Trench Coat Activism

Is activism in Southeast Asia a heavy trench coat, weighing us down from meaningful dissent


Alaine Johnson

3 years ago | 9 min read

April is the most unbearable month to be in Thailand. The heat reaches far beyond 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity reduces every hot-blooded creature into a sticky, irritable mess.

That’s why the nationwide water fights of Songkran, the Thai New Year, are so welcome. In 2010 however, the streets of Bangkok were splashed with blood instead of water during Songkran.

Buses departing Bangkok were sold out, leaving me stranded in the city during the holiday. The atmosphere was far from festive, with major parts of the city occupied by protestors. Pickup trucks carted protestors donning red shirts around the city, and the tension in the air was as palpable as the sweltering heat.

The tourist hotspot where I was lunching was uncharacteristically quiet. Shopkeepers retrieved their street-side wares and pulled their doors shut. One end of the tourist strip, Khao San Road, was occupied by red shirts.

From the small restaurant where I was eating, I saw a military envoy pass by armed in full riot gear, carrying shields, tear gas canisters, and reinforced by trucks. I jumped up to see where they were going and realised they were looping around to the backside of Khao San. I excitedly made my way down Khao San to where the red shirts were camped out.

The crowd was abuzz, and I deftly weaved my way amongst the red shirts to see exactly what I had predicted: the trucks and soldiers were creeping towards us for a show-down. A soldier shouted into the megaphone as they approached the barricade. The red shirts became agitated.

Trash and small rocks began to fly. I stood up on my tippy toes to get a better view and snap a few pictures on my ancient camera. I was rewarded with the unbelievable. A soldier came forward from the ranks, struggled to tear off all his gear, and crossed over to the protestors.

He was handed a red shirt to put on. The volume of the crowd increased perhaps a decibel, when I suddenly felt someone pulling my arm. I had forgotten about my travel companion. As I was pulled out of there, I looked down. My shirt was black and white.

I stayed on the top floor of a budget hotel in a stuffy room, barely 200 meters from the protest. A fan struggled to push concentrated, hot air around the room.

I passed a sleepless night listening to the crescendo of the conflict from the megaphones. Picture the riot scene in Inception, when protestors throwing Molotov cocktails threaten to break into the apartment and kill Leonardo DiCaprio during his sleep mission. I feared the building I was in would be set on fire, and I might perish in a similarly dingy room.

Dawn finally broke, and my friend called me to immediately leave and come to her home. I later learned that 25 people died there that night, including an Italian journalist and nine civilians. In the decade that has passed since then, Thailand has had its cycles of martial law, military rule, and suppressed dissent.

I’ve learned to consider the filter of culture over activism in Asia. Thai culture is all about saving face. Even if I state the obvious that the Thai people are hardly thrilled about their new king, I will be hushed. What everyone thinks and feels is kept carefully concealed under a heavy trench coat of withheld words and a polite smile. It is said that Thailand is the land of smiles, but none of them are real.

Debates are rarely public. Dissent erupts when the boiling point of unrest is suddenly reached and violence ensues. Thailand has had 13 successful coups and nine unsuccessful coups in the last century. These explosive, volatile politics in a country of mai pen rai (no worries) and sabai sabai (take it easy) are cloaked in culture, until brusquely torn open like flashing a trench coat.

All around Southeast Asia, activism is deadly. In Indonesia, more than half a million people were killed during Suharto’s anti-communist purge. Vietnam remains culturally splintered since the war.

The Philippines surpassed Brazil in 2019 as the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist. In Myanmar, the more fortunate activists are put under house arrest for decades, and the less fortunate fight for their right to simply exist. The Rohingya — the world’s most unwanted people — are the victims of the longest ongoing genocide this century.

Singapore is the outlier to this regional trend of deadly activism.

I completed my undergraduate degree at an experimental and at times controversial university in Singapore. Yale-NUS College is the meshing of Eastern and Western ideas and cultures of education.

Our tagline is In Asia, for the world — but don’t imagine a harmonious melting pot. The challenges of establishing one of Asia’s first liberal arts colleges in the Big Brother state of Singapore meant we were branded at times as a loud, liberal, neocolonial project aiming to inject progressive and corrupting ideals into the traditional Asian values of our host country and institution.

Nor were all of our stakeholders in alignment with the values of the student body. A member of our governing board publicly defended Singapore’s criminalisation of homosexuality (penal code 377A) at the United Nations with the statement that Singapore is a conservative society; the code must be upheld to handle the issue “without fracturing our society.” A Yale-NUS student responded with a call to remove this intolerant leadership from a supposedly inclusive and diverse college community.

On other occasions, we were lambasted (more than once) by Yale author Jim Sleeper for compromising the liberal values of an authentic education and freedom of expression. Some National University of Singapore (NUS) students took to calling us Fake Yale.

