Jolovan Wham (Twitter/Phil Robertson)
  • Feature

Meet the civil rights activist jailed in Singapore over a Facebook post

In risk-averse Singapore, pro-democracy activist Jolovan Wham chose to go to jail rather than pay a fine to erode the widespread fear of civil disobedience.
Jolovan Wham (Twitter/Phil Robertson)

The day before presenting himself at the High Court to be taken to prison on March 31, Jolovan Wham was running errands for some friends in town. He seemed relaxed and cheerful, as he usually is.

“Of course there’s still some degree of nervousness,” he said about his impending short stint behind bars. “But ever since I was arrested in 2017, I have been preparing for this day … so that’s why the effects, the stress, are not so great.”

Wham will be serving a week in jail, and — while it’s his first time — it’s likely not going to be his last. The civil rights activist still has a number of other cases against him, largely to do with his involvement in “illegal assemblies.”

These events, deemed so offensive by the state, would hardly merit comment in many other countries: an indoor panel discussion on civil resistance to which Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Skyped in, a silent protest on an MRT train to draw attention to the issue of detention without trial in Singapore, and a 15-minute candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison the night before the morning execution of a death row inmate.

Wham’s willingness to resort to direct action, despite the risk of arrest and prosecution, sets him apart even from the majority of Singaporean civil society.

While he’s already been convicted for the first event mentioned above (but is in the midst of an appeal), the other two charges have yet to even go to trial. There’s also an ongoing investigation into yet another alleged illegal protest, involving him posing for a photo outside the State Courts holding a sign in solidarity with two other Singaporeans charged with criminal defamation.

Under Singapore law, there’s only one park in the entire country in which Singaporean residents are allowed to assemble without prior permission. While one can technically apply to the police for a permit to protest, it’s highly unlikely that any such permit will be granted. In this environment, Wham is an anomaly.

A long-time activist for migrant workers’ rights, he’s since branched out to work on the issue of civil liberties (or lack thereof) in Singapore, drawing attention to matters like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. His willingness to resort to direct action, despite the risk of arrest and prosecution, sets him apart even from the majority of Singaporean civil society.

This time, Wham’s trip to Singapore’s Changi Prison is a choice: He’d been sentenced to a fine of $3,500 after the courts found that a Facebook post, in which he’d compared the independence of Singapore’s judiciary unfavorably with its Malaysian counterpart, was in contempt of court. Wham refused to pay the fine, deciding to serve a week in prison instead.

“Some people have said that it is unnecessary [to choose prison over the fine], because I have already raised awareness of the issue through the court case. So what’s the point of going to prison then?” he said of the comments he’s received from friends and acquaintances.

“I think going to prison is a continuation of the resistance. To say that you do not accept the legitimacy of the judgment,” he continued. “And this is basically me saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment. I think there’s value in this kind of resistance … there’s something good and noble about wanting to sacrifice and do something for what you believe in.”

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  • The Singapore establishment isn’t exactly used to someone who would so actively and unapologetically give them the finger. The same ruling party has been in power since 1959, and over the years civil resistance campaigns or movements have been clamped down on and isolated, weeded out of society. Today, a more petitionary system exists, made up of “proper channels” to send feedback up to technocratic policymakers in the hopes that they’ll take your proposal into consideration and work it into their own plans. Tactics like protesting are seen as disruptive and destructive, and activists are often dismissed as noise-makers and rabble-rousers, a “lunatic fringe” that’s just making trouble for trouble’s sake.

    “It’s not making trouble for the sake of it, because when you do something like that [civil disobedience, or choosing to go to prison], you force it into the public consciousness,” Wham insisted. “Actions like these cast a spotlight on the injustice. And you can, of course, cast a spotlight on injustice by writing articles, you can have discussions. I don’t see anything wrong with these things — of course we can do that — but going to jail helps to magnify it, and forces you, provokes you to think.”

