On November 26 2016, Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham organized an event called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” and invited Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong to participate via a video call.
Wham was later charged with organizing a public assembly without a permit and for refusing to sign a statement he made at the police station. Last February, he was fined SG$3,200 (US$2,300) but chose to serve 16 days in jail instead.
Wham started out as a social worker with an organization that advocates for the rights of migrant workers.
While Wham was contesting his charges in 2017, another youth activist, Yinzhou Cai, has been championing for the welfare of migrant workers in a different way.
Cai grew up in Geylang, a neighborhood known for its red light district.* Growing up, Cai had sex workers and migrant workers for neighbors and befriended them, often through badminton games. Then he realized he could no longer ignore the immense gulf between their disparate social classes.
“For playing badminton in the back alleys, we were raided by the police,” Cai wrote.
Cai watched as his neighborhood became increasingly regulated, such as being designated a liquor control zone, after a riot involving migrant workers some years ago in another part of Singapore resulted in fatalities.
Cai wanted to redefine Singaporeans’ relationships with migrant workers. So he started Geylang Adventures, an initiative that offers tours through the back alleys of his neighborhood, to shine a light on a different side of Geylang and thereby restore humanity to the migrant communities living there. He also founded BackAlley Barbers, which provides free haircuts to migrant workers.
Both Cai and Wham are champions for migrant workers, but their fates could not have been more different. In 2017, while Wham was on trial for his charges, Cai was honored on the national stage with the Singapore Youth Award, for how he has brought “distinction to the nation” through his “resilience, courage, leadership, service and ambition.”
What separates Cai from Wham? And where exactly is the line between acceptable activism and unlawful social movements? In a country where it is illegal to hold public demonstrations without a police permit – except at the designated Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park – how can bottom-up movements play a part in shaping public opinion and public policy?
Think Singapore and one might bring to mind a developed city-state that is efficient but somewhat authoritarian. Globally, it is often known for its strict legislation. For instance, selling gum is illegal, littering can lead to hefty SG$2,000 fines, and vandals may be caned – as in the oft-cited case of American citizen Michael Fay.
Indeed, Singapore consistently finds itself on the bottom rungs of the Press Freedom Index – last year, it took the 151th spot out of 180 countries – and the authorities are infamous for wielding legal threats against journalists and publications.
Yet, despite its harsh laws, the country is far from a politically stagnant society. Its people have shown a willingness to organize quickly when they feel the pinch, and have managed to prompt the government to respond in their favor. Singapore has its class of activists who have found ways to advocate within boundaries and avoid sanctions.
In September, Singaporean resident Zachary Tan started an online petition to ban electric scooters on pedestrian footpaths after a spate of injuries and fatal accidents. Tan, who had amassed 69,000 signatures in one month, shared his petition with the Land Transport Authority.
The next day scores of food delivery riders who use e-scooters to go about their work, showed up at meeting halls across the island objecting to the ban, lamenting the threat to their livelihoods. Their distinctive green uniforms drew widespread media attention.
In response, the government created a SG$5,000,000 grant in partnership with three food delivery companies to allow each rider to claim up to SG$1,000 when they trade in their scooters for other personal mobility devices, such as bicycles or power-assisted bicycles.
The e-scooter saga, along with the stories of Cai and Wham, raises many conflicting questions.
Wouldn’t 50 people showing up as an organized group at a Meet-the-People Session be considered an illegal assembly?
What about the fact that Cai leads groups of people on tours to change public perceptions about migrant workers? Would that require a police permit?
NGOs and academics routinely organize events that involve discussions around political issues ranging from poverty to inequality. If Wham was punished for organizing a conference, shouldn’t other NGOs and academics holding similar conferences require police permit as well?
This, after all, is clearly spelled out in Singapore’s Public Order Act: An organizer of a “seminar, conference, workshop, or gathering” pertaining to religion, race, and “cause-related or directed towards a political end” must apply for a police permit.
