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The danger of dissent in Singapore



When Jolovan Wham was 13, his mother decided to give the family's live-in domestic worker a day off. Her friends admonished her for being a bad example, and for setting a precedent for their own domestic workers to request similar treatment. The cavalier cruelty shown by his mother's friends left a deep impression on the young Wham.

Jolovan WhamLooking for an avenue to bring about change, he went on to study social work at the National University of Singapore but graduated profoundly disillusioned by a program he calls 'bankrupt'.

He continued to yearn for a more 'liberatory social work praxis', eventually leading him to become a founding member of HOME, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, which supports domestic workers in Singapore who suffer abuse and exploitation, a necessity in a country where there is little avenue for migrant workers to be heard.

In 2017, the Singapore police force levelled at Wham seven indictments: three of organising a public assembly without a permit, three of refusing to sign a police statement, and one of vandalism.

In Singapore, any gathering for a political purpose needs a police permit, ostensibly to protect the state and its people from those seeking to sow discord within it. In reality, the requirement for a police permit strangles free speech as it ensures that anyone with dissenting political views is denied a permit to voice them.

Wham flouted those laws when he participated in a vigil for a prisoner about to be executed, and again when he was part of a group of silent protestors who commemorated the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, an event where the Singapore government jailed activists under charges of a 'Marxist conspiracy', charges which are considered by many to be fabricated by the state. He was also charged with vandalism as Wham had displayed posters questioning the Marxist conspiracy on the windows of a train.

Lastly, he organised a meeting in 2016 with other Singapore activists where Hong Kong activist, Joshua Wong, who is most known for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, presented a speech through Skype. This led to the third of Wham's charges, which included allowing a foreigner to participate in Singapore politics.


"When a state can pick and choose what words mean in order to protect itself, what room is there for actual rule of law?"


Singapore is a small city-state that is more well known for its economic prowess than for its human rights record — which is abysmal. It has a record of using the law and the courts to silence and bankrupt dissidents, sending a message to others who would dare to challenge the state. The police force possesses wide-ranging powers, which are often used against activists.

Wham asserts that he refused to sign a police statement despite giving one on each of the three occasions that he was questioned, because when he had asked for a copy of the statements, he was refused access to them. 'How can I sign a binding legal document without having a copy of it?' he says. 'What if it is doctored after I sign it?'

The officers who interrogated him declined to give him a justification for refusing to provide a copy of his own statements to him, simply saying they did not need to.

The Singapore regime, acting through a police force that lacks independence and is often nothing more than a running dog for the whims of the state, defines words as they wish. A gathering of friends becomes a public assembly, a vigil for a dying man about to be executed is a political meeting, and sticking two pieces of A4 paper on a window questioning detention without trial becomes vandalism.

When a state can pick and choose what words mean in order to protect itself, what room is there for actual rule of law? Activists and intellectuals are intimidated into silence, because anything they say and do can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) however the state wishes. This breeds a culture of people terrified to speak out, which is exactly what the Singapore government desires.

By refusing to sign the police statements and by continuing to exercise his human rights to gather with activists to peacefully protest, Wham is refusing to play by the rules created by a repressive state. It is a small but powerful act of civil disobedience. Wham is putting his body and his safety on the line to draw attention to the unjust laws of a country mired in a decaying political structure. This, as well as his activism, has dearly cost him.

Where is the international censure of a government threatening its own people? The world continues to laud Singapore as a model for governance, while ignoring the serious human rights violations that occur within it. The silence of countries like Australia and others in the region ensure that the Singapore state will continue intimidating its opponents into silence, or obscurity. 



Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia. She is the originator of the term 'Chinese Privilege', which situates institutionalised racism in Singapore. She can be found at @kaliandkalki

Topic tags: Sangeetha Thanapal, Singapore, Jolovan Wham



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Existing comments

Great article. This is an important issue. I know Jolovan, and he is honestly one of the most brave and principled I have met. One small thing people can do is sign this petition calling for charges to be dropped: https://www.change.org/p/drop-charges-against-jolovan-protect-freedom-of-expression It is an important petition and every name counts.

Nicholas Harrigan | 28 February 2018  

I have visited Singapore quite frequently in recent years. Of course it is famous for its cleanliness and good order which in a very crowded city is essential for societal harmony . What we don't see it the authoritarian control of its citizens. Sadly we tend to ignore these factors in the pursuit of harmonious relations with the powerful elites that control Singapore as investment by these elites benefits our own elites. I greatly admire you Sangeetha, Wham and other of your country people who are prepared to risk prosecution in the name of freedom of expression. There is a lesson for us in what you wrote.

