This morning, I sat with friends in Singapore’s State Courts waiting for Jolovan Wham, a civil society activist, to be released on bail. He had just been charged with several offenses including allegedly organizing public assemblies without a permit, vandalism and refusing to sign statements he had given to police. In their press release, the police described Wham as a “recalcitrant” who shows “blatant disregard for the law”.

It all sounds very serious, as if Wham were some dangerous subversive. He’s being charged with organizing three illegal assemblies. But here’s the reality of what these “illegal” events actually entailed.

It would be a laughable farce if it weren’t such an indictment of the state of civil liberties and freedom in Singapore.

The indoor forum

In late November 2016, Wham was involved in a forum discussing democracy and activism. There were three speakers: artist-activist Seelan Palay, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) – who Skyped in – and myself. We talked about our experiences with activism, about the role of protest in democratic societies, and about the difficulties of community organizing in both Hong Kong and Singapore. (To get an idea of the tone of the session, here is a written version of the speech that I gave.)

The police had informed Wham beforehand that a permit would be required, since Joshua Wong was a foreign speaker. But there hadn’t been enough time to apply for one; even the online application process would take too long. The event went ahead anyway – what could be the harm talking about democracy and action? This is Singapore, after all, and not China, where Lee Ming-che (李明哲) has just been given five years in prison for subversion.

An investigation into the event was opened in December the same year. People were questioned, and property seized, including the laptop that had been used to Skype Wong.


Credit: Kirsten Han

Wham is pounced on by media as he walks free from his bail hearing.

The silent action on the MRT

Shortly after the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum – a sweep of arrests carried out by Singapore’s Internal Security Department that resulted in the detention without trial of social workers, lawyers and activists – Wham and a small group of others boarded an MRT train and held up copies of the book “1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On” while blindfolded. They also put up two signs printed on A4 paper that read “MARXIST CONSPIRACY? #notodetentionwithouttrial” and “JUSTICE FOR OPERATION SPECTRUM SURVIVORS #notodetentionwithouttrial”.

The participants in this silent protest were investigated. Wham is the first of their number to be charged, but police say investigations into the others are ongoing.

For the putting up the A4 sheets of paper bearing the two messages in the train, Wham is also being charged for vandalism; a crime which, in Singapore, carries the punishment of caning. Fortunately, it is unlikely that Wham will be caned as this is his first vandalism offense.

The vigil

In July this year, a small number of us gathered outside Changi Prison late at night to hold a vigil for Prabagaran a/l Srivijayan, a Malaysian national death row inmate who was due to be executed for drug offenses. It wasn’t an unusual exercise; vigils have been held outside the prison for various death row inmates for years. The previous inmate to be executed had attracted a vigil of more than a hundred people; in this case, there were less than 20 of us.

Candles were lit and photos of Praba were held aloft. About 15 minutes later, police officers showed up saying that we weren’t allowed to have these candles and photos – they confiscated them, but said that as long as we didn’t light more candles, it would be all right for us to stay. Praba was executed by hanging at about 6 a.m. the next morning.

Two months later, the police came to our doors. They served us letters saying that they were investigating an illegal assembly, and that we were to be interviewed. Once again, Wham is the first of us to be charged, but the police say that the rest of our cases remain under investigation.

A discussion on active citizenship and democratic action. A call for accountability into the detention of activists 30 years ago. A gathering to remember the life of a young man hanged by the state. These are the activities for which Wham now faces charges. It would be a laughable farce if it weren’t such an indictment of the state of civil liberties and freedom in Singapore.


Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Hong Lim Park is the only place that allows assembly without a permit in Singapore.

There is no freedom of assembly in Singapore. It’s worth saying this directly, because there are many – among the Singaporean government and its citizens – who claim that there is freedom in Singapore, as long as you are “in accordance with the rules”. There are those who criticize Wham for his actions, saying that he should have just gone to Hong Lim Park – the only place in Singapore where citizens can gather without a permit – and blaming him for not playing by the rules.

Lost in such criticism is any consideration of power, participation and democracy. The legislation that governs any country does not naturally occur in nature; they are not immutable facts, but are crafted by people in power based on the context of the time and the goals legislators are seeking to achieve. And legislation changes all the time according to the needs, real or perceived, of those in power.

Saying “you could always just have gone to Speakers’ Corner” ignores the fact that even Speakers’ Corner has grown more restrictive in recent years. Saying “you should just follow the law” fails to consider that anti-democratic laws can close in on you; if one’s priority is to never break any law, the powerful can simply push you into ever-smaller boxes by tightening the laws again and again. This isn’t even paranoia talking; this is the reality that Singapore has lived with for years.

Peaceful collective actions should not be a crime. They are valid and important ways for citizens to be a part of the discussions and debates that take place in their country. Nonviolent protests, demonstrations, gatherings and strikes have histories of bringing positive change to societies, of fighting injustice and increasing democratic participation. This fact should not be new or foreign to even Singapore’s ruling party; such actions were, after all, key to their own rise to power.

The activities that Wham participated in were not harmful to Singapore. They were legitimate, human actions responding to matters of importance, whether that was encouraging discussion of democracy or just showing support and solidarity to a grieving family on the cusp of a loved one’s execution. These are things that empower people, and enable them to have a say over important things that affect their lives. These are the things that build a democracy. These are rights that every citizens should be able to exercise; we restrict and oppress them at our own expense.

Editor: David Green