Moreover, so-called “political ends” are broadly defined, and can range from “seeking to influence” public opinion on a “matter of public controversy” to “seeking to bring about changes of the law” and seeking to influence “policies or decisions of national or regional governments.”
Former journalist Margaret Thomas, who edited The Art of Advocacy, a collection of stories by 37 civil society activists in Singapore, said that the gathering of delivery riders could “technically be counted as an illegal assembly.” Yet, the government did not arrest them.
“The lines are never clearly drawn. It is the concept of OB markers. They are invoked when deemed appropriate by the government,” she said.
OB markers, or out-of-bound markers, is a term Singaporeans use to refer to the invisible line of what is permissible for public discussion. The line is constantly shifting, since the law is written broadly and open to different interpretations. Activists, through trial and error, figure out where the OB markers are.
Law professor Eugene Tan said invoking the illegal public assembly law against the delivery riders “would be an ass.”
“Had the gathering turn nasty, if it degenerated into a public nuisance, or there was damage to public property, then using the [illegal assembly] provision is one of several options available. Generally, if it is peaceful, the authorities would be foolish to clamp down,” said Tan, who teaches at the Singapore Management University.
Wham said that for the government to clamp down on scores of delivery riders – most of whom are low-income citizens – would be to bring a public relations disaster upon itself.
Meanwhile, Cai said he did not have to apply for a police permit because he is a licensed tour guide in Singapore – which has helped him circumvent the Public Order Act.
On why Wham got into trouble with the law when Cai did not, Tan says it boils down to two key things – method and intent.
“Do you seek to keep within the law or are you deliberately testing the boundaries of the law? Do you come with the intent to improve the laws, and do it behind closed doors in private communication with the authorities or do you stand up on a soap box and use a social organization as a front for entering the political arena?
“To put it bluntly, are you a rabble rouser?”
It is not as if Wham is not aware of the “out-of-bound” lines in Singapore. It is that he chooses to cross them from time to time to challenge – and perhaps change – the system. Wham describes himself as a “professional troublemaker.”
He started out as a social worker and the former director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME), an organization that advocates for the welfare of migrant workers, such as by providing legal aid, medical service, and shelters for migrant workers.
But Wham is an activist at heart, and the careful advocacy by HOME was too limited for what he wanted to pursue. Not wanting his uncompromising advocacy approach to affect HOME’s operations, he later stepped down from its leadership.
In 2017, Wham was charged for organizing public assemblies without a permit – a vigil held outside the Changi Prison Complex before of the execution of a Malaysian drug offender, and a silent protest held in subway trains against the 1987 detentions of alleged Marxist conspirators under the Internal Security Act. He was also charged with vandalism, for pasting two A4 sheets of paper on a subway train during the protest.
Wham feels it is sometimes necessary to cross over the OB markers to challenge the status quo. “The question is to how much pressure are you putting on the authorities to change policies and the law, to what extent do you take the rights-based approach?”
Wham argued that one can accomplish limited change by respecting the government’s strictures on protest, but not deeper structural change.
“Cai is one among many who get involved in community work,” he said. “I don’t blame them for operating the way they do. In social change work, affirmation is important. The government is good at giving affirmation to those that it prefers. It will give you endorsements and open up doors for you. This fuels your motivation. The affirmation you get from the government, in turn, brings you more supporters.
“Most advocacy strategies tend to dance around the boundary. I understand why people do that because it is important for survival, but I think it is important to reimagine civic engagement and model the kinds of advocacy we want possible in Singapore.”
Thomas, the former journalist who became an activist herself, founded two NGOs – AWARE, which champions women’s rights, and Transient Workers Count 2, an organization that also advocates for migrant workers. She has developed a successful combination of Cai’s and Wham’s approaches to activism.
“Our approach is to use both the front door and back door and we are open about it,” she said.
“When we feel it is important to take a public stand, we will do so. Where appropriate, we are ready to work behind the scenes and have discussions with policymakers in private.”
