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Putting Protests to the Test

December 10, 2009


Protests. What are they really good for? What are the outcomes of a protest? Does everyone who participate genuinely feel for the topic, or are they in it because it’s fun, fashionable and novel? New youth delegates are often drawn to participating in protests, as it offers a new and exciting experience. But do they really know what they are fighting for?

This brings to mind a question one young lady asked at the Conference of Youths (COY09) during an Art & Activism working group discussion. She asked, “What is COP15?” – I hope she was kidding.

People around the world often gather in large numbers and take it to the streets to protest. They protest against war, government policies, human rights violations and climate change, amongst many other topics. In 2008, the youth protest in Athens escalated from a protest to a full blown riot against the Greek police, over the accidental killing of a young teenage boy. Autopsy later revealed that the boy had been killed by a ricochet bullet. Nonetheless, the riots also became an outlet of anger against the Greek government’s policies which had resulted in low employment rates, and widening the divide between the rich and poor.

Across the continent in China, dozens of people protested in Beijing in 2008 – the 60th Anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They claim the Chinese government has allegedly taken away their homes, and beaten up badly those who were sent to labor camps. There were petitioners present who made the trip from their hometown, away from the local government, to the central government to seek justice. This could be seen as an age old practice dated back to the days of imperial China, where the common folk could put up a petition against the Emperor.

On the 15th February 2003 in Canada, a 40,000 strong protest took to the streets of Vancouver in protest against the United States invasion of Iraq. On that single day, a total of 6 million people around the world took part in a cohesive effort to show their deep resentment for the invasion of Iraq. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that was the largest turnout of protesters in history. The United States with its allies, invaded Iraq on 20th March 2003.

I do not seek to put down the efforts and thoughts behind protesting, as I do personally feel that protests can be really effective. However, what should we really aim for when we protest? Some protests can be large in numbers. Some protests can have positive effects. Some protests are purely disruptive. I take reference to the protest at Stansted Airport on the 8th December 2008 by Plane Stupid. As much as it seem extremely disruptive and overbearingly annoying to have your plane delayed and be stranded at the airport, the result of their protest was in essence a temporary pause in our CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The figures are as follows: (taken from

10:20am update: The Press Association reports that 57 people have been arrested, and 56 Ryanair flights cancelled. That’s one flight per protester, meaning each personally stopped 41.58 tonnes of greenhouse gas equivalent.

8:10am update: At least 39 people have been arrested and the runway re-opened. BAA are claiming that 21 flights have been cancelled. Every minute the airport emits around 4 tonnes of CO2.

6:00am update: BAA have confirmed that the first flights out of the airport have been delayed. The average flight out of Stansted has a climate impact equivalent to 41.58 tonnes of CO2.

Bearing that in mind, would you be willing to be stuck at an airport for many hours? As much as it was for the “greater good”, how many of us would really want this to happen to us?

Maybe we should take a look at WHY people protest. Afterall, you risk being arrested and getting into legal trouble. People protest because of ONE simple reason – their voices are ignored by the powers that be. People do sign petitions, fill up forms, wear badges, try to contact their local government offices and do attempt to get their voices heard. In a democratic society, aren’t our leaders supposed to listen to us? Otherwise what separates us from having a dictator?

In COP15, I have personally witnessed two sides of the coin. The story from the people who organize protests in desperation and the leaders who appear nonchalant and calm. I do see the difficulty in being the minority and without proper political power, all you can do is protest. It beats suffering in silence. As a consolation, you get the media attention you require to amplify your voice and concerns and might still win. The ones who are on the receiving end of the protests would rather the protestors NOT merely point out mistakes and blames but to offer solutions and aid. Ironically, it is their job to do so. But if we simply criticise without providing constructive feedback, our efforts would be be ultimately futile.

In closing, I will use a pretty (in)famous video clip from the United Nations Climate Change talks in Barcelona as a reference point.

The low down:
2 climate activists sneaked into the main plenary inside the United Nations climate change talks in Barcelona to send a message about the polluting interests trying to profit off of the climate crisis. Loudly unfurling a a banner reading Stop C02lonialism they shouted messages about the dangers of carbon trading and were met with thunderous applause. They were immediately dragged out by police and had their accreditation and passes revoked.

