Photo by Jiew Peng Lim/CC License

What It's Like to Fight for Human Rights In a Country Where an 'Illegal' Skype Call Can Land You Behind Bars

Singaporean human rights activist Jolovan Wham is facing a litany of charges including organizing an "unregistered" Skype Q&A and taping pieces of paper to a wall. We spoke with him and three others about the difficulties activists face every day.

by Cher Tan; photos by Apit Kilmister
Dec 5 2017, 9:00am

Photo by Jiew Peng Lim/CC License

Singapore is built on the narrative that the ruling People's Action Party raised the tiny city-state "from third world to first." Today, Singapore is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. But freedom of expression and a commitment to human rights didn't rise with the GDP.

Hidden behind Singapore's glitzy first-world veneer is a country that heavily restricts free speech and curbs people's right to protest. Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore near the bottom of its World Press Freedom Index, below Myanmar, the Philippines, and India. The ruling PAP has a habit of suing journalists into submission over disagreeable coverage, political dissidents live in exile, and even those working within the confines of the system face police repression.

Take Jolovan Wham, a human rights campaigner interviewed below. Back when VICE originally spoke with Jolovan, he wasn't facing any legal troubles. But since then, he's been charged with holding illegal public gatherings—charges stemming from small meetings where he allegedly chaired a Skype conversation with a Hong Kong's pro-democracy activist. Jolovan also faces several other charges including vandalism for taping two pieces of paper to an MRT wall and refusing to sign a police summons, allegations that, all together, amount to what rights groups called a concerning attack on freedom of speech in Singapore.

We spoke with four Singaporean human rights activists about the difficulties they face raising their voice in a society that values silence on these kinds of issues.

Jolovan Wham

Jolovan is a social worker. He's an ardent campaigner for the rights of migrant laborers.

VICE: Hi Jolovan, tell us about your how you got into this work.
Jolovan Wham: I was a social worker focusing on the rights of migrants and started becoming very concerned about how the exploitation and abuse of workers had been normalized in Singaporean society. After having the opportunity to meet activists both in Singapore and abroad, I was inspired by their advocacy work.

Why do you think activism is important?
I think it is important to speak out and take action. On one hand, due to my social and economic privilege [as a Chinese man], when I think of the struggles of those who are marginalized, whatever reservations I have are mitigated because I know I'll never have to suffer in the way that many others do. On the other hand, I am gay and know what it's like to live on the margins of society, which has made me more sensitive towards issues surrounding social injustice. It also helps to have friends and family who are supportive.

What are the biggest challenges do you face in raising awareness about human rights?
Creating awareness around democracy and the freedom of expression and assembly are the most difficult issues to tackle in Singapore. It's hard to put a face to freedom and it doesn't help that democracy activists have been demonized for decades. Human rights are often perceived in Singapore as highfalutin idealists who are not grounded in real life.

What gives you hope that things will change in Singapore, for the better?
Social media and the internet have been revolutionary for authoritarian regimes like Singapore. We are exposed to different ideas and no longer just rely on information from state-controlled media. The Singaporean mind is starting to open up. Of course, we still have a long way to go, as a result of decades of indoctrination and the almost complete domination the ruling party has in so many aspects of our lives. But we have to start somewhere.

Rachel Zeng

Rachel is an anti-death penalty campaigner and a women's rights activist. She is a member of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network and has worked for the past nine years towards the abolition of capital punishment in Singapore.

VICE: Hi Rachel! So how did you start out as an activist?
Rachel Zeng: I started out sometime in 2007, volunteering for [independent news portal] The Online Citizen. I was also hanging out with local activists working on human rights issues in Singapore. Eventually, I became more active in various human rights campaigns.

It's uncommon for someone in Singapore to pursue activist work due to the city-state's political climate and draconian laws. What keeps you going?
Although many can declare that Singapore is a pretty good place to live in, there are others who have been marginalized as a result of its laws and policies. I thought that since I disagree with the inequality and oppression brought upon by such draconian laws, I had to express solidarity by doing something about it.

What challenges do you see in terms of the activism you do and Singapore's unfavorable attitude with regards to human rights?
Family and several friends were—and still are—opposed to what I am doing. On top of that, I have faced harassment such as death threats and threats to my personal safety, as well as derogatory terms thrown at me. These have not deterred my work, but is indicative of patriarchal attitudes in this society. I find that I have to work harder than some of my fellow [male] activists to prove my worth and be taken seriously—the instant assumption about my work is that my actions are motivated only by emotions.

Do you see any shifts as to how general attitudes are toward a freer society as compared to the past decade?
People are now more vocal and there is more room for public discussion, especially on social media. However, there is still a great lack of protest culture and solidarity with the oppressed.