In his review of the book The Art of Advocacy, Singaporean essayist Jee Koh wrote a succinct summary on the art of creating a bottom-up movement in Singapore: “It is clear that the most successful of the organizations have been those who back up their arguments with research, engage the authorities privately and publicly, and soften any confrontational language; in other words, they have abided by the rules of engagement set out by the authorities.”
This works for causes combatting prejudice and ignorance, Koh wrote, but when it comes to expanding freedom of expression, “no amount of research, reasonableness, and outreach will persuade the government to give up its political controls.”
While public pressure prompted a change in government policy in the e-scooter saga, there have been other cases where the government did not budge despite public outcry.
In September 2018, following India’s landmark repeal of section 377 of the penal code, which criminalizes homosexuality, Singaporean filmmaker Glen Goei started a movement advocating the same. Despite amassing over 40,000 signatures via an online petition, including prominent public figures in Singapore, the government merely acknowledged receipt of the petition.
In a separate incident, the National Library Board announced it would pulp copies of children’s books And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express, after someone filed a complaint about how the books normalize same-sex relationships.
The announcement ignited an outcry and another petition, which led the authorities to move the books to the adult section, so that parents can decide for themselves if their children should peruse those materials.
In the latter, one complaint prompted action from the authority, while in the former, thousands of signatories on a petition barely moved the needle. On what basis does the government decide when to act according to public pressure?
According to Tan, the government has a general policy of not governing by petitions.
“Where societal values and norms are involved where people do not change their views overnight, the government tends to act more cautiously,” he said.
“They recognize that even with big names canvassing for repeal, there is even more resistance to a dramatic change in the status quo. Most religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have relatively clear positions on homosexuality. The thinking is that the majority do not want the law repealed.”
Indeed, the Ready4Repeal movement had sparked a counterpetition that gathered more than twice the number of signatures on the petition for repeal.
Tan believes the government commissions secret polls to gauge public sentiment on certain issues when weighing policy decisions.
“When society remains deeply divided, the government will adopt a wait-and-see approach, preferring a clear majority on the way forward before it does anything,” he said. “It boils down to a basic thing about politics. Political parties seek to win elections; they have to be popular. They have to be able to carry the ground.”
Singapore’s draconian laws around public assembly may seem excessive. Yet its distinctive model appears to work for the country. The state is peaceful despite its diverse racial makeup. Strong rule of law ensures that the workforce never goes on strike and the country runs like clockwork to prevent any disruption to the economy. This trade-off is broadly accepted by the public in exchange for reliable public services, high levels of public safety, continued stability and prosperity, and significantly greater trust in institutions than in many other countries, according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Rankings.
And while Singapore restricts public assembly and the free press, it does have mechanisms that allow public opinion to influence government. For instance, residents can write to the newspapers or directly to ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs), whose email addresses are a matter of public information.
The government also maintains weekly “Meet-the-People” sessions across all constituencies in Singapore, where MPs meet face-to-face with their constituencies to address any concerns they want to raise.
Singapore’s founding father “Lee Kuan Yew was the supreme strategist. The system [his party] has built up works,” Thomas said.
“You just have to look at the election results in Singapore, given that vote is secret and it is compulsory, historically 60 to 70 percent of the people, whatever their misgivings, have voted for People’s Action Party because it is tried and tested and has provided a stable life for them,” she said.
While many Singaporeans seem satisfied to trade safety for freedom, Wham is not one who’s willing to settle. He is playing the long game, but he may be way ahead of his time.
“I am under no illusions that politically, we are going to democratize so soon. It might even take decades, but you have to start somewhere,” he said.
“People who continue to work within these circumscribed boundaries are not being strategic at all because what they are doing is reinforcing authoritarian rule. It does not lead to democratic progress in the country.
“I don’t want to live in a society where I am always scared. I am an equal citizen. I don’t see why I need to tone down or dilute my activism.”
Minmin Low is an award-winning documentary producer and journalist based in Singapore. She is currently pursuing her M.A. at Columbia Journalism School.
*A previous version of this piece mistakenly identified Geylang as Singapore’s only legal red-light district.