In times of crisis, opposition and dissent take a backseat

By Daryl Choo

Protesters occupy Harcourt Road outside the government headquarters after the annual flag raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong on 1 July 2019. PHOTO: DARYL CHOO

In Hong Kong, protests have been wiped off the news and the coronavirus pandemic has taken its place. Instead of public demonstrations, people have been pushed back into their homes.

There have been some “tribute” demonstrations in the past months to mark key events such as police action against the anti-extradition bills protests that have outraged the public. But they have been on a much smaller scale compared to the tens of thousands that thronged and damaged the streets last year.

With the coronavirus evolving to become the world’s worst public health crisis in a century, opposition and dissent is taking a backseat as governments and their people brace for major disruptions to normalcy and the economy. The same goes for Singapore, where government efforts — successful to some extent in curbing the virus spread — has largely silenced opposition parties and critics as the nation’s attention shifts to tackling the worst crisis since Independence.

Hong Kong has received plaudits from the World Health Organisation for containing the virus, which now stands at 990 infected cases and four deaths. It’s a remarkable feat considering its proximity to mainland China where the outbreak first emerged. A series of comprehensive measures, including the closure of schools and entertainment venues as well as restrictions on incoming travellers, seems to have succeeded in containing the outbreak. 

The much-maligned authorities had at least got this part down pat. 

This is despite a rocky start, when residents accused the administration of ineptitude for its delay in restricting arrivals from the mainland. Their anger was ferocious enough to lead to a torching of a quarantine centre in late January, during the early days of the outbreak. Such manifestations of outrage have become less common in the succeeding weeks. 

Still, plaudits notwithstanding, a Reuters poll released on March 27 showed that even as protest rallies have been cancelled, distrust in the government continues to rise. Hong Kong residents deny their government credit for limiting the outbreak, saying instead that the community rose to the occasion by practising self-discipline, as most of the city’s 7.4m residents are staying at home. Its famously crowded streets are now almost empty. 

The city’s relative success at curbing the virus also testifies to the strength of its civil service, which was part of the protests. Many in public agencies seem to have returned to their jobs. 

In a time of crisis, it appears that residents and the administration want to reach the same goal of containing the virus. Protesters’ demands for more democratic space have been put on the back-burner. Are they still smouldering? Will the embers die down? Or can Hong Kong expect an inferno when it is finally free of the virus? 

In a way, the protesters’ hands are tied. While they may not agree with the decisions the government is making to contain the coronavirus, they have no choice but to rely on it to take action. Which institution, for example, has the power to order quarantines, close borders and shut airports?

For their own health and the health of others who might not be part of their cause, they will have to hunker down in the face of the more immediate enemy. 

The powerlessness of the protesters has some parallels to the political reality in its oft-compared cousin Singapore, where a general election is set to happen amid the outbreak.

Opposition politicians are also finding that their hands are tied. Compared to the State, they have little resources and no authority to mount a campaign to help the people affected by the crisis, much less indulge in political campaigning. 

Some, like the Workers’ Party, the Singapore Democratic Party and Progress Singapore Party have had to repeat their support for measures taken by the ruling party, and try to ally themselves with the State in the fight. After all, in the first month of the outbreak, Singapore seemed well on its way to safety with only a few cases surfacing each day. It would seem churlish to criticise a Government hailed as a "gold standard" universally. 

Opposition politicians do not campaign on platforms that scream that they can do better than the current ruling party in terms of governance — not now nor in the past. Their aims are more modest, to act as a check on government excess. They focus on the everyday issues that affect the man in the street, like CPF withdrawals and cost-of-living issues or more personal freedoms. Yet how will these issues be relevant at this time when people are more concerned about not falling sick and keeping their jobs? Resorting to time-worn issues risks being seen as irrelevant and out of touch.

That is why opposition politicians are so insistent on having the general elections postponed till after the pandemic is over, even if it means holding them after the April 2021 constitutional deadline. They have support from some people who think it a health risk to get voters to the poll as well as a diversion of Government attention from handling the outbreak to securing the voting numbers. 

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Another important reason is the safe distancing rule, which has been tightened further and further, so much so that not only public rallies but also social gatherings of any kind are disallowed. Although the “circuit breaker” is in place for a month, the enhanced safe distancing law is valid for six months and can be extended to a year.

Nevertheless, even if there is an easing of social restrictions, citizens have been told time and again that measures won’t be totally reversed. So outdoor gatherings might still be out of the question, even as people are gradually allowed to visit each other’s homes. 

On Tuesday, the Government introduced the Parliamentary Elections (COVID-19 Special Arrangements) Bill to provide temporary arrangements needed to hold an election safely while Covid-19 measures are in effect. It is a contingency plan, it said, not linked to the timing of the election. Political observers think that June would be a likely month.

RELATED STORY: Voting in the time of the virus: How other countries did it

In peacetime, issues such as civil liberties and tweaks to policies can catch fire. The Hong Kong protesters capitalised on sentiments against a proposed anti-extradition Bill to hold mass rallies and organise acts of civil disobedience. It ignited more demands for civil liberty. Law and order in Hong Kong looked set to crumble as more and more people turned against its own police force. Then along came the virus and the government and the governed had a common enemy to face. Protests had to pause.

Except for the odd Hong Lim Park protest, Singapore is nowhere near as politically rowdy in peacetime. Opposition politicians try to keep a steady hum online, but haven’t succeeded in raising temperatures. This will be more difficult to do in wartime, when people need an authority to follow and only the State wields real power. They will not cheer leaderless movements or appreciate dissenting voices. 

In recent weeks, however, as the infection numbers in Singapore climbed exponentially, some politicians have started pointing out “missteps’’ in and “utter incompetence” of the Government’s handling of the outbreak, especially the transmission of the virus in foreign workers’ dormitories.  

While it might not be politic to slam the government if it is doing all the right things, you can expect that there will be more reservations about government measures even as people obey them. On Tuesday, Parliament approved more draconian rules such as banning social gatherings of any number. At normal times, this would be an invitation to opposition parties to object to such stringent curtailment of civil liberties. But in wartime?

An election held now will essentially be the people’s assessment of how well the Government operates in a crisis. The so-called circuit breaker has not just curtailed movement, but also stopped or slowed the momentum built up by the Opposition for its cause. The State is definitely in charge and is the biggest voice in town.

In Hong Kong, the protestors might well be counting down the days to when they can be out on the streets again. In Singapore, the Opposition should hope for a bad outbreak to even out its chances at the poll. But that wouldn’t be politic. 

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