Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

After months of investigations, Singapore police finally dropped a bombshell at the end of November: social worker and activist Jolovan Wham would be charged for organizing public assemblies without a permit, vandalism and refusing to sign police statements.

Wham, who has spent his career as a social worker fighting for the rights of low-wage migrant workers, has been investigated multiple times by the police for various events deemed to be “illegal” under Singapore’s restrictive Public Order Act.

Most of the investigations dragged on for months, with little information or updates from authorities before ending just as abruptly as they had begun or with “stern warnings” that have since been ruled by a High Court judge to have no legal effect.

The Singapore Police Force’s press release announcing the charges said Wham had been “recalcitrant” and repeatedly shown “blatant disregard for the law” in organizing or participating in “illegal public assemblies.”

Past investigations and official warnings were triggered by petty offenses such as allowing foreigners to participate in an event held in solidarity with Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement at Singapore’s Speaker’s Corner, for allowing the Singapore flag to touch the ground, and for displaying national emblems in public at an event held in solidarity with Malaysia’s pro-democracy Bersih movement.

Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham (C) leaves the State Court after a hearing in Singapore November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham (C) leaves the State Court after a hearing in Singapore, November 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

He is now being charged for allegedly organizing three illegal assemblies: an indoor forum at which Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Skyped in as a panelist, a silent protest on an MRT train calling for accountability for activists detained without trial 30 years ago, and a vigil for a death row inmate who was hanged for drug offenses.

(Disclosure: I was a panelist at the first event and am currently also being investigated for participation in the vigil.)

Despite past warnings, investigations and charges, there has been no suggestion that any of Wham’s actions had been disruptive, dangerous or harmful. In fact, police officers present outside Changi Prison on the night of the vigil told participants that we could stay as long as we did not light candles.

While the police’s sudden announcement against Wham came as a surprise, the decision is not shocking considering the fast shrinking space for dissent in Singapore.

The rise of social media and the watershed election of 2011—in which the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) turned in their worst ever performance and swiftly promised a “new normal” with more engagement with the public—were viewed as opportunities for democratization in the wealthy but authoritarian city-state.

It was widely assumed at the time that Singaporeans had found their voice, that the government’s climate of fear had been eroded, and that the PAP-led administration would have to make more allowances for activism and advocacy in the national conversation.

It has not been the case. The 2015 general election — where the PAP regained lost momentum by winning 70% of the vote — showed that the appetite for political change in Singapore was not as big, nor as determined, as many had expected post-2011. Now, the space for civil society and the exercise of civil liberties is not growing, but shrinking.

Speaker Roy Ngerng, of online blog The Heart Truths, addresses the crowd during a protest against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 8, 2013. Human Rights Watch on Friday said that Singapore is undercutting its status as a financial centre by expanding media censorship to the web and urged the city-state's government to withdraw the new licensing requirements for online news sites. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS) - RTX10G54
An activist protests against new licensing regulations imposed by the government for online news sites, at Hong Lim Park in Singapore. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

This year, over 20 people have been investigated under the Public Order Act, a law so overbroad and oppressive that even a single person can constitute an illegal assembly.

Yan Jun, who held one-man protests with placards outside the US Embassy, British High Commission and Raffles Place in Singapore’s Central Business District, was sentenced in August this year to three weeks of imprisonment and a fine of S$20,000 (US$14,850). The court found him guilty of four counts of illegal public assembly without a permit and one count of disorderly behavior.

In October, artist-activist Seelan Palay was arrested under the same law while performing an art piece which involved standing alone outside Parliament House holding a mirror. He is currently out on police bail while investigations are ongoing.

These are not the only recent instances of authoritarianism in action.

Playwright and arts activist Tan Tarn How published a blog post in October raising concerns about artists and academics being blocked from educational institutions. His initial post indicated that he had compiled a list of 15 such people, while a later update revised the number up to 18.

The Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, a broadly worded piece of legislation dealing with contempt of court offenses, was passed in Parliament last year about a month after it was first tabled.

Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his late grandfather and national founder Lee Kuan Yew on March 29, 2015 in Singapore in a screen grab photo from a Prime Minister's Office video.
Li Shengwu delivers a eulogy to his grandfather and national founder Lee Kwan Yew on March 29, 2015 in a screen grab photo from a Prime Minister’s Office video.

A contempt case has since been initiated against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s nephew, Li Shengwu, for a Facebook post that was only visible to his friends that said Lee’s government is “very litigious” and presides over a “pliant court system.”

Li’s father, Lee Hsien Yang, was earlier this year locked in a very public feud with his prime ministerial brother over the handling of their late father Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy and home at Oxley Road. The rare family spat was made public in a series of revealing Facebook posts.

Moreover, a civil servant was recently charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act for giving information to a journalist about a new initiative related to resale units of public housing flats that had not yet been made public.

The journalist was handed one of the police’s “stern warnings.” Although the incident failed to generate much public attention or discussion, former journalists have pointed out the potential chilling implications for press freedom.

Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves with his parents after his sentencing, from the State Courts in Singapore July 6, 2015. The Singapore teenager who posted a video online deemed offensive to Christians and an obscene image of late leader Lee Kuan Yew will be released after the court sentenced him on Monday to jail time already served. The court sentenced Yee, 16, to four weeks of imprisonment from June 2, which means he could be released immediately after spending 50 days in remand. REUTERS/Edgar Su TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1J6TE
Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves a court after being sentenced to prison for his blogging activities. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

Further restrictions on civil liberties are on the way. The government has promised to introduce legislation next year to tackle “fake news”—a move described by Freedom House’s ‘Freedom of the Net 2017’ report as one that “did not appear to be referring to content deliberately fabricated to drive revenue or mislead the public.”

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has also said that legislation is being reviewed to tighten regulations against hate speech and extremist teaching.

That doesn’t sound so illiberal in theory until recalling that the government characterized teen blogger Amos Yee’s YouTube harmless rants as hate speech, suggesting that the state’s tolerance threshold is low. (Yee was recently granted political asylum in America.)

With new restrictions on the way, Wham is unlikely to be the last pro-democracy activist to face persecution. While this may not seem like monumental backtracking considering the democratic calamities underway in the US and some European countries, the risk is that illiberal regimes learn and ape repressive tactics from one another.

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