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Singaporean Laws and the Impossibility of a Women’s March

Singaporean Laws and the Impossibility of a Women’s March

On January 19, women from America and around the world will embark on the third Women’s March aimed at advocating for equal rights and reducing gender-based biases. Started in 2017, the campaign was a deliberate response to and protest against the new Trump administration and its war on women’s rights. The marches in the U.S. surpassed expectations. Millions of women participated in over 670 marchesaround the world. 

In Jakarta, people took to the streets to stand up for sex workers’ rights, identity concerns through dress codes (such as the hijab) and attempts to take down corrupt political systems. In the Philippines, women marched in response to the misogyny displayed by President Rodrigo Duterte, his unapologetic jokes about rape and blatant support for physical harm to women’s bodies. 

The Women’s March has provided a platform for people around the world to voice their opinions and make known their concerns, but what if you lived in a city in which you couldn’t march? Where public processions and assemblies are illegal? Where organising a Women’s March would mean applying for licenses in order to hold such an event within the restricted parameters of a single, government-approved location?

Such is the case for Singapore, where police permits are required before large gatherings or rallies can be held. Unlicensed organisers risk getting fined up to SGD$10,000, or imprisonment of up to six months- sometimes both. A Women’s March, therefore, would be illegal.

I was raised in Singapore as a Chinese female. In my country, my race makes up about 74% of the country’s residentship, followed by Malays, Indians, and other ethnic groups. In my conversations with people from the U.S., U.K. and neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Australia, I’d often liken our racial makeup to America’s whiteness. As a Singaporean Chinese, I cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the fact that my successes may not be merely credited to hard work; it may also have been in part due to the silent privilege that I hold over my minority peers.

In Singapore, we talk about gender representation. There’s an excellent gender equality and advocacy organisation, AWARE, that offers assistance and support to women in need. We are starting to acknowledge our problem with race, even urging those who hold power to do something about it. We have our very own LGBTQ+ rally event, Pink Dot. Yet why is it that we aren’t allowed to march for our own rights? The bigger question here stands – do we need an event like the Women’s March, and how would that fit into the structure of our country? Are we missing out on an important movement if we do not have our own version of it?

To gain further insights into how people felt about not having our own Women’s March, I surveyed four women in their 20s, who, while not completely representative of Singapore’s mix of cultural landscape, socio-economic status and privilege, were chosen based on their differentiation in belief systems, cultural values and whether they had taken part in a march before. Their social, political and cultural awareness in response to Singapore’s systems and international affairs were also taken into consideration.

Trishna Goklani is currently pursuing her degree in Fashion Communications at London College of Fashion while developing her career as a content producer and writer. She taps on her social media presence to rally for the representation of brown women in Singapore and globally. She attended the 2018 Women’s March in London. 

Louisiana Mei Gelpi is a recent Singaporean graduate of School of Visual Arts in New York City. She attended the 2015 Black Lives Matter March and 2018 Women’s March in NYC. 

Rachel Yeo is the Director of Inter-University LGBT Network in Singapore, and advocates for the rights and improvements in organisational and socio-political systems for the community.

Qingyi Joella Kiu believes strongly in reducing patriarchal systems and emphasises these values through her work on the art history platform she founded in 2018, Object Lessons Space.  

In Singapore, there are laws that make it illegal to hold marches or large group rallies without a valid licence from the authorities. As a result, the Women’s March can’t happen here as easily as it does in other countries. How does this make you feel? 

Trishna Goklani: I’ve always wanted to go for rallies and marches for things that I really believe in. A friend asked me along and I knew a couple of other friends who wanted to attend the Women’s March last year but were alone. So I roped every one of us, all Singaporeans, together for the [London] event. It was interesting because we have never done that before and we don’t get to this in our own country. It was nice to experience the event with Singaporeans alongside me. 

Louisiana Mei Gelpi: Growing up, I don’t think I felt detached or isolated but as I grew older, learned more about the world, and attended university in an open cultural city like New York, I definitely feel that Singaporeans are missing out on an experience like the Women’s March. 

Black Lives Matter was my first march ever and it was quite overwhelming because it was very crowded, loud and passionate, especially coming from a country like Singapore where events like that are uncommon. It showed what a calm, passionate protest is about, and how a protest isn’t always about violence and being radical. It’s really just about people, no matter the race or age, coming together and standing up for what they believe in and making their voices heard.

Rachel Yeo: I wouldn’t say I feel detached or isolated because I am constantly surrounded by people who believe in and take actions towards achieving gender equality. On top of being an advocate for the LGBT community, I’ve also worked in a women’s non-governmental organisation before so my experience is obviously very different from a regular Singaporean woman. 

I suppose we could apply for a permit to hold an event similar to a Women’s March in Hong Lim Park. But thus far I haven’t heard of any attempts to obtain one.