Jean Chong

Jean is a co-founder of Sayoni, a LGBTQ rights organization. She’s one of the leaders of the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, a regional network of LGBTQ groups in Southeast Asia lobbying for the inclusion of LGBTQ rights in the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

VICE: What got you into activism?
Jean Chong: I started out as a volunteer in 1999 for LGBT Christian support group Safehaven [which eventually became Free Community Church]. At the time, I was a student and had been witnessing the LGBT community starting to organize in a visible way. After that, I joined People Like Us. Sayoni was founded soon after with a group of queer women. We wanted to address the lack of visibility of LBT women and realize our vision of activism through awareness building, research and advocacy.

As an activist, how do you deal with the backlash against your work?
Actually, I refused to recognize that I was an activist in my earlier years—I always said I was just trying to help out, and figure out how I could contribute. It was only after doing my Masters in Human Rights and Democratization that I formally started learning about activism. By then, I had a lot of experience and knew what I was talking about [so I felt more comfortable with the label].

I had to deal with the fear however. Fear of the state, and of the repercussions that activist work brings about in a repressive political climate. I had to learn to accept that I’m afraid sometimes. But hope is what keeps many Singaporean activists going, recognizing that perhaps in our generation we are planting seeds.

What are your thoughts about activism in Singapore right now?
It seems quite clear by now that hard work, working the ground, good research, and momentum-building must be done to see change. Activism in Singapore needs cross-sector support and a building up of awareness of human rights in the public sphere. I'm hoping for more LGBT rights activists to care about civil rights as well, because they are inter-related. Currently, identity politics keeps us in silo thinking.

How is Singapore different today than ten years ago as a society?
It seems to me that young people are more open minded. But at the same time I realize it’s not good enough to be more accepting, unless people understand why they are respecting diversity. There’s no point having free LGBT people while other minorities are being oppressed. We should all speak out when we see discrimination and injustice happening to anyone living in Singapore.

Kirsten Han

Kirsten is a founding member of We Believe In Second Chances, an independent group advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty. She is also a prominent blogger and journalist reporting on the political climate in Singapore.

VICE: So how did you start out as an activist?
Kirsten Han: I started volunteering for The Online Citizen through a friend, which was how I got introduced to their campaign against the mandatory death penalty, and how I started learning more about the capital punishment regime in Singapore. I also got a job as a production assistant for an independent production company around that time, and they were working on a documentary on Yong Vui Kong, a young Sabahan on death row in Singapore. So I just fell into this situation where I was working on the death penalty issue both at work and out of it.

Pursuing activism as a career is uncommon in Singapore. Why do you do it?
I remember the first time I had ever been in a courtroom—it was for the constitutional challenge to the mandatory death penalty in Yong Vui Kong’s case. It just struck me as so wrong to see him sitting in the dock, and to know that we were all part of a process deliberating whether he would live or die. Everything that I’ve experienced since then has built on this sense of wrongness, whether it’s the death penalty, the exploitation of migrant workers, or the clampdown on civil liberties.

Not everyone can speak out about these injustices too, even if they wanted to. As a young Singaporean with many privileges, I feel like I’m in a position to say and do things that some people may not be able to do. It’s got to the point now where it feels like very much a part of who I am, and therefore giving up would also be like having to give up a part of me.

What are the most difficult parts about being human rights activists in Singapore?
It very often comes back to the problem of being overstretched and under-resourced. With the death penalty issue, for example, there are many things that my colleagues and I would love to do, but struggle with because we’re volunteering our time and energy on top of our day jobs or studies and other obligations that we have—it comes down to a problem of whether there’s anyone who has time to take that sort of workload on.

Access to information is also a major issue. There are so many things we don’t know and that is difficult to find out, because you run into walls. This isn’t a problem strictly faced by activists, but also by academics, journalists, etc. It’s an unfortunate reality in Singapore that human rights isn’t very high on the agenda. In a city as fast-paced, stressful, and expensive as ours, bread-and-butter issues have been winning out. It can be a challenge for activists to find platforms to reach as many people as possible, but this is also where restrictions against freedom of expression and assembly come in.

What can Singaporeans do today to gain more awareness about human rights?
There are more opportunities now for people to become aware and get involved. I’m meeting many more young Singaporeans who are more politically aware than I was when I was their age. They know a lot more, attend screenings or forums, and are talking about various political issues with their peers. It’s very encouraging.

That said, there are many Singaporeans who are still very much caught in the establishment narrative as taught in schools and emphasized in the mainstream media, and who don’t consume political content online—the challenge is to figure out how to reach these people despite all the restrictions on organizing and assembly in Singapore. I remain hopeful, though, because there are many ways to resist and to challenge, and there are also more pushback against establishment narratives in popular culture, which is great when trying to normalize conversations that don't fit government-approved lines.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Jolovan Wham worked as the executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). He no longer works there. VICE regrets the error.

Vice Channels