Gavin | 28 February 2018  

The Australian Government has an abysmal record on human rights. It is not just silence on Singapore's breaches of human rights. A slow-moving genocide is happening on our door-step in West Papua at the hands of the Indonesian military and our Government are doing nothing in this regard. On our home front, we are incarcerating asylum seekers on off-shore hell-holes for years and have done little to close the gap with our own indigenous peoples.

Grant Allen | 28 February 2018  

Human beings continue to be the flaw in all utopian plans. Singapore has coped with its human problems by becoming mildly authoritarian. Perhaps that’s because Singapore was born at a time when communist/Marxist movements surrounding it created such enormous destruction—the Malayan Emergency, and the genocidal Khmer Rouge who murdered a quarter of the population in Cambodia. But for a tiny nation state with no natural resources, Singapore has done remarkably well since becoming self-governing in 1959. It has one of the world’s most dynamic economies with only 1.8 % unemployed by 2015. Its health system is ranked 6th by the WHO and it has the world’s lowest infant mortality rate. In 2015 its students ranked first in the OECD’s global school performance ranked across 76 countries. It has first class public transport and low taxes, yet provides government assistance programmes so that poverty is rare. It’s not Singapore that has a “decaying political structure”. That is the hallmark of all socialist countries—like Venezuela, a country with abundant natural resources bankrupted by socialist policies, where women now have to prostitute themselves and sell their hair in order to avoid starvation.

Ross Howard | 28 February 2018  

I was living in Malaya when Singapore became Independent and have been a frequent visitor ever since. I endorse Ross Howard’s comments one hundred percent.

Jason | 01 March 2018  

If Singapore had had an upper house controlled by leftwing activists at the time of independence, or of separation from Malaysia, today it would be a mendicant state relying on Australian subsidies for running detention centres for boat people. It’s not so much the case that PAP Singapore is a one-party state as that Singapore hasn’t received the luxury of hundreds of years of political evolution that has produced in Australia, NZ, Canada, the UK and the US a one-party state that rotates the prize of power between two relatively reliable branches of the one-party. The ‘one-party’ is the voter norm of ‘the centre’ and parties that stray (like the Whitlam ALP) are soon recalled by bitter experience to the centre. Singapore’s size also hinders democratic experimenting. The federations and the quasi-federal UK above allow both reliable branches of the one-party state to be holding office simultaneously. A federation doesn’t have to be rich: India is robustly democratic because a party that fails to form the national government can find a niche in a region. The PAP is hard out of principle, not venality, because who else can they see to be reliable co-custodians of the Singapore ‘centre’?

Roy Chen Yee | 01 March 2018  

Communist China is more open and free than what Singapore is.

Euan Thomas | 02 March 2018  

Ross Howard and others responding to Sangeetha's article recite the standard platitudes about Singapore's supposed nation-building successes. Even those who are critical of the city-state's "mildly authoritarian" government and its numerous and systematic violations of democratic rights and freedoms since 1959 endorse such claims. While Singapore's has some undeniable achievements, many are rather hollow. While depicted as a power-house economy Singapore's is very dependent, heavily reliant on foreign capital, technology and talent and, in many ways, is an underdeveloped country. About 40% of its GDP is produced by foreign concerns and Singapore has limited capacity for indigenous R&D. Singapore's low innovative capacities are largely due to an exam and test-driven education system which kills creativity, intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn. Singapore's top scores on PISA and TIMSS student achievement tests are grossly misleading and obscure the fact that it has a deeply flawed education system. The country also displays severe inequalities of wealth despite having one of the world's highest per capita GDPs with a Gini coefficient of 0.47. (The OECD countries scores range from 0.45 for the US down to 0.23 for Sweden). About 25 per cent of the population live in poverty by Western economic standards (a meaningful comparison considering Singapore's "First World" GDP levels), with workers such as cleaners and security guards earning as little as a thousand dollars a month. Through getting top global rankings from compliant ratings agencies and think-tanks for such nation-building measures as economic freedom, transparency and economic competitiveness Singapore has comprehensively conned the world about its achievements.

Rodney King | 05 March 2018  

Grant raises an important point. It seems to me that the reason governments don’t criticise Singapore and other allied countries which preserve democratic forms but not substance is that that is the way most historic democracies are heading. It is so much more convenient to shake the national fist and rally the population against the Iranians, Russians or other enemies du jour than to allow them to look around at the erosion of their own civic institutions and those of our allies with whom we share deep bonds of history and culture. Truly, we are all managed democracies now.

Justin Glyn SJ | 21 March 2018  

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