Protest movements and generational politics

“I can’t keep calm because Hong Kong is dying.” I’m sympathetic to Hong Kong’s student protestors, who are doing what their leadership has failed to do—press China to respect the self-determination that it promised Hong Kong. And it strikes me that should Hong Kong’s democratic movement succeed, many of its people’s concerns, like public housing and retirement adequacy, will make Hong Kong much more leftist than China is today. But that is not something I can usefully write about.

In keeping with a long tradition of comparing Hong Kong and Singapore, I’m thinking about the difference between the Occupy Central movement and this weekend’s widely-condemned Central Provident Fund (CPF) protest, and how it sheds some light on Singapore’s politics. Of all the ways that the two movements differ, one stands out: Occupy Central is driven by young people, while the CPF protestors are overwhelmingly old people. I think that has implications for politics in Singapore.

From the coverage of Occupy Central in the media like SCMP and BBC, it’s struck me that the vast majority of interviewees are in their 20s and 30s. I’ve read several cases of young people defying warnings from their parents. Even senior high school students are attending the protests. And it must be a typo, but SCMP reported that “13-year-old Matthew Chau” was smarting from the tear gas. Meanwhile, the mainstream pro-democracy leadership seems to be scrambling to keep up with the momentum. Though middle-aged protestors do exist, disapproval seems concentrated among the older generation, with a few isolated reports of anti-protest actions (for instance, the update from 11.40am on Monday on this live feed). The comparison in Singapore is the scrutiny over the NUS Student’s Union finances, but even that’s all been conducted by keyboard warriors, and I can’t tell if the vast majority of students care. You’d have to go back to the 1960s to find comparable student mobilisation in Singapore.

The news out of Singapore is that there was a confrontation between a Return Our CPF rally and a YMCA event held at Hong Lim Park at the same time. Accounts of what happened are confused and partisan, but it seems that the CPF protest set up its equipment at an area different from the one they were allocated, and following either innocent or malicious miscommunication, decided to march towards the YMCA event. This confrontation frightened a group of special-needs children who were about to perform at the YMCA event. Everyone and their grandmother will have something to say about what happened. Clearly, since I wasn’t there, I can’t do that, which is why I’m reflecting on a different aspect of the event. Look at this picture from SPH:

Source: The Straits Times, 28 Sept 2014, “Special needs children heckled by CPF protestors at Hong Lim Park”

Aside from Roy Ngerng (centre, blue shirt) and the woman holding the megaphone (who I believe is Han Hui Hui), the overwhelming majority of people there are grey-haired. This makes perfect sense since the CPF is a retirement fund and older people feel the lack of retirement adequacy most keenly. I’ve become highly interested in generational issues and their implications for politics, inequality, and social services. And here, I would argue that the radicalisation of the old is interesting both for the PAP and for Singaporean politics in general.

If Singapore had a political spectrum the PAP would sit commandingly just right of centre, with some spill-over across the middle line. Political psychology has more or less come to a consensus that conservatism appeals to people’s instincts of fear and insecurity. (Note that this is not a comment, and I intend to make no judgement, about whether conservatism as an ideology is intellectually robust.) Does idea sound familiar to Singaporeans? Two observations here. First, in the 2001 general election right after the September 11 attacks, the PAP won its highest vote share in a generation (75%). Economic security often coincides with poorer returns for the PAP. Second, I find it intriguing that in the Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper, world news precedes home news, and is usually much fatter—and that world news is often dominated by insecurity, war, and disease, while home news is dominated by government press releases.

We also know that political views vary over the life course, and that in other countries, old people tend to be more politically conservative than young people (Braungart and Braungart 1986, 211; Danigelis and Cutler 1991; although see also more complicated results from Fullerton and Dixon 2010, and Campbell 1971). This also seems to make sense, since we would expect older people to be less invested in change than continuity because it is disruptive. Now put the pieces together: the PAP is conservative, older people are conservative, and the largest protest movement in Singapore appears to be driven by participation from old people. This should give the PAP pause for thought: its most natural vote base is being eroded from an elderly-centric protest movement. And if we make the additional assumption that older people are less likely to come out and protest, the small numbers willing to show up at Hong Lim Park are the tip of the iceberg (compared to, say, a mass visibility event like Pink Dot). It may also be a reason why the PAP may shift towards the Christian fundamentalist right—another large block of conservatives—on social issues.

I also promised to speculate on Singaporean politics in general. First of all, we can make predictions about what other issues will galvanise this remarkable protest movement. I’m thinking about a few in particular. If this is indeed a conservative protest movement, we would expect them to be opposed to change, advocating for issues such as restricting immigration flows, keeping socially-conservative legislation, and maintaining law-and-order (things like alcohol sales and drug use; Sigmund 2001). If it is, on the other hand, an elderly-interest protest movement, we should be looking at increased interest in retirement adequacy and healthcare and decreased support for spending on education and child-care assistance (Fullerton and Dixon 2010). Many of these issues have indeed gained salience over the last few years.

