Hunger Strike: Importance of the Choice of the Protest Form

Hunger strikes as a protest art are passe here. The last hunger strike in protest I can recall in Singapore were by Falun Gong followers a few years ago and Dr Chee Soon Juan in the 1990s after he was sacked from NUS for alleged misuse of official funds. Seelan Palay’s choice of hunger strke as the form of protest puts him in dubious company. Even Dr Chee has not repeated his stunt since then as he realised it drew more scorn that respect among Singaporeans.

But why are hunger strikes an option? Hunger strikes as a non-violence movement tactic serves to make the protest audience feel guilty and introspective. Everyone who goes on a hunger strike thinks he or she can duplicate the impact Gandhi had when he went without food in protest of the Muslim-Hindu violence right before the India-Pakistan separation. Imitation is the best form of flattery.

Seelan was arrested during the 2006 International Monetary Fund meeting in Singapore for distributing anti-globalisation flyers. He marched in the Hindraf protest in Malaysia in November last year. He is now experimenting with a hunger strike. I hope Seelan does not increase the tempo of his protest by next resorting to self-immolation to make his point. There is an artistic and dramatic limit to protest forms.

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