For all the heat we took, our track record of actually upholding or fighting for these allegedly corrupting liberal values is hardly present. A culture of activism was as nascent as our university. In my final year, we had one sit-in protest (we didn’t actually block any public spaces or walkways, but sat in an orderly fashion to the side), which sparked vitriolic and divisive discourse within the student body itself.

In many countries, activism is a quintessential part of a university education and becoming an active, informed citizen.

Students are responsible for the bulk of social movements around the world. Universities are sacred refuges for activism. In Guatemala, the largest public university was the one place in the country where the military could not enter during intense periods of civil war.

In Argentina, you can visit the Remembrance Park, the herida abierta (open wound) memorial of their military dictatorship. On each brick of the memorial are the names and ages of the estimated 30,000 people who went missing. The majority of those activists were teenagers or in their 20s.

In Singapore, an education in activism is stifled under a rigid trench coat prioritising academic and career success, not political movements. Only disenchanted complaints can escape. Why distract yourself with things that won’t make a difference to an authoritarian government when you should be studying?

Just south of Manila, I wasn’t lucky enough to score a shaded spot at the lengthy graduation ceremony of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s largest public university.

I forgot about the heat when students starting whipping off their graduation gowns like superheroes to take the stage with signs demanding improvements in education, more financial support, better wages for teachers, etc.

My bewilderment was met with a shrug and the casual remark: “Oh, that’s a tradition at every UP graduation.” Regularly anticipated student protests are part of completing a higher education.

In the time since I graduated, Greta Thunberg has become a global sensation, inspiring millions of students to strike from school for climate action. Extinction Rebellion is one of the most effective and decentralised international movements to tackle climate justice. Even the former UN climate chief endorsed civil disobedience to make any headway on climate change.

The long-awaited Climate Strike Day on September 20, 2019 marked the world’s largest climate rebellion. An estimated four million people took to the streets around the world. In Singapore, our Climate Rally was held with a permit from the government to demonstrate in one designated park in the country.

Documents were checked at entry to allow only Singaporeans and permanent residents to participate. The sizable expat community in Singapore hosted a watch party of the livestream, though.

This day found me lying on the floor of a new, empty room without a bed. I lay there, debilitated somewhere between dealing with eco-anxiety about the climate breakdown, and the timely breakdown of a personal relationship.

I turned on my social media to see the livestream of the rally, happening a few kilometers away. As a foreigner, I could lose my visa if I went there.

DBS tells individuals to Recycle More, Waste Less but is still investing in coal. The government declares another Year of Climate Action, but edits out any mention of its profitable oil refinery and shipping industries. Exxon Mobil’s largest oil refinery is in Singapore. It was visible from my dorm room window, and the lights there never went off. Gas flares were a regular part of the nightscape

The flares I saw from my former dorm room should be warning blasts. They should be signaling that the continued extraction of fossil fuels are only pushing us further along the runway of irreversible climate change, rising sea levels, an exodus of climate refugees, unprecedented natural disasters — basically, every dystopian storyline you’ve heard. But we’re already living that story.

The floods which should only happen every century are happening nearly every year. Heat records keep being broken. Fires are ravaging entire continents.

In a country where political dissenters have been taken out of their homes at night and exiled from the country, activism is an aspect of public life that has been relinquished (without choice) for an unparalleled sense of security and a notoriously efficient government.

Now, the coronavirus has shaken off the veneer of false safehood and sent us panicking to grocery aisles to clear out stocks of instant noodles and toilet paper whilst clambering for face masks and hand sanitizer.

The government made a commendable effort to sort out logistics to provide four face masks per family in a country of over six million people, but in the face of a deadly pandemic — which will certainly not be the last in the near future — we are reduced to mere, human bodies; suitable hosts for viruses which have no regard for governments or borders.

There will never be a universal, epiphany moment when people will suddenly take to the streets en masse, adhering to the 3.5 percent rule of bodies proven to incite revolution.

We have too many distractions causing us to barely survive (and not in any healthy way) in a fiercely competitive, capitalistic world, much less drop our schedules and go march, amidst uncertainty.

Civil disobedience needs to be respected as a means of expression, freedom, and courage to defy societal norms and say no more to the status quo. History shows that this is the tried, true, and painful path of activism.

It looks like 2020 is full of danger, fear, eco-anxiety, and risk. It also means there’s a reason for everyone to voice out what’s important to them: education, healthcare, climate action, economic inequality, poverty, food security, gender violence, religious conflict.

In Asia, these things stand akin to the wake up call of Trump’s election. His platform of bigotry, hatred, and prejudice also provided a stage for everyone to start fighting for the things he has already started taking away as he carves up national parks, slashes student loans, imposes Muslim travel bans, cages Latinx children, repeals health care, and more.

One of the reasons I’ve chosen to study and live in Asia is because of the vast opportunity and innovative spirit found here.

From the jugaad mentality of making something out of nothing, to the formidable work ethic of the many overachievers I’ve studied and worked with, there is so much worth fighting for. It won’t get any easier. We need to throw off trench coats of inculcated civil obedience weighing us down, and start now.


Created by

Alaine Johnson







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