgent and real action by governments and businesses to deal with the climate emergency.
Her call for stronger action on global warming inspired other students to organise similar protests in other parts of the world. There were at least two coordinated multi-city protests this year involving over one million students.
Such protests also seek to promote greater awareness of the climate emergency, which would result in unborn generations and hers paying the existential price for environmental inaction
This year’s protests showed how they can spread like a contagion.
They also demonstrated remarkable resilience despite the initial lack of grassroots mobilisation that was the hallmark of durable protests of the past.
[Not to take anything from Greta and the climate change protests, no matter how "viral" their message and movement have been, the question is still whether they are effective, and whether they are effective is a question of whether there are concrete steps taken. And whether these steps are sufficient. The problem is, there is a persistent messaging that Climate Change is ALL our responsibility to stop.
That is easier said than done.
The actions (or inactions, or mistakes) of countries are not coordinated. And not equivalent.
If Singapore were to stop ALL carbon emissions (pollutions), we would reduce carbon emissions by... 0.11%
The two largest emitters of carbon dioxide are China and the US. The US is a big polluter because of the lifestyle of the average US resident - driving their cars, using heaters and air-conditioning, washer-dryers, dish-washers, etc.
China has a large population (1.3 Billion people), with many achieving middle class status. And with middle class status they want to have better food (more meat less veggies), cars, heating, air-conditioning, electricity, etc. What this means is that even if just 1% of their population moves from poverty to middle class, that is 13 million people who now wants all the conveniences of the middle class they can afford - electricity, running water, heating and cooling, refrigeration, internet access, mobile phones, more meat in their diet, etc.
Even if ALL Singapore citizens cut their emissions to zero, those 13 million newly middle classed Chinese emitting just 1/3 of what we emit would wipe out any "carbon savings".
The point is, focusing on Individual Actions to save the climate is a fallacy. No individual action will matter much.
But if you want to focus on individual actions, are you focusing on the most effective actions?
The top three actions are 1) have ONE fewer kid. 2) Live car-free. and 3) Avoid flying (say to Tokyo, or Melbourne).
Right off, I'm still going to Japan and Australia for holidays. So 3 is not happening for me.
I already do not own a car, so (2) is easy.
As for kids, we're not having another one. But if we were to get pregnant, what are we supposed to do? Abort?
(Here's an interesting idea, the pro-choice people should enlist the help of the climate activists - abortions save the planet!)
In any case, having one fewer kid is against SG's population policy!
But back to the point: so the Climate protests spread like a contagion. So what? Did it change anything? The climate protest MAY cause SOME govt to take actions, but are those actions effective?
In spite of the climate protests, the COP25 negotiations were a bust. Climate protests are all show, no go.]
In France, the Yellow Vests Movement — named after the fluorescent vests the protesters wear during their demonstrations to signal their working class background — continues after more than a year.
What started as a protest against higher fuel taxes, they spread across France and now represent a reaction to the government’s overall economic policies and the high cost of living.
The protests this year point to more troubling times ahead given that public institutions globally now enjoy lower levels of legitimacy and support.
The widening gap in trust and confidence between the political class and the public often makes attempts to solve the problems woefully inadequate.
The popular discontent signifies the failures of representational politics where out-of-touch politicians are oblivious or even sneering to the concerns of the masses. On the other hand, the masses may be polarised and susceptible to populist measures that address the symptoms but not the causes of their plight.
As 2020 beckons, there is much for governments and the economic elites to reflect on. But political will to address the concerns is patently needed to help keep a system responsive to people’s concerns, needs and fears.
But deep polarisation means the minimum trust threshold is absent for there to be meaningful engagement.
This is further complicated by the protestors’ diffused demands that are often evolving. Some of the protest movements are also leaderless. It is not clear who the government ought to negotiate with.
Singapore has been spared of such debilitating and divisive protests. While protests are permitted at the Speakers’ Corner, they are not a common mode of expressing discontentment and distress. Political stability remains highly valued by Singaporeans.
Furthermore, the laws provide for and the authorities adopt a no-nonsense approach to protests, such as the rule against foreigners participating and the prohibition against protests on issues relating to race, language and religion.
Trust in the government remains relatively robust and governance remains purposeful. While Singapore is fortunate not to experience protests, that does not mean we are immune.
[That may well be a truism. But just because we are not immune doesn't mean a protest is just around the corner. What is more important is to ask, "what will bring Singaporeans out to the streets to protest? What will they risk their life, limbs, and liberty for? Like the HKers are risking every time they take to the streets in protest. They may be shot, assaulted, gassed, and arrested. Why are they willing to risk that? In 2014 in the aftermath of the Umbrella/Occupy movement in HK, a question was asked: What would get Singaporeans to take to the streets in protest?
The analysis was superficial and myopic. Something about Singaporeans won't protest if they believe the rules are fair and the government and people play by those rules. Make of that what you will.
The comment on that article takes this line from Braveheart:
"They may take our lives, but they will never take away our Freedom"And asks:
So in Singapore, the question must be, how do you complete this sentence:"They may take our lives, but they will never take away _________"?In other words, what would Singaporeans risk their life, limb and liberty for? And the simple answer is, it must be a critical, essential and basic need. Not some frivolous convenience or First World problem. Like out of reach COE prices.]
Across the world, how those in power respond to the people’s unhappiness, fears and aspirations matters immensely.
Otherwise, in the face of helplessness and hopelessness, the unhappiness will easily transmogrify into violent protests and civil unrest that can develop into full-blown opposition movements.
This year’s protests may well presage a new era of political and societal conflict and protests as a norm. Governance has its work cut out for it in the years ahead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eugene K B Tan is an associate professor and Lee Kong Chian Fellow at the School of Law, Singapore Management University.