Photo Credit: Lim Ghee Yang

You Didn’t Fire Me, I Quit

Are protest-resignations meaningful? From Mahathir to Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom, across the globe, this political move has seen widespread usage with mostly dismal results. Why do politicians continue to do this? Are there instances where this can work? How so?

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You Didn’t Fire Me, I Quit

What is the point of a political walkout?

Or resignation in protest. Boycott. Constructive dismissal. Basically, the act of removing yourself from the system you had influence in. This “tactic” annoys me to no end.

I never understood why people did such things. Why move yourself from a position of influence… To one that has none at all?

It never made sense to me and it still does not.

Former pan-democratic legislators Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Dennis Kwok speak to the media after they were disqualified when China passed a new resolution in Hong Kong, China November 11, 2020. | Photo Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Most recently this has happened in Hong Kong, where 15 pro-democracy opposition politicians resigned as a way of standing in solidarity with four of their colleagues that had been expelled by the Beijing-backed government for “endangering national security”. This mass resignation had been dubbed as one of Hong Kong’s darkest days — without any politicians in the legislature, the people they represent have no voting rights in official channels. This spells doom for the future of pro-democracy hopefuls in Hong Kong.

This is, however, not the first time that something like this has happened. Let’s break down some reasons for and against this tactic.

A broken or a missing cog?

In my view, a protest-resignation is completely counter-productive to whatever cause an actor is advocating because as I had said earlier, if you were in a system where you would want to make a change, the one thing you would not want to do is take yourself out of it to one where you cannot do anything. But then again, that could be the point of it.

When one is in a system, removing themselves from it can hamper its productivity and slow the bureaucracy down. A broken cog in a machine beats a missing one any other day. Although they could be replaced with a puppet eventually, while they scramble to replace the dissenter, the process could be a distraction, stymieing the task at hand or even stopping whatever the actor wanted to prevent in the first place.

As with most things in theory, reality is often different.

UN Peacekeepers collecting bodies from Ahmići, Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1993. | Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY.

In 1992 and 1993, three United States (U.S.) officials resigned and cited their opposition to the U.S. policy towards the civil war in Yugoslavia, specifically the ethnic cleansing waged by Serbia against Bosnia. George Kenney served for Yugoslavia, Marshall Harris for Bosnia, and Stephen Walker for Croatia. This was, according to them, a last ditch effort to influence policy and remove themselves from being complicit in policy they disagreed with. They had all tried to influence it within the system and it simply did not work. In a paper that made a reference to this debacle, Dobel, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, commented that “as is always the case with public resigning in America, they did not make much difference“. Kenney himself admitted that he was “very disappointed that ultimately I haven’t been able to really help change the policy.”

On collective ministerial responsibility

The system in the U.S. obviously does not apply everywhere else.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna who has announced his resignation during a press conference at County Hall in Westminster, London, along with a group of six other Labour MPs, including, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Angela Smith, Chris Leslie, Ann Coffey and Gavin Shuker and who will be known as the Independent Group. | Photo Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images

Politicians in the United Kingdom (U.K.) follow different constitutional conventions, where resigning in protest is relatively commonplace. In 2016 alone, six Members of Parliament (MP) resigned. Why they resign is because of collective ministerial responsibility. This convention means that should a party propose a bill, every politician in it must support it publicly, even if they disagree with it. If they feel like they absolutely cannot do so, they are expected to resign. This also happens a lot because in the U.K. the parties control who the members are and what roles they take up. When an MP resigns in the U.K., they still stay within politics, but probably are sent to a less front-facing role. When a politician resigns in the U.S., they have to go through the system again, possibly facing rejection from the public on their next try, which is why they cling on to their positions harder.

Ostriches and dissent

Singapore’s first session of parliament after independence, with PAP filling up their  seats but opposition Barisan Sosialis notably absent, 7 December 1965. | Photo Credit: SINGAPORE PRESS HOLDINGS

Another reason why people resort to this tactic is to signal that they do not acknowledge a presently dominant system. After the controversial and contentious Operation Coldstore was carried out in 1963, Barisan Sosialis (BS) sat out the subsequent general election. This political move completely backfired and unsurprisingly, Singapore’s People Action Party (PAP) unsurprisingly won all 58 seats. This move by BS is widely regarded to have been a pivotal moment in Singapore politics because it paved the way for the PAP’s supremacy and success. In his memoirs, the Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote that:

“Lee Siew Choh had not only rendered the communist united front ineffective, he had in effect surrendered the constitutional arena to the PAP. It was a costly mistake, one that gave the PAP unchallenged dominance of Parliament for the next 30 years.”

This goes to show that simply “Ostrich-ing” and being in your own world does not work. You cannot just ignore the problems around you and not be so out of touch with reality that you think you can just fix them by sheer force of head-in-ground.

Political Miscalculations and Bad Maths

Malaysia’s former leader, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (left),and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (Right)  in a confidence vote in Parliament. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Earlier this year, Malaysian veteran politician Mahathir Mohamad handed in a shock resignation from his position of Prime Minister. This was meant to be a calculated political move that would have allowed him to undo an agreement to a transition of power where adversary-turned-ally-turned-adversary-again Anwar Ibrahim would take over from Mahathir in 2023. Sources detailed that after this, Malaysian members of parliament would give him support, making him PM once again.

However, things went south and the King of Malaysia appointed another opposition politician as PM. This politician is Muhyiddin Yassin and he remains in power up to the date of publication.

Political miscalculations can have costly ramifications. Getting back into the political arena would be ineffective as such a move will be seen as a spit in the face by the boycotter’s supporters. In response to the protest-resignation in Hong Kong, student Jasmine Yuen said:

“… now that they’ve resigned we don’t even have anyone on our side with voting rights in Legco.”

Student Calvin Fan also remarked that:

The city is dying. It has been dying for some time. Now we’re even more like China.


Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot (Left) at a jungle camp, Prince Norodom Sihanouk (Right) in Paris. | Photo Credit: KEYSTONE ARCHIVES/HERITAGE IMAGES/BETTMAN/CORBIS

To me, resigning in protest is a last-ditch move, made out of desperation when there seems to be no other out or compromise. It shows how powerless the actor is and nowhere is this more apparent than in 1976, at the dawn of the Khmer Rouge regime, Norodom Sihanouk resigned in protest. He did so after witnessing the forced migration and labour camps Brother Number One had put Cambodians in. The colourful and once-powerful king-politician that had led Cambodia through tumultuous times had been reduced to a puppet and was put on house arrest. Shut up with his family in the Royal Palace, he remained imprisoned for the rest of Pol Pot’s murderous reign. He simply did not have any other option and it was purely for optics. In fact, this savagery intensified after his resignation, hammering home how futile Sihanouk’s grandstanding was.

If you do not play you cannot win

Slowing bureaucracy, refusal of acknowledgement are valid reasons to boycott a system, but such tactics can be costly politically. Optics and statement-making are important in politics, but politics is grounded in reality — If you do not play you cannot win. Walkouts, boycotts, resignation-protests, cause more harm than good to any cause.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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