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This is what freedom of speech looks like March 27, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Life in London, Politics, Singapore, Society.
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I woke up to the sounds of helicopters and whistles and drums in the distance. I had an inkling of what was going on – there were university union members handing out flyers to university staff and students to strike against the pension cuts earlier in the week. I checked the BBC website, and sure enough, there was going to be a protest in London – a huge one. One that would involve more than 200,000 participants angry with the government’s spending cuts to the public sector, causing a loss in jobs. Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw legions of people carrying flags and signs, walking from the tube station towards the embankment, and tour buses upon tour buses dropping off protesters arriving from all over the UK.

I had plans to do grocery shopping, but given the bus delays and road blocks due to the protests, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, my boyfriend and I decided to follow the crowds.

Whilst we walked alongside the protesters, I was struck with a sense of pride and warmth. Sure, many of the policies that they were protesting against had little to do with me, and I’m not even British. But I was just so happy to be living in a country where the average Joe had such strong opinions about not only his own livelihood, but that of his friends, his family, and of fellow Britons, and was not afraid to speak up about it. Even more unbelievable (at least to someone who comes from a country where it is illegal to gather in a group of more than 5 people) was the wondrous fact that the city had blocked off its main roads and redirected its bus services, just so that these protesters could carry out their route along the river Thames to hold a rally in Hyde Park.

 

 

Waterloo bridge was closed to traffic to allow protesters to march

We walked across Waterloo Bridge (which was free of traffic because of this event), taking in the almost surreal sights: men, women, teenagers and seniors, holding signs and flyers and cameras, marching across the bridge, amid a backdrop of London’s iconic buildings. On the other side of the river Thames, protesters spanned the entire stretch of the embankment as far as I could see; their colourful flags and balloons making it appear as though they were taking part in a carnival.

 

Protesters spanned the embankment as far as I could see

 

I thought the crowds looked beautiful

There was music. And laughter. And painted faces, and costumes, and children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and many other sights I never expected of a political protest. These people weren’t bitter or volatile, neither were they hooligans trying to stir up violence. They are everyday citizens – teachers, nurses, professors, doctors, firemen and students – unhappy with the fact that their government has decided to cut their jobs. These are average people, concerned about what will happen to their schools and universities and hospitals and emergency services after all the job cuts. They just want their voices to be heard and changes to be made.

 

They were old, young, male, female, parents, grandparents, students. Not the type of extremist troublemakers that the Singapore government tries to train us to associate with politcal demonstrations.

Why is Singapore so afraid of all this? Why are our demonstrations (subject to approval) constrained to a tiny grassy patch at Hong Lim? Why is it illegal to air our unhappiness in public? Why does the government paint all protesters as troublemakers and radicals, when in reality many of these issues are the concerns of the average citizen? How can we be told to be satisfied with the approved routes of feedback – sitting at your computer and typing an angry letter to your MP – when issues like jobs, healthcare, civil liberty and economic injustice are real issues to be passionate about and whose scale can only accurately be expressed visually in the form of a demonstration?

Is Singapore afraid that protests may cause inconveniences or scare away tourists? Well I was definitely inconvenienced today, but that inconvenience is tiny compared to what hundreds or thousands of public sector workers would have to go through if their jobs were cut. And if one Saturday’s disruption is what it takes to show the ministers and MPs just how many lives are going to be adversely affected by their policies, then it’s well worth the disruption.  “Maintaining order” and “minimizing inconveniences” are shabby excuses for trying to restrict free speech.

Today I saw what real freedom of speech looks like, and it was beautiful.

N.B. During the protests, a small group broke off the main route and attempted to cause trouble at Picadilly and Oxford Circus. It is unfortunate that there are always a distinct bunch of youths whose only intent is to be a menace, but fortunately these were only about a couple hundred people out of the 250,000 peaceful protesters. Moreover, the police also exercised much restraint, without using unnecessary force and showing discretion when arresting these troublemakers.

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1. anon - March 28, 2011

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