They are now banned from ALL future UN conferences. Is it worth it? Other than the news coverage surrounding this event and the buzz created within NGOs, does this create any real change? I would say no, BUT point taken.

Live from COP15


ECO Singapore

8 Comments leave one →
  1. pei ling permalink
    December 11, 2009 8:30 am

    hello ping, just to clarify, I heard the two activists were not accreditated. They took somebody’s else pass. The observer organisation did get into a little trouble but that was it.

    I agree with you that protest is only one of the ways for civil societies to get their message across to the leaders, and it should always remain non-violent. But protest itself can be take many forms and when done in the right time with the right people, can inspire millions and change the world.

    Think Gandhi, who led the famous Salt March and many more acts of civil disobedience. Think African American Rosa Parks, who protested silently by sitting on a seat in the bus designated for Whites only. Think Martin Luther J. King. Think the collapse of the Berlin Wall…The list goes on and on…Without the non-violent direct actions from these people, our world would never have been the same.

    just speaking from an activist p.o.v. =)

  2. Spock permalink
    December 15, 2009 4:38 pm

    Nah…Singapore doesn’t understand the concept of “free voice”. Let’s all forget Gandhi, King and Mandela. They never “protested” for anything worthwhile in history. Let’s all celebrate the mindset of “keeping the status quo” of Colonialism and Apartheid!

  3. December 15, 2009 7:36 pm

    Hey Pei Ling, thanks for clarifying! Didn’t know that they weren’t accredited.. I do agree too that there is power in protests, when there are such huge mobilizations of masses, it makes other people think and re-evaluate their opinion and position.. Sadly, I would say in Singapore that idea of a voice of freedom has been suppressed by the government who uses it against us by making us believe that by speaking up, you are causing trouble.

    Spock, when u say “they never protested” who are u referring to? Singaporeans or the 3 names u mentioned?


  4. Spock permalink
    December 16, 2009 2:39 am

    Ping – My tongue was firmly in my cheek….! The women’s vote, slavery, independence, apartheid…do you think any of these were achieved without protests from the masses? The leaders I referred to were/are icons who inspired individuals to change society and the world for the better.

    You wrote:
    “I would say in Singapore that idea of a voice of freedom has been suppressed by the government who uses it against us by making us believe that by speaking up, you are causing trouble. ”
    Instead of giving up on having your voice heard, you and your friends should encourage more dialogue with the government. Don’t wait for change – make it happen.

  5. Admin permalink
    December 16, 2009 2:36 pm

    Ok so you were trying to make a point, I must have been unaware of the existence of these people.

    And put simply, what makes you think we are giving up on having our voices heard and we are waiting for change? By being here, we aren’t exactly being armchair activists 😉

    Thanks. And if you find the need to, do comment at

  6. Spock permalink
    December 16, 2009 3:32 pm

    Let me know what you all plan to do with your “free voice” once you are BACK in Singaporean shores…ok? 😉 I really hope you can all kick-start a productive dialogue with the Singapore government.

    Re “Calling on all Singaporeans!” – it’s a good start to have this page. I hope you find Singaporeans who will step up and ask really probing questions.
    You did write this, yes?
    “I would say in Singapore that idea of a voice of freedom has been suppressed by the government who uses it against us by making us believe that by speaking up, you are causing trouble. ”

    Good luck and enjoy the rest of COP15.

  7. Admin permalink
    December 16, 2009 3:52 pm

    Putting what I said in context, I believe this voice of freedom will be suppressed by our government only when manifested in the form of a mass protest or mass event. The latter largely frowned upon by most Singaporeans as an act of pure defiance & disturbing the ‘peace’.

    ECO Singapore exists beyond this blog as this was only set up for COP15 purposes. Our main website is where all our activities will be updated on, and records of our past efforts can be seen at Just keep checking back to be kept up to date with what we are doing.


  8. December 16, 2009 9:27 pm

    Ok 🙂 thanks!

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