Qingyi Joella Kiu: I’m always cautious when comparing the move for gender equality in Singapore to how it looks like in other places. Often, what we hear most of (because of language and media) is how the movement (particularly #MeToo) has taken off in America and European countries. As much as I cheer my sisters and brothers on there in their amazing and tireless work, I can’t help but feel that the socio-cultural climate is not the same. Granted there will be many similarities, but there are things that we have to work out on our own terms. 

The Women’s March is an amazing time for women of all walks of life to come together and rally beneath a single cause. Would it be great if we could have one in Singapore? Yes! Definitely! But at the same time, the effects of having a march will only remain within the confines of the march if not for the year-round work that other activists do to forward the cause. Everything is connected, I feel, and although a march would be a nice thing to have, I feel the year-round work more important in terms of affecting on-the-ground change. 

Based on what you know about the Women’s March, do you feel that it could benefit Singaporeans or fit into the country’s structure? 

Trishna Goklani: Protests are common in London. People really value their belief systems, from veganism to political causes. What we do in Singapore is take to our online platforms and open up discussions. It is also a form of protest but standing together with people who believe in the same thing is a very different feeling. I wish Singaporeans were allowed to do that legally and I’m sure we will one day.

The U.K. upskirting ban just got implemented thanks to Gina Martin, a young activist who started an online campaign #StopSkirtingTheIssue to criminalise the act a year ago. She could be my neighbour or my sister. You see, I wish we had the power to do things like this, to push bills. For most people in Singapore, proposing to pass a bill as an ordinary citizen is unthinkable. I hope that will change one day.

Louisiana Mei Gelpi: I don’t know if it fits into the “structure” of the country per se, but I do think that we need to be more open-minded as a country on a whole and a march isn’t a bad idea to help with that. 

Rachel Yeo:  I understand that Women’s March is a movement that was catalyzed by Donald Trump’s inauguration. Even though I’m not a U.S. citizen, it was a real shock to my system when I learned that a man with a track record of sexual harassment and assault could hold the highest office in the land. His win was emblematic of a larger, problematic attitude people around the world have towards women. Our lives, bodies, rights, reproductive and mental health just aren’t taken seriously enough.

That being said, I’m just not sure how a march like that would fit into Singapore. It’s illegal and very few would put themselves on the line. A revolt is more likely to take other forms, such as online petitions and PR campaigns. You can always count on people to find creative ways of expressing their disapproval.

Qingyi Joella Kiu: I think it would definitely get people on the fence involved. It seems like when people aren’t confronted or incentivized to think about the impacts of gender inequality, it can slip very quickly to the back of our minds. Lack of discussions about a topic may also be a display of undeveloped opinions. It’s also often easier to identify the problem in other countries as compared to our own.

With a Women’s March that’s tailored to Singapore and for our residents, it would invariably turn the conversation onto how gender inequality looks like here. I think it will jumpstart a lot of important, but difficult conversations. Last year, we saw a public activation to Repeal 377A through an online petition that was taken to the parliament. I think it’s important to have conversations about how gender inequality looks like in Singapore, how the use of Singlish sometimes seems to “take the edge off” sexist remarks, and how deeply ingrained some of these ideas are into our culture – at workplace or in school.

As a final note, what would you march for if you were able to? What are some issues that matter to you?

Trishna Goklani: On one hand I would rally for the government to open up art sectors for more opportunities for students and young artists. In the context of Singapore, the priority on my list would be racism because I think it’s one of the major things that need to be dealt with head-on. Honestly, I don’t think a protest is going to radically change anything. If anything I feel like it would enable more voices that would otherwise go unheard – at least in our country.

Louisiana Mei Gelpi: I would love to march for climate change because I think most of us still don’t take it seriously, even though there is clear evidence of huge, even deadly impacts in recent years. There’s no time to wait for climate change to happen because it’s already happening. 

Rachel Yeo: I can’t say definitively that I would march if I could. It really depends on the organizers and how the purpose of the event is framed. For example, I don’t think I could align myself with a women’s movement that excludes women of colour or doesn’t have the interests of the LGBTQ+ community at heart. I’ll just have to look at the situation that presents.

Qingyi Joella Kiu: So many issues. Reproductive rights, access to education and healthcare, equal opportunities, I want my trans sisters included in the feminist movement, and equal pay – just to name a few.

At the end of the day, we all want to live in a society free from bigotry.

Indeed, there is no hard and fast rule or approach to effecting change. Living in a country with its limitations and self-censorship issues pose huge risks to activists and change-makers but also forces people to think out of the box. What happens when we can’t adopt the practices of our Western and neighbouring friends? We adapt. Events in the past years have taught us to be resilient and proactive in first convincing our own social circles, find ways to stand up as a community and create our own solutions.

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