Singaporeans Find Their Voice in Financial Crisis

SINGAPORE ~ They clapped and cheered, about 600 of them, in the biggest outdoor rally tightly controlled Singapore had seen in years.
Most in the crowd had not attended a protest before, but on that humid Saturday afternoon they openly vented anger at financial institutions over the possibility of losing their money in investments soured by global market turmoil.
In a country where protests are traditionally the domain of a tiny political opposition and a vocal group of human rights activists, the rally on October 11 by disgruntled financial investors was a rarity.
They have planned more weekend gatherings at the Speakers’ Corner, a tree-lined park on the fringes of the business district where, under a recent liberalization, protests can be held under strict guidelines.
The movement involves retirees and other middle-class investors who stand to lose their life savings after buying financial products linked to collapsed US investment bank Lehman Brothers and other institutions.
They say they were misled into believing these were low-risk products, and are demanding their money back.
“I never attended any protest before, but now I think I have to learn how to speak up for my rights,” said a 65-year-old retiree who joined the gathering at Speakers’ Corner.
“I think the financial crisis has led some Singaporeans like me to finally find their voice,” she said.
Sinapan Samydorai, president of the civil rights group Think Centre, said he was encouraged that middle class citizens are now coming out in the open to express their views.
“Previously, these people were worried that they will be photographed and identified (by the police) if they attended an outdoor protest. They were worried about the system coming down on them,” he said.
While the protest is focused on protecting the investors’ interests rather than on larger social and political issues, Samydorai called it a good sign and said: “I hope this will be maintained and further opened up.”
He said the October 11 event was probably the biggest outdoor protest since the 1970s in Singapore, an affluent Asian nation where citizens normally toe the government line and are averse to public displays of disenchantment.
Singapore law bans public protests involving five people or more without a police permit.
The government last month eased rules to allow public protests at the Speakers’ Corner, which was previously designated for limited free speech, soapbox-style, but not demonstrations. Topics of race and religion are not allowed and speakers or protesters need to register.
Tan Kin Lian, a former insurance company executive, is helping investors with their claims even though he has not lost any money himself. He said he became involved after seeing “so many people” lose their hard-earned savings.
“I hope that in the future more Singaporeans will come forward and fight for the weak…. We cannot just stand back and watch idly while other people suffer,” he wrote in his blog,
The blog has been a hit for investors seeking advice, with some urging him to be careful.
“It is shameful that in Singapore we cannot speak honestly and have to be fearful,” Tan replied to one correspondent.
About 10,000 people in the city-state have invested in the tainted financial products, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
MAS, the de facto central bank, has said it understands the investors’ anxieties and its priority is to ensure their complaints are “heard, documented, reviewed and resolved quickly and fairly.”
It has named three prominent individuals to oversee how the financial institutions are handling the complaints.
In the meantime, investors have urged each other to be vigilant, and to carry on.
“Success so far has indicated that the people, united, will never be defeated,” one investor wrote in Tan’s blog.
“Uncles and aunties, you must be strong and stand up like the mountain!” another said, referring to the elderly investors.
Another disaffected investor changed the lyrics of the song, Do You Hear the People Sing, from the musical Les Miserables.
The altered lyrics posted on Tan’s blog read:
“Do you hear our people weep?
Shedding tears of agony?
It is the wailing of our people
Who have been cheated of their money!
When the banks claim innocence,
and the authority’s voiceless
There is a fight about to start,
for what is yours!”

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