Singapore: birth of a new left

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 12:05 Author: Sara Lee
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After three weekends of fantastic discussions on issues like climate change and migrant workers’ rights, Activism in Crisis (AIC) — a huge activism festival in Singapore, 3 to 23 August — has wrapped up triumphantly.

The freedom to speak and to organise in Singapore is quite stifled. Yet, in many ways, AIC is a model for organising and hosting events online — a model not just for organising under repressive regimes but a model for organising in the time of Covid.

The festival took place over Zoom with extensive measures to keep the conversation going and to grow a coalition of activists in the long term. The one word that was constantly emphasised throughout the festival was “accessibility”.

To a large extent, the fact that everything was online made the festival a lot more accessible already. Still, a guide for using the technology was circulated. Speakers were made to speak slowly and clearly. There was sign language, live closed captions, and live note-taking.

Guidelines were read out at the beginning of each event to prevent harassment and discriminatory behaviour. Material was circulated in advance and in readable font. All that, and more, was provided with the help of crowdfunding.

In some ways, the festival being conducted online gave the organisers and the participants more political freedom. The organisers were able to host many speakers from abroad, including Extinction Rebellion and an abolitionist-activist from the States. Three years ago, Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong had given a speech via Skype at an in-person event in Singapore. The organiser, Jolovan Wham, was then imprisoned for organising an illegal public assembly. AIC, being online, managed to avoid state interference of this kind.

In recent years, the global movement around climate change has led to an uptick in left-wing activism in Singapore — a country that has not seen an organised left or a really independent labour movement since the 1960s. As in so many other parts of the world, people — particularly young people — are radicalising and moving to the far-left because of climate change. Liberal logics of economic growth and political reformism are pushing up against the urgent need to reorganise society from below so as to avoid catastrophe.

AIC was organised by SG Climate Rally — a large organisation of climate activists, mainly politically-conscious university students. In 2011, Yale University — in conjunction with the National University of Singapore — set up a liberal arts college in Singapore. Initially there were fears that student activism on the campus would be stifled. But many SG Climate Rally activists have come from that college.

What has also contributed to the birth of a fledgling left in Singapore is the popular movement for LGBTQ+ rights. For the last fifty-odd years, the ruling People’s Action Party has cast a long shadow of social conservatism over the island. Gay sex is criminalised in Singapore, but the movement to repeal the ban on gay sex — Pink Dot — has rapidly become a mass movement. As with the climate crisis, people inevitably run up against capitalist logics when they confront issues of sex and sexuality. On the terrain of social reproduction, the reproduction of human beings stands in stark contrast to the reproduction of workers.

AIC was a broad forum for left-wing ideas — ideas that might not have been fully fleshed out in issue-specific forums on climate change or LGBTQ rights. While some of the festival events focused on specific topics like Big Oil, other events were more general. They were about “building transnational solidarity,” going “beyond (policy) tweaks” and developing “bolder (activist) strategies.” While some participants might have been perplexed by the ambiguity of these event titles, they were actually a brilliant and subtle invitation to discuss ideas that were revolutionary and not just reformist.

Not only was accessibility a central feature of the way the festival was run, but it was also a recurring substantive theme. Speakers and participants asked, “how do we make activism in Singapore accessible to workers?”, “how do we allow oppressed and exploited people to speak for themselves?”, “how do we expand the ‘activist circle’ beyond university students?”

The problem of jargon was brought up a lot, with people saying that activism in Singapore requires a university degree. One participant, in a rather striking reply, said something along the lines of “the Singaporean masses might not understand activists’ social science jargon, but lots of activists probably don’t understand working-class issues either.” Another participant pointed out that it was perhaps a bit condescending to say that orienting towards workers requires doing activism “in plain English.”

When it is touted as a way to orient toward the working class, “making activism accessible” is not only a bit condescending, but it also presumes that knowledge only has to be disseminated in one direction — from the allegedly intellectual activists to the allegedly poorly-educated working class. In truth, we need a situation in which workers and activists are educating each other.

During the event on “Big Oil”, it became clear that a ‘just transition’ to sustainable energy would have to centre the migrant workers who work in the petrochemical industry on Singapore’s Jurong Island. It is they who would be able to walk out and demand green jobs. Activists wouldn’t be able to make that happen unless those workers gave reports on local conditions within their workplaces and shed light on possible industrial demands. And only workers could stage a walk-out or a strike — activists can’t do that, unless they are also workers.

Activists need to be educating, agitating and organising within the working class, not outside of it. In any case, with each AIC event having 500-odd registered participants, activism in Singapore probably isn’t as exclusive as some people worry it is. most of the participants at AIC were themselves workers, perhaps white-collar workers.

It is a falsehood that workers can’t understand politics — or that it has to be “dumbed down” before they can understand it. Someone who works two jobs and has kids may not have time to read Lenin, but it isn’t true that they wouldn’t be able to understand Lenin if they did.

In the event on transnational solidarity, it was acknowledged that a lot of migrant workers in Singapore already have political causes of their own. Despite working under extreme conditions of poverty and exploitation, migrant workers often wish to organise political events and protests in Singapore, especially on issues affecting their home countries. They are prevented from doing so because foreigners aren’t allowed to have protests at Speakers’ Corner (the only place in Singapore where it is legal to have protests) and public assemblies on the political causes of other countries are not permitted.

Migrant workers aside, it is well-documented that the native Singaporean working class has high levels of education, or at least high levels of literacy. The reason working-class Singaporeans are not “political” is due to a myriad of factors, including the tight control of the PAP, but it isn’t due to the fact that Singaporean activists don’t do a good enough job of explaining their jargon. Even if that were the problem, activists having their own “lingo” is a bit of a self-reproducing phenomenon. Once workers are brought into “activist circles”, language will necessarily start to shift. Linguistic expressions will become less abstract.

The liberal opposition in Singapore now has a stronger presence in Parliament, and working-class Singaporeans are now slightly more involved in what goes on in the sphere of bourgeois representative democracy. That’s a step forward. The task for activists in Singapore will be to fight for a form of democratic participation that goes beyond casting a vote every five years. We want workers to be able to protest in the streets about political issues that they care about. We want them to unionise, fight for better wages and working conditions, and take control of their workplaces and industries.

The need for free trade unions and an independent labour movement in Singapore was brought up at almost every event during the month-long festival. References were made to the militant labour movement that once existed in Singapore in the 1950s and the central role that workers played in mobilising against colonialism.

AIC is now a membership organisation, and it wants to continue to fight for the specific demands that were raised in the course of the festival. It has done an exemplary job making Singapore politics accessible in a repressive climate. It must now make politics agitational too.

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