In Print: “Keep Calm and Carry On”

How Singapore’s leaders use the gospel of business to stifle dissent

By Kirsten Han


Human rights activist Jolovan Wham walked out of the State Courts in central Singapore