NUS exchange student Pia Muzaffar Dawson did the unthinkable last November.
Along with two exchange students, the 22-year-old took her chances with Singapore’s tough laws against public protests by marching down Orchard Road into an area guarded by about 1,000 armed police and soldiers.
Together with Daniel Babiak and Mark (who did not want to reveal his last name), Dawson entered the city area where the Association of South East Asian Nations leaders’ summit was being held.
The trio, dressed in red T-shirts and holding lighted candles, were protesting against Asean’s inaction toward Burma’s junta after the country’s bloody military crackdown on demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.
In an e-mail interview with The Observer on Jan. 08, Dawson spoke about her experience with the university administrators that called to warn her against protesting and about what she thinks of NUS students.
She has since completed her semester as an exchange student at NUS and returned to England, where she is studying international relations and development studies at the University of Sussex.
Campus Observer: Have you ever protested in England before?
Dawson: Yes, but not very much. I don’t have much history of activism. It’s only recently that I’ve been inspired to participate in protests, specifically regarding education in the UK, anti-war, the occupation of Palestine, and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties in England.
Campus Observer: What inspired you to protest that day?
Dawson: First and foremost, the continuing political repression in Burma, the strong links between Singaporean elites and Burmese military rulers and drug barons, and the relative silence in Singaporean media on both these issues.
It would have been awful if the Burmese junta could be seen to just turn up in Singapore and not be held accountable for their actions — especially given the recent violent crackdown on monks and others.
Secondly, the repressive environment in Singapore, which restricts free speech, free assembly and free press. With the government silent and civil society groups facing massive restrictions, we thought that we could use our status as international students to highlight this issue.
Thirdly – and I am speaking for myself here — it is becoming increasingly clear to me that protest and political participation are vital to maintaining any semblance of democracy and political accountability. This is something that one generation of Singaporeans knew well, but has been stifled in contemporary Singapore. Knowing full well that a public assembly of more than four people does not necessarily degenerate into violence and chaos, we wanted to demonstrate this in Singapore.
Campus Observer: It was reported that administrators from NUS called to warn you of Singapore’s laws. What exactly did they tell you?
Dawson: The provost and dean of students spoke to some of us. They had managed to print out our Facebook event details and explained that the wording of our appeal made it clear that there was intent to hold an assembly of more than four people, even if the protest was conducted in smaller groups.
They didn’t want us to unwittingly break the law and were concerned that as foreign students we were not aware of local law. They even offered us the Central Forum as an alternative venue to stage a vigil.
Campus Observer: Why did you still decide to go ahead with the protests?
Dawson: Because our reasons for protesting remained the same, and we were concerned that this kind of muting of our plans would have much less of an impact and carry our message much less far.
We were also lucky because we knew that any sort of legal action or arrest would not affect us in the same way that it would affect a Singaporean student and their future career prospects (unless we want to work in Singapore, that is).
Campus Observer: Were you afraid when security officials and the police stopped your group of protesters?
Dawson: I wasn’t afraid, because we had expected to encounter police in that area, and we knew that we hadn’t broken any law. We also knew that the police would not mistreat us in the presence of so many international journalists. The main reason I wasn’t afraid, however, was that a successful protest usually relies on good planning, and our group had collectively decided that we would not confront the police or try to defy their warnings. So when the moment came, we were all prepared to disperse peacefully.
Campus Observer: I see that you were using your handphone in one of the photos. Who were you calling?
Dawson: Journalists from all over the world had been calling me non-stop that day.
Campus Observer: Were there any friends, well-meaning or otherwise, who tried to dissuade you from joining the protests? Could you recount one such experience?
Dawson: Yes, one law-student friend tried to dissuade us and managed to dissuade some others. One other friend was not comfortable with the fact that we would have no control over how our protest would be represented in the media, and he was very worried that we would be cast as troublemakers, or that reporters would focus on us and not on the issues that we were trying to publicise. He didn’t come, in the end. Luckily, his fears didn’t come true.
However, I had no problem with the fact that some people didn’t want to participate, because it’s not right to do those things without being comfortable with your actions. Also, other people’s criticisms were totally legitimate and meant we had many excellent discussions in the days before the protest, which ultimately prepared us much better for the day.
Campus Observer: Daniel was quoted by Bloomberg: “A lot of people wanted to come, but they were afraid of the repercussions.” What were these people’s reactions after the protests?
Dawson: They were relieved, I think, that no harm came to us. But I think their fears were totally valid, especially given the way the university, police and local media attempted to scare us out of participating. Hopefully, people will be more encouraged the next time such an opportunity arises.
Campus Observer: What do you think has been the effect of the protests on Singapore’s political scene?
Dawson: I don’t know. I think it’s important to highlight that the next day, 40-50 Burmese residents of Singapore were able to stage a rally, even holding banners and placards. I hope this will encourage even more Singaporeans to become active in civil society. I know that there are many Singaporeans who feel disillusioned with politics, seeing it as a sphere outside and above their control. For me, politics is something everyday and ubiquitous, and I believe we can empower ourselves without the permission of those who are supposedly in authority.
Campus Observer: Describe your opinion of NUS students in three words.
Dawson: Overworked, competitive, and de-politicised!