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The danger of dissent in Singapore

  • 27 February 2018


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.

Looking 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