When protests cross the line

When protests cross the line
Mr Roy Ngerng (with flag) and Ms Han Hui Hui (right) encroaching on the YMCA’s Proms@the Park event at Hong Lim Park last Saturday.

Public opinion has been charged over the Hong Lim Park disturbance last Saturday, when a protest against the Central Provident Fund (CPF) disrupted a charity carnival. Walter Sim and Rachel Au-Yong examine what the incident means for civil society discourse in Singapore.

The rallying cries of activist Han Hui Hui at Hong Lim Park could be heard two blocks away at Hong Lim Complex at 4.05pm, on a particularly hot day when the thermometer hit 34 deg C.

With a charity carnival by voluntary welfare organisation YMCA called Proms@the Park going on at the same time last Saturday, the 22-year-old organiser of the fourth Return Our CPF protest at the park yelled into a microphone a laundry list of her misgivings with the Government. She was dogged in making herself heard from an elevated mound at one corner.

Several hundred people, largely retirees, turned up to hear Ms Han and blogger Roy Ngerng, 33, speak about Central Provident Fund issues.

Some brandished placards bearing slogans like "Do you want to work till you drop dead?"

The first - in this case, innocuous - intermingling of two quite separate events happened when many of the protesters took shelter from the heat under the YMCA's main tent.

However, at about 4.25pm, a line was crossed in the park's tradition of you-do-your-event, we-will-conduct-ours, all in a peaceable, non-encroaching manner.

A group of elderly charity recipients invited to the YMCA carnival entered the park from near Ms Han's spot, and she turned to face them. Directly addressing the group, she started speaking in Mandarin on issues like the Pioneer Generation Package, even as YMCA volunteers quickly ushered them away.

Mr Ngerng - who is being sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - spoke shortly after. He yelled: "Are you happy with our CPF?", sparking chants of "Return Our CPF" from some in the audience.

He thanked everyone present - including YMCA volunteers and elderly charity recipients - saying: "We know that some of you cannot clap, but thank you for supporting us."

He also thanked the YMCA for inviting Minister of State (Trade and Industry) Teo Ser Luck as its guest of honour, so that "we can protest to a minister".

Mr Teo arrived at about 4.50pm and opened the YMCA Proms @ The Park event.

Moments later, Ms Han and Mr Ngerng led their group on a march around the park, encroaching into YMCA's space.

Waving Singapore flags, they stopped near the stage, in front of which sat rows of elderly guests, and shouted chants, including "Return Our CPF" and "Vote Them Out, PAP".

These chants were apparently directed at Mr Teo, who was speaking to the audience of seated senior citizens. Jeering was also heard.

At the same time, a group of special needs children, the Y Stars, had taken to the stage for their dance item.

Several children, shocked by the rowdiness, missed a beat. The performance had to be restarted.

The aftermath: On Monday, Mr Teo apologised for the inconvenience caused by his presence, while a request from Mr Ngerng to meet the children and their parents was rebuffed.

On Tuesday, Madam Regina Aun, 55, manager of Y Stars, said in The Straits Times: "I've consulted the parents, and all of them are not in favour. I've read his (Mr Ngerng's) interpretation of the sequence of events on his blog, and I don't agree with some of his explanations."

And to Insight, YMCA general secretary Lo Chee Wen said: "The march into our event area was not expected."

He added that the YMCA has been following up to make sure that those who were at the concert are all right, and rendering assistance when needed.

Insight examines the issues surrounding civil society discourse that the disturbance - which is now a police matter - has thrust into the spotlight.

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