Over the last few months, at least 17 activists have been hauled up by the police investigations.
These activists were investigated for events as far back as 2016 – more than a year ago – and for people like Jolovan Wham, their persecution will continue to stretch on.
Jolovan Wham has been given 7 charges by the government, including “organizing public assemblies without permits,” not signing police statements, and vandalism, which specifically was for temporarily pasting two pieces of paper on a subway train. These charges pertain to three events that Jolovan had organized.
“Assemblies Without Permits”
According to a police statement, he held a vigil outside Changi Prison Complex on July 13, in support of Prabagaran Srivijayan, a Malaysian who received death penalty after being convicted of importing heroin into Singapore. He was hung on July 14.
On June 3, Jolovan Wham had organized a “silent protest” on an MRT train with eight other people without a police permit and on November 26, 2016, he had organized an indoor public event featuring Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.
On October 1, 2017, Seelan Palay, a 32-year-old visual artist, was arrested outside Parliament House, while walking towards Parliament House, holding a mirror. His performance entitled “32 years: The Interrogation of a Mirror,” aimed at commemorating the 32 years of imprisonment of political prisoner Chia Thye Poh, the longest period spent by a detainee without trial in the world.
But even the Singapore Prime Minister’s closest kin are not let off. On November 17, 2017, the Prime Minister’s nephew, Li Shengwu, was charged with contempt of court over a private Facebook post that he made on 15 July 2017. As Li Shengwu’s explained in a letter to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), the AGC took his comments “completely out of context” and misinterpreted its meaning.
The Singapore government’s large-scale operation against activists has raised concerns that this has signaled the government’s crackdown on those it deems as dissenters.
The Singapore government’s clampdown began in the last few years when key political influencers were charged or sued. First was activist Alex Au Wai Pang and author of the blog Yawning Bread who was found guilty of scandalizing contempt over a blog post in which he discussed challenges of the constitutionality of Section 377A of the Penal code, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men.
Then blogger Roy Ngerng of The Heart Truths was sued by the Singapore Prime Minister in 2014 for defamation in relation to his blog article on the lack of transparency of the government’s management of the country’s national pension funds. Both Alex Au’s and Roy Ngerng’s blogs were the most-read sociopolitical blogs at the time of their persecutions. Roy Ngerng organized several protests in the subsequent months and was also charged for holding a demonstration without a permit and public nuisance. He pleaded guilty and was fined S$1,900. His fellow organizer, Han Hui Hui, was also charged and fined S$3,100. Four other protesters were also given fines. For the defamation suit, Roy Ngerng was made to pay S$150,000 in damages and S$30,000 in costs which he has to pay by installments until 2033.
In 2016, Roy Ngerng was investigated by the police over his support for an opposition politician in a by-election. Teo Soh Lung, a prominent activist from the group Function 8 was also investigated. The both of them were accused of campaigning for the opposition politician on their Facebook and Roy Ngerng on his blog on the eve of election where campaigning is disallowed by the candidate running for election. Both Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung were interrogated by the police and the police took them home without warning to search their homes. Their devices including their mobile phones and laptops were seized. Roy Ngerng was also made to let the police access his Facebook and download its archives. Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung protested the government’s actions arguing that they did not break the law as they were not candidates but the government continued its harassment of them, claiming that their prominence allowed the government to do so. They were also threatened to be detained if they did not cooperate as they were investigated for arrestable offenses, even as they would not have committed a crime. Their devices were only returned after more than a year with a warning given to each of them.
Teo Soh Lung was part of a group of more than 20 people who were imprisoned without trial by the Singapore government in 1987 under the Internal Security Act which accused them of plotting to overthrow the government. The ex-detainees have come out to denounce the charges as fabricated. The Internal Security Act is a colonial legacy left by the British and which gives the government wide-ranging powers to detain people without trial and the group has called for the abolishment of the act.
