Tak Boleh Tahan! 2023: A Snippet of Singapore’s Civil Society
A Colourful Café
In January 2023, on a warm Sunday afternoon at Rochester Mall, a gathering was taking place at the café “Orange & Teal”. I had come across this event on Instagram and signed up for “Tak Boleh Tahan! 2023”, a series of townhall events organised by Manifestival to encourage public discussion of important issues in Singapore, intended to parallel the Committee of Supply Debate in Parliament (Manifestival, n.d.). It was my first time attending a physical event within civil society, and I was curious to learn what would actually be talked about and done in-person. I also wished to learn what drew others to such events. As I approached the simple registration table outside, I wondered why a café had been chosen for a town hall.
Inside, the café was crowded and noisy, and the organisers were still setting up the sound system. Waiters moved around serving food and drinks. There looked to be around 40 participants attending in total. Twenty minutes past the official start time, the event finally began when the host, Koki, announced the start of the town hall.
Town Hall #1: Goods and Services Tax (GST) Hike
Koki gave thanks to Orange & Teal for providing the venue for free, and handed the microphone over to its owner, Dr Chee, to say a few words. Another key reason for the venue besides costs then became clear. Dr Chee was part of a campaign against the rising costs of living in Singapore back in 2008. At the time, the GST had recently risen to 7 percent, and so “Tak bolek tahan!”, loosely translated from Malay as “cannot take it anymore”, was organised by the Singapore Democrats as a protest against the government outside of the Parliament House (Singapore Democratic Party, 2008). The name for the townhall series was inspired by this campaign as people gathered to discuss the rising GST once again, this time to 8 percent as of 2023, and an expected hike to 9 percent in 2024.
Dr Chee shared about holding up placards in front of the parliament house and being accosted by police officers, a story on the importance of free speech in Singapore which I found rather poignant. Next, the time was handed over to the main speakers: Kumar, a community organiser, Shabir, a father who’s worked low wages for 12 years, and Marlina, a mother of five staying in a rental. As they shared their stories, many issues were raised: Affording care for children, hustle culture, lack of wage increase in workplaces, and costs of healthcare.
During the second half of the town hall, the floor was open for participants to ask questions or share their own thoughts and experiences. Aside from personal stories, some discussed solutions like lowering criteria barriers for government support schemes, taxing richer corporations, introducing minimum wage, and lowering rent costs. Many of them were quite heartfelt, and others in the audience would quietly, intently listen. To conclude the event, Koki explained that the town hall would inform a list of demands for their planned Labour Day Rally and highlighted the QR code on the tables to donate to fund future events.
Town Halls #2 and #3: Working to Death, Affordable Homes
The next town halls took place in late February and April, this time at The Projector, a cinema at the Golden Mile Tower. A registration table sat outside the Blue Room where the town hall was taking place. After presenting my e-ticket, the staff offered the option of taking a red tape sticker to indicate one’s discomfort with being captured on their live feed of the event to their Facebook page. I passed on the sticker myself but saw many participants with them inside.
At the front stage, the main speakers were already seated in a semi-circle facing the audience. Upbeat house music was playing, and many seats were still empty, but it only took minutes for them to rapidly fill out once the town hall began. The crowd was at least twice as large compared to the first town hall.
These town halls felt more polished and organised, with a higher quality sound system and a more conducive environment for discussion. The event structure was the same, but the second focused on CPF and gig work while the third focused on housing and economic policies. Still, both events touched on similar themes of struggles of the working class, just like the first.
Another notable difference was Koki’s encouragement to the audience to be more participative and responsive to the sharings. She asks for shows of hands in response to topical questions between sharings and invites the audience to cheer not just at the end of speeches, but also during them. However, while there was more energy whenever the audience is directly addressed, most of the town hall remained quite subdued. At the end of both town halls, the audience was at its loudest when asked to shout “Workers!” in response to Koki’s chant prompts, which she described as the audience’s practice for the planned Labour Day Rally.
Who Attends and Why
After each town hall, I took the chance to speak with other participants present to ask what drew them to the event. A number of them were already connected to civil society through having friends in different organisations such as Transformative Justice Collective or SG Climate Rally, or being volunteers or members of such organisations themselves. Others were like myself, having come across the event through some social media page, be it Instagram or on Facebook, and deciding to sign up mostly to learn more about issues rather than to share their own thoughts and experiences.
The largest takeaway for myself was hearing the stories of these lived experiences, and realising how different they are from narratives of the government. Singapore’s ministry of finance has made a statement about the government’s $6 billion Assurance Package that will delay the impact of the GST hike for lower-income households by about ten years (Rahim, 2022). A research article that examined the implementation of GST in Singapore even commented that the government’s subsidies and pay-outs display its effectiveness in reducing the burdens of the rising GST on low-income groups (Ikhsan, Aziz, and Mahyudin, 2022). But contrary to such narratives, the stories and worries shared at the town halls showed that such support is far from sufficient in easing their anxieties. Easing the burdens of a GST hike aside,it is at least clear that the working class faces many struggles that often go unspoken or unheard.
Even at an event dedicated to such discussions, I felt some hesitation to be too vocal, both in myself and in the crowd. A particular participant at the first town hall shared they felt afraid when they heard Dr Chee talk about having been arrested before, even if they learnt a lot from being present. The red stickers offered from the second town hall onward also signified a need for safety for participants who wished to remain anonymous. Protest chants are rare in Singapore as it is illegal to hold protests in public, except for within Hong Lim Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which incidentally was the site for the Labour Day Rally. I believe that fear and unfamiliarity both play a part in the quieter nature of the audience.
There is not wanting to be seen directly challenging the government, and also not quite knowing which statements to cheer for or feeling uncomfortable with doing so. People in Singapore tend to prefer attending an event just to listen compared to speaking up, at least in my experience. However, even if the town hall’s attendants are a tiny proportion of Singapore’s population, the ones who came and spoke shared earnestly about their experiences and feelings with regards to state policies. The audience’s cheers for workers at the end of the town halls were resounding and reflected Koki’s closing speech about the power of speaking up collectively to mitigate that fear for one’s safety.
I believe that when more individuals listen to these stories and choose to speak up with them, the collective voice can grow to influence social policies for the better. These town halls form a part of that growth, and when more people begin to feel they “Tak Boleh Tahan” and rally together, surely the people’s voice will reach the ears of those with the power to make a change.
Ikhsan, Dr. Mohammad Fajar, Norsyuhada Azwin Aziz, and Emil Mahyudin. 2022. “CASE STUDY ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF GOODS AND SERVICES TAX (GST) IN MALAYSIA AND SINGAPORE”. Journal of International Studies 18 (October):159-89. https://doi.org/10.32890/jis2022.18.6.
Manifestival. n.d. “Tak Boleh Tahan! 2023.” Eventbrite. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tak-boleh-tahan-2023-tickets-510476568157.
Rahim, Farah Abdul. 2022. “Government Helping Singaporeans Manage the Cost of Living.” MOF, January 25, 2022. https://www.mof.gov.sg/news-publications/forum-replies/government-helping-singaporeans-manage-the-cost-of-living.
Singapore Democratic Party. 2008. “Tak bolek tahan!” Wayback Machine. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://web.archive.org/web/20110726080231/http://www.singaporedemocrat.org/articleWCRDprotest8.html