Second, the comparison with Hong Kong is remarkable. Compared to the mass mobilisation in Occupy Central, liberal politics in independent Singapore has never been able to engage the young, who are its natural constituency. Hang your heads in shame, Singapore liberals. The silver lining here is that Singaporean youth appear to be relatively apolitical and therefore a tabula rasa for whatever movement can seize their imagination. The challenge is to develop issues that can resonate with young people—something that I think is comparatively neglected—because apolitical people don’t become politicised just because their apolitical nature is pointed out to them. It goes without saying that these should also be sensible and just issues.

In closing I should perhaps note a few complications. This is all conjecture, and I don’t have access to survey data to make a good judgement on any of this. Perhaps the older generation has been opposed to the PAP all the time (they are also the generation which witnessed massive land expropriation and resettlement). Perhaps the older generation is not that averse to showing up for protests. More importantly, I may be conflating several different or distinct protest movements. For instance, some people may oppose immigration not because it changes the character of Singaporean society (a more conservative concern) but because of its labour market effects on the relatively unskilled (a more left-liberal concern). Or it might be that there is a conservative protest movement (concerned about immigration) that’s distinct from an elderly-interest protest movement (concerned about retirement adequacy). Though many of these issues have recently become controversial, we don’t know who supports what, and whether their preferences are consistent. This means it is hard to say with certainty how widespread discontent is, and what is its underlying ideology or motivation. As always, my conclusion is we need more data!


Braungart, Richard G. and Margaret M. Braungart. 1986. “Life-Course and Generational Politics.” Annual Review of Sociology 12:205–31.

Campbell, Angus. 1971. “Politics Through the Life Cycle.” The Gerontologist 11(2 Part 1): 112–17. doi:10.1093/geront/11.2_Part_1.112.

Danigelis, Nicholas L., and Stephen J. Cutler. 1991. “Cohort Trends in Attitudes About Law and Order: Who’s Leading the Conservative Wave?” Public Opinion Quarterly 55 (1): 24. doi:10.1086/269240.

Fullerton, Andrew S., and Jeffrey C. Dixon. 2010. “Generational Conflict or Methodological Artifact? Reconsidering the Relationship between Age and Policy Attitudes in the U.S., 1984-2008.” Public Opinion Quarterly 74 (4): 643–73. doi:10.1093/poq/nfq043.

Sigmund, P.E. 2001. “Conservatism: Theory and Contemporary Political Ideology.” In the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes 2628–31. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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3 comments

  1. Hi, I just happened to stumble upon your blog. I though this piece was really good. Singapore’s political climate is not very clear in my opinion. If PAP was the right, and the CPF protestors and dissenters are the left, then those same protestors should also have similar left-leaning views. However, I found the case to be untrue. The opposition block here is split so many different ways. Such can be seen during the aftermath of the last CPF rally. Some notable opposition members were against the CPF protestors’ actions while some of them were supportive of their not-so-polite parade through YMCA.

    Some only want more transparency with CPF while others want the abolishment of such a system. Not to mention that a good number of the opposition that you can see on The Real Singapore’s comment boards are highly racist towards foreigners, a trait not shared with liberal lefts and more common with the conservative right. The opposition is split. The largest group of dissenters in my opinion are Pink Dotters, the advocates for homosexual rights. However, no political party has yet ‘capitalised’ on this movement to garner votes and support. The PAP is growing their christian fundamentalist group, while the opposition parties have not even mentioned a thing about allowing homosexual unions, some don’t even mention repealing 377a. So to say that the opposition is representative of the liberal left in Singapore would not be very true, liberals don’t have a ‘leader’ here. The opposition is too afraid that they would alienate conservative voters, this leaves liberals without much support. It will also be the reason as to why PAP will win again in the next election. The young voters will not shift away from the PAP if there are no parties that are aligned to their more liberal views.

    1. Hi Nasirah, thanks for your comment. You’re spot-on. And I should have been clearer about this, but I did characterise the CPF protesters as a “conservative protest movement,” conservative being on the right, of course. So that was in the piece already. That is also why it’s a threat to the PAP, just as UKIP is a threat to the Tories.

      But you also (I think correctly) went through the same implications that I was thinking of. The far-right of that movement would also be associated with xenophobia, racism, and a kind of knee-jerk nationalism, just as you pointed out. And as you pointed out, the opposition is divided, and no party has emerged to capitalise on the left field. (I suspect that’s for the same reason that a post like Calvin Cheng, criticising his caricature of champagne-swilling liberals, can gain so much traction: the PAP has cultivated a right wing electorate with a largely threat-based mentality–a hallmark of conservatism as the research on political psychology tells us. Which again is the reason why they should fear a protest movement of older, more conservative voters.) So actually your comment was entirely compatible with (and a valuable elaboration on) what I argued.

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