In 2015, teenager Amos Yee was also jailed for 53 days over a video he made about the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and in 2016 for six weeks for ” “hurting religious feelings.’ Amos has since fled to the United States where he sought asylum. After several months of detention, he was finally granted asylum, which prompted an official statement from the Singaporean government, which reproached the U.S. of conflating, “a legitimate difference in tolerance for offensive material with political persecution.” In 2016, two editors from online news site The Real Singapore were also charged with seven counts of sedition and another for failing to produce documents to the police. Ai Takagi was jailed for 10 months when and her partner Yang Kaiheng was jailed for eight months. Ai Takagi was three-months pregnant at that time.
Other activists were harassed by the Singapore government. In 2013, filmmaker Lynn Lee 2013 received a warning for “contempt of Court” after publishing on her blog two video interviews with former SMRT bus drivers He Jingling, 32, and Liu Xiangying, 33, who were involved in a strike last November. The two bus drivers had alleged in the videos that they were assaulted by police officers for the purpose of extracting confessions. Cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested on April 19, 2013, and suspected of violation of the Sedition Act after publishing some cartoons on “Demon-Cratic Singapore,’ a fictional comic series. Hosted on a Facebook fan page.
In the latest round of harassment against the activists, the 16 activists who were investigated with Jolovan have received warnings from the police while the situation for the rest is uncertain. Jolovan Wham has, however, been charged.
The activists were given two types of warnings – a stern warning and a conditional warning.
Thanks to Jolovan Wham’s previous challenge to the government, it was ruled that a stern warning, “does not bind the recipient, [and that] It does not and cannot amount to a legally binding pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact.” The judge also said that, “Only a court of law has the power to make such a pronouncement or finding and this is not disputed between the parties,” and that, “The Court is not entitled to treat a warning as an antecedent or an aggravating factor for the purpose of sentencing a recipient who is subsequently convicted.”
Jolovan Wham was previously given a notice of warning which he declined to sign because he did not think that he had done anything to warrant the warning. The police, however, continued to administer the warning which led Jolovan Wham to apply to the courts for a judicial review to quash the warning. However, even so, the court dismissed Jolovan Wham’s application.
The conditional warning, however, places the activists at risk as they would be charged if they were deemed to commit the same offense within a two-year period. One activist has been given a conditional warning in the latest spate of government harassment.
Singapore’s descends into becoming a more entrenched authoritarian state is of increasing worry as the space for activists have shrunk dramatically and they face constant harassment and intimidation from the government. Activists also increasingly face jail terms, as exhibited by the cases of Amos Yee, Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng.
Need for Accountability
The Singapore government has been expanding the repertoire of laws that it can use for
persecution against Singaporean activists, such as the use of public nuisance and vandalism. The Protection from Harassment Act that the government legislated in 2015 was also used against an independent news website The Online Citizen. The persecution of activists has become more strident, culminating with the mass investigations of 18 activists and the charges of Jolovan Wham.
Singapore’s actions have long been tolerated by the international community which other than human rights organizations, have been largely silent on the ongoing human rights
transgressions, in part due to how the region that Singapore exists in is seen as volatile and therefore that Singapore’s actions can passed by.
However, the international community can no longer take a backseat as Singapore continues in its transgression. Singapore is looked upon as an international city with significant influence. Countries and cities speak of emulating the ‘Singapore model’ which deny the rights of its citizens at the expense of economic growth, it is said, but even the latter is not certain as Singapore faces huge inequalities and inadequate social welfare protections, thus leading to protests in recent years.
The international community has a responsibility to adopt a sustainable approach towards
development and demand that Singapore offers economic and human rights protection to the to adopt a sustainable approach towards development and demand that Singapore offers economic and human rights protection to the citizens of Singapore. By most metrics, Singapore is an advanced country and the international community needs to measure Singapore’s responsibility based on these on relevant measures. More is expected from Singapore’s commitment to global development, not only in terms of financial aid it gives to international organizations but also in its basic treatment of its citizens.
The conditional warning however places the activists at risk as they would be charged if they were deemed to commit the same offence within a two-year period. One activist has been given a conditional warning in the latest spate of government harassment.
It is time to stop turning a blind eye to Singapore and to engage with the Singapore’s leaders with a bold approach that requires Singapore to fulfill its human rights obligations.