Every morning since Trump’s inauguration, I’ve woken up to shock, outrage and dismay. It’s felt like a never-ending onslaught, a paralyzing flood of bad news even before I get out of bed.
I’m not an American, yet every piece of news — from the executive order that sparked mayhem in the airports to the firing of Attorney General Sally Yates — feels urgent and personal. There is just so much, too much, happening, with no time to fully form emotional or intellectual responses. Everything is a priority issue, all at once, but there’s only so much one can process at any one time. The sense of helpless frustration comes in waves. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from being an activist in Singapore, it’s that the community you build around yourself will be what gets you through the toughest of times.
It would be overly simplistic to map one country on to another, but I still can’t help but see parallels — not in the details, but in the fundamentals. The events in the United States speak to me because I can see the ways in which they connect to the issues that matter in my home country.
When a police officer in Denver tells protesters at the airport that exercising free speech without a permit is illegal, I think of Hong Lim Park here — the only place in the entire country in which citizens can gather for a cause or protest without first seeking permission from the authorities. When Trump suspends the refugee program and turns his back on the thousands of people desperately in need of help, I think of how Singapore continues to refuse refugees, to the point where we refuse entry to ships with possible shipwrecked refugees on board. When I think of the discrimination inherent in the singling out of particular countries to ban, I think of Singapore’s “source country restrictions” when it comes to migrants on work permits, where we only allow people from specific countries to work in particular industries. When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says that civil servants who disagree with the government should leave public service, I think about the civil servants in my own country and how expressing dissent threatens their jobs.
Singapore is a small country that has been controlled for a long time. It’s actually an environment that Trump would love: a compliant mainstream media (where you can order them not to publish crowd numbers at rival rallies), politicians using defamation lawsuits against ordinary bloggers, restrictions on public assemblies and other “cause-related” activities, a lack of freedom of information, and a dominant party in parliament that is able to push through whatever legislation it wants. And these are only some of the obstacles in the way of members of civil society organizing for a range of human rights and social justice issues.
But even after more than 50 years under the same political party — during which activists and dissidents were detained without trial, jailed, sued, arrested, harassed and civil liberties were eroded – there are still Singaporeans beating the drum for justice. It’s a modest group, under-resourced and overstretched, but committed nonetheless.
I’ve been privileged to have been part of this tiny circle for about seven years now, and even though our gains have been relatively small, gains have been made. In the time that I’ve been involved, I’ve seen issues like the exploitation of migrant workers make their way into mainstream discussion. We were limited in reach when it came to campaigning against the death penalty in 2010; the government has since made amendments to the mandatory death penalty, and I’ll be speaking about capital punishment at a TEDx event organized by students of a local university this March. We’ve put together two civil society forums focused on networking and capacity-building, and are constantly looking for ways to provide the political education that has been left out of our school system. It might not seem like much, but bit by bit, we’re reaching out and empowering Singaporeans who have long been told that they have no place in politics.
Throughout all this it’s always been the company in which I’ve found myself that has inspired me and gotten me through periods of disappointment and burn out. It helps that we aren’t just colleagues, but friends. We talk about strategy and campaigns, and debate intellectual positions, but also gossip and tease (and eat a ton). It’s these relationships that have made the work not just important, but also fulfilling and fun.
The inspiration and hope that I feel when I’m among my fellow members of civil society is the same that I feel when I look at photos of the Women’s March, or the immigration lawyers who poured into airports to provide pro bono services. I scroll through the photos streaming into my Twitter feed and see humanity, solidarity, compassion and strength. And while the circumstances that triggered these actions were far from ideal, they’ve also presented a great opportunity. The United States has the proud tradition of activism and resistance that Singapore lost — hold on to that and don’t let go.
Build networks and campaigns and movements, but just as importantly, build relationships. Make friends and keep talking, whether at a protest site or in a cafe over muffins. Make it work the other way around, too: Pull your friends into the activist community and help them find the best ways to get engaged.
These are the people who are going to be there for you when you’re practically crying with frustration over the state of things, whose passion and heart will prompt you to want to match them. These are the people who are going to be by your side when you’re working late nights and weekends because day jobs don’t make allowances for organizing and resistance. And yes, these are the people who are going to make you laugh because they know that one needs not only solemnity and outrage, but also levity and joy.
It’s going to be a long struggle, and we’re going to have to keep each other engaged and recharged for the work ahead.