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People Power: From Past to Present

Updated: Jun 29, 2022


People… Power?

Throughout Singapore’s post-independence history, our society has had a complicated and even strained relationship with the notion of activism and protest. To many, people power is a foreign, almost abstract notion at best – a novel phenomenon that only happens “elsewhere”, far from the comfort of our apparently docile and compliant world. At worst, people power takes on a sinister spin. Seen through the lens of generational trauma surrounding the violent riots of our country’s collective post-war history, the memory of disruptive social upheaval is enough of a historic shadow to deter even the most determined of Singaporeans.

But what if people power and collective unity can take on – and, historically, has taken on – a persona far from what we’ve stereotyped them to be?

Contrary to outdated belief, people power is very much alive today – having taken on various roles in civil society through the post-war period – and, most significantly, has succeeded in enacting widespread social change at not only the grassroots but national level. Let’s take a look through Singapore’s past wins, and what this means for activists in the present.

Rally for Women’s Rights

Let’s begin in 1952, just seven years after the Second World War. The year prior, a meeting made up entirely of Malay women birthed the concept of a local women’s council, and subsequently on the 4th of April 1952 the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) was formally created, with an executive committee consisting of women of diverse heritage and background. Throughout the 1950s, the SCW lobbied for various aspects of women’s rights, such as that of marriage equality, divorce practices and child care. They eventually produced the landmark proposal of the women’s rights bill, which then provided the foundation for which the Women’s Charter was able to materialise in parliament in 1961. The Charter empowered women with legal rights they were not afforded prior to the bill’s actualisation, including legislative provisions such as that of providing women with legal recourse against spouses who have committed adultery. Although the organisation was deregistered in the ‘80s following the advent of more institutionalised support regarding women’s issues, its beliefs of protecting and empowering all women in Singapore continue to ring true in successive organisations such as AWARE, and the fight for gender equality is still an ongoing issue for which many activists currently lobby for.

Student Activism: The Lost Legacy

Moving forward from the ‘50s into the ‘60s and ‘70s, Singapore saw strong and sustained waves of student activism, where youth from universities often clashed with the government on a variety of issues. Most notable was the period of 1973-1974, when the University of Singapore Students Union (USSU) – the predecessor of the current NUS’ Student Union – was led by its first woman elected president, Juliet Chin. Under her, the Student Union advocated for academic justice and fairness in their education system, challenged the government’s bus fare hike, and worked in tandem with all the other unions of higher tertiary education in Singapore to fight for the rights of the Tasik Utara landless urban poor in Johore Bahru, as well as that of the retrenched American Marine workers in Singapore by personally setting up a Retrenchment Research Centre to help them.

700 students at a rally in 1974 to protest the expulsion of six students due to their activities in the USSU, National Archives

Such vibrant student activism came to an abrupt end in December of 1974 following the trial of Tan Wah Piow and arrest of five Malaysian student leaders including Chin. While historians such as Mary Turnbull opine that 1974 marked the end of student activism, this legacy of collective unity in the face of injustice has begun manifesting itself again in the youth of today, almost 40 years after Tan and Chin’s arrest.

Student Activism: Reborn

With the rise of student-led initiatives and organisations addressing issues from LGBTQIA rights to climate change concerns in universities across the nation, it seems that people power is rooting itself steadfastly among this generation of youth. In 2019, following Monica Baey’s prominent account of sexual harrassment mismanagement by NUS, hundreds of students signed a petition to call for reformation of sexual harrassment policies, and throngs of students congregated at the University Town in order to take part in the town hall addressing the matter, thus defying the long-held perception of youth being “apathetic”.

Other prominent youth-led campaigns that come to mind include Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), a coalition consisting 40 students from NUS, NTU, SMU, SUTD and YNC, which called on universities to transition away from relying on the fossil fuel industry by 2030. Their cornerstone report titled “Fossil Fuel Universities” published earlier this year scrutinises the links between the fossil fuel industry and local universities, and efforts are still ongoing in pressuring the universities to take substantive steps to develop comprehensive sustainability plans and commitments.

Students in masks sitting around a white banner with the words "Just transition" on it in various colours
Students For A Fossil Free Future

Grassroots for Greens

Further into the environmental sector, people power has definitely met with some success with regards to conserving green spaces in Singapore. In 1992, a petition by the Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) which garnered 17,000 physical signatures saved the beloved Lower Pierce Reservoir from being developed into a golf course. That year, the news was rife with scathing commentaries from various organisations and members of the public, including outcries of whether “golf or water” was more critical to Singaporean society. In an interview with Rice Media, an anonymous former NSS member recalled how amassing 17,000 physical signatures was “unbelievable” “in Singapore terms”. He further said, “What I remember from this is the extraordinary willingness of people to help… it was absolutely astonishing, because it showed that we, as ordinary people, could do something.”

The power of ordinary people – like you and I – was reflected once again in the grassroots-driven proposal to transform the colonial-era railway corridor that once shuttled folk to and from Malaysia into a Green Corridor in 2010. Architects, bicyclists, birders, naturalists and other everyday citizens pushed for the land to be kept as an “urban countryside” instead of allowing for developers to colonise the land for industrial purposes. Without people power and the perseverance of the so-called commonfolk, spaces like these wouldn’t have been able to survive the pressures of urbanisation and industrialisation, and would have fallen to the wayside as a green memory of the past.

Lessons from Past Legacies

Evidently, people power works, not just in “liberal Western countries” but here in Singapore as well. As more youth are beginning to question the status quo and push back against the injustices they see, activism will inevitably become a mainstay of our daily lives. Exhausting as it may be to continuously have to campaign for a better future, there is consolation to be found in turning to history and realising that we are part of a rich history of successful activists and changemakers.

So what does this mean for us in the 21st century? Perhaps the lessons to be learnt are that the strength of people power hinges directly on the intersectionality and diversity of its people’s voices, and that continued public efforts – almost like a war of attrition – do indeed work. So whether the movement close to your heart is the fight for Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam’s life against the death penalty, for universities to divest away from reliance on the fossil fuel industry, or for Clementi and Dover forest to be kept untouched by our relentless drive for ‘development’, it is important to remember to lend our strengths to each and every cause possible, as it is high time for our voices to be heard above the large conglomerates, firms and institutions which have dominated mainstream conversation for far too long.

Grassroots movements are necessary. Collective unity is necessary. Only when we fight together, as one, to demand for bolder, more just, more equitable climate action, then can progress in the right direction be made, towards a future that is more sustainable and more just for all communities in Singapore. Only with people power, can this be done.


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