by Bertha Henson
The red balloons were replaced by placards emblazoned with angry slogans. Young smiling faces were replaced by older ones, sterner-looking. No cupcakes were given out but tee-shirts were sold as well as hard-to-find books by political dissidents and such like.
It was a sea change in mood, from a carefree picnic in the morning to a carefully orchestrated protest in the evening. Organisers of the alternative May Day rally put the crowd figure at 5,000 to 6,000, more than their first protest in February which they said numbered about 4,000.
But it seemed less than that, with the crowd thinning as the evening wore on.
From 4pm, speaker after speaker took to the microphone, including an assortment of “lay’’ people as they were described – a single mother of an eight-year old, a stay-at-home mom, a 66 year old retiree, a 35 year old graduate who is a cab driver.
They were there to say no to the 6.9 million population figure, a repeat of February’s theme. Each “lay’’ person had a personal story to tell, stories full of anger and angst. About bringing up children single-handedly, about not being able to find a job despite a degree (the young cab driver by the way served in the army for 10 years before he got out into the private sector and couldn’t find employment), about discrimination against older women who want to rejoin the workforce.
Here is anger: “I challenge the minister to a debate on television about the CPF!’’ said a 66 year old self-employed man upset at CPF rules which do not allow full withdrawal at age 55. His “hati panas already’’, he declared.
Here is angst: “Why are the smiles on the faces of foreigners here bigger than mine? When can I put the smile back on my face?’’ was how a single mother concluded her speech which were peppered with anecdotes about single mothers not being eligible for baby bonuses or a HDB rental flat.
Several times, speakers reiterated that they were not being xenophobic. It was like a mantra. They were just against the G’s policy on the use of foreign workers which were squeezing locals out of a job.
The crowd paid rapt attention, breaking out into shouts and applause. Every time the G was “whacked’’, they cheered. A heartland crowd it was, who lapped up the speeches made in dialects. One grandmother who spoke actually sang a few lines in Teochew, much to the merriment of the crowd. What was missing was a full Malay speech. Mr Nizam Ismail, formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals, had pulled out at the last minute. As for Tamil, lawyer M Ravi obliged with a speech which few understood but most appreciated going by the sustained applause he received.
Meanwhile, people with placards walked round.
“Singapore needs public transport, not world class transport’’
“It’s dangerous to be right when the Government is wrong.’’
“What do you call the natives of this wealthy island? Singapooreans.’’
There were less polite ones as well.
At another corner, a 20m long white cloth had been laid out for people to pen their feelings about the 6.9 million.
The better-known speakers had more to say about policy.
Financial consultant Leong Sze Hian pointed out what he saw as contradictions in G statistics, especially on employment figures. Why weren’t they broken down further to make clear the number of both employed citizens and PRs? And what about a proper breakdown of the cost of building HDB flats?
Organiser Gilbert Goh, who counsels the unemployed, wants a quota set for employment pass holders, like for S passes and work permits. He maintained that he knew of companies with 100 per cent foreign workers.
Lawyer M Ravi referred to recent warnings to bloggers as an example of civil society being “under threat’’. There is no freedom of speech nor of assembly. There is no parliamentary ombudsman nor a human rights commission. He told the crowd to give the G a “red card’’ at the next election.
Former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say, the last speaker, was more explicit. The Population White Paper, he alleged, was a PAP plot to tighten its grip on Singapore by adding new citizens to swell the pro-PAP voting ranks.
He called for the People’s Action Party to be booted out at the next general election, maintaining that the opposition was ready to form the next Government or at least, more ready than the PAP itself was in 1959 when it took power. He rattled off some figures: nine opposition figures who held senior positions in G agencies, seven PhD holders. There were about 25 to 30 people in the opposition ranks, he said, ready to take over – as a coalition Government.
“You can only change policy, in the political way,’’ he said during a press conference later. As for the formation of a coalition government, he wouldn’t be too pessimistic about the willingness of political parties to collaborate he said, responding to a question.
When organiser Mr Goh pledged that the May Day protest would be an annual event, members of the public pressed for more such protests. What about National Day, someone asked? It was the grandmother, a member of Function 8, who replied. She thought it was a good idea.
Looks like Hong Lim Park is coming alive.
The G is probably regretting designating Speakers’ Corner a free speech space.
Bertha Henson also reported on the first picnic event, which happened earlier in the day.