    In doing all this, Wham sees himself not as a popular figure, but someone in the vanguard of pushing boundaries. “I’m not expecting support from the majority of Singaporeans, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I think it’s precisely because these kinds of things don’t get support that it’s important to do them.”

    Essentially, activists like Wham aren’t interested in waiting for the “right” time to participate in direct action. Questions of whether it’s the “right” time or the “right” strategy or whether Singaporeans are “ready” for such “radical” action are common in Singapore, even among activists. They’re sometimes legitimate questions about movement-building and trying to get as many people on their side as possible, but they can also become an easy crutch to rationalize an unwillingness to take greater risks or offend the powerful. Being able to tell the difference between one motivation and another — or, on an even more basic level, to realize that this tension between savviness and fear exists — lies at the heart of the Singaporean activists’ internal struggle.

    “Change doesn’t really come because a majority of people want it,” Wham explained. “But it always starts with a minority of people who push for it, and then eventually it gathers momentum, and then change comes. This could take years. It could take decades. But I don’t think you do it because you want to see it happen in the short-term, or maybe even in your lifetime.”

    Interestingly, the Singapore establishment itself is likely aware of the potential power of even small acts of resistance. Under consecutive People’s Action Party administrations, civil liberties have been restricted and the freedom of assembly curbed to the point that even solo protests can breach public order laws. Recently, two young people, aged 18 and 20, were called in by the police for interrogation after they separately posted photos of themselves in public places holding up signs drawing attention to the climate crisis and the presence of Big Oil in Singapore as part of the local chapter of the Fridays For Future movement.

    “It shows that such actions can be very powerful,” Wham said of the authorities’ response to the young climate strikers. “The fact that the state is so eager to clamp down on even one person protesting shows that they know the power of public protests and public assembly … That’s why more Singaporeans should be empowered to do this, so that you can realize the goals and your aims and your aspirations for your community.”

    Wham holding a smiley face sign after climate activists were arrested for holding signs at the same location. (Twitter/Jolovan Wham)

    To express solidarity, days before he was due to go to prison, Wham headed down to the same spot that one of the climate strikers had been photographed in. Wearing a blue surgical mask — just like the original protester had — Wham, too, held up a cardboard sign. But instead of carrying any political message, all that had been drawn on the sign was a smiley face.

    “I wanted to inject some humor into protests. It’s not just about angry people, foaming and frothing at the mouth,” Wham said, bursting into laughter again at the idea. “[The smiley face] is also a symbol. It shows that we come in peace. We’re not just troublemakers. Underlying the request for change is that we want people to be happy. We want people to have fulfilling and enriching lives. So there’s nothing wrong with fighting for what you want for the betterment of the community.”

    This time, by choosing to go to prison, Wham hopes to erode some of the fear that presents such a solid barrier to many other Singaporeans. In a country where activists can generally carry out their work with relatively little worry for their physical safety — unlike many other countries, including those neighboring Singapore, there are no reports of activists being kidnapped, brutalized or even murdered — the threat of prosecution, fines and jail time can still be a great obstacle for many people to get over.

    The social stigma against going to prison is one major factor. “Whenever we talk about prison, we think about people who are criminals, who may find it hard to get a job in the future, who may not even be able to travel,” Wham pointed out. It might not be just prison itself that scares activists — who, for the most part in Singapore, will only be doing this on the side, while having to hold on to day jobs — but the implications of having a criminal record and being seen as an ex-convict, and the thought that this would limit future options.

    “I think that these fears are exaggerated,” Wham said. “There are lots of people who have been convicted in the court of law who’ve gone to jail, but have had successful careers, have been able to find a job, still can raise families, still can travel.”

    To him, it’s important to demonstrate that spending time in jail for your cause and belief isn’t a stain on your personal history, but a legitimate part of activism. At the end of the day, it’s about showing, through your own actions and choices, that such possibilities exist.

    A version of this article has also been published by We, The Citizens, a newsletter covering Singapore politics, democracy, civil society and social justice.

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