Categorised | Letters to the Editor

The point of demonstrating

Tear gas and water cannons fired into the crowd during the anti-ISA rally on 1 Aug, 2009 (pic by Gan Pei Ling)

RECENT public demonstrations like the anti/pro-Internal Security Act (ISA) rallies and others have publicly defied the ruling for police permits. Police permits are seen as going against Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations general assembly. Article 20 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

Since the law requiring a police permit has become unenforceable, the strategic way to circumvent it is by saying, “Assemble without permit, but only in a secure situation.”

What is the point of demonstrating in a secure situation like that of a stadium? Such a demonstration would be preaching to the choir.

The logic behind every demonstration is that ordinary people can effect change in alliance with other ordinary people. When citizens disagree with their government, one of the most powerful ways to express that dissent is to demonstrate publicly with other citizens. You cannot make your voice heard by whispering behind closed doors, you have to proclaim your message from the rooftops.

Demonstrations invite people who feel helpless and angry but isolated to march besides others who feel the same, and to learn that they are not alone. Demonstrations make people feel less alone, more powerful and confident. That is why the size of demonstrations matters so much. The more people you march alongside, the stronger you feel. This feeling is lost when we stand static in an enclosed space. The message is contained among the converted. There are no cars honking in support of your campaign.

Streets belong to the people

The dynamism of a demonstration is in the march. The streets belong to the people but the police are expected to control traffic in the interest of public safety. The police must allow a peaceful march and not road block.

Marching and picketing are by their nature activities that require public places in order to draw attention to their cause. To require a government permit for these activities in public places, even when peace and order are maintained, is an unreasonable restriction of a fundamental right.

Trouble and violence can be anticipated but not arbitrarily used as an excuse to prevent a march. It is not in the interest of demonstrators to become violent because that will only vitiate their message. Trouble and violence can be caused by counter demonstrators or induced through agent provocateurs but that’s when the police must move in to control the situation.

In a democracy, the government must listen and respond to the voices of the citizens. Free expression in any society must seek a balance between citizens’ rights to assemble and the government’s responsibility to maintain safety. Police are expected to maintain order, and determine limits for demonstrations.

Creating a war zone with trucks and cannons and armed personnel is geared to drive fear into the hearts of people who are already feeling helpless. The attempt is to shut up dissent.

David Anthony
20 Aug 2009

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One Response to “The point of demonstrating”

  1. Alwyn Lau says:

    Granted the importance of ‘public space’, the ‘dynamism of demonstrations’, the ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’, etc. but what if people (esp. children) were to be seriously injured in the next street march? Worse still, what if someone were to die?

    Who’s fault would that be? *Only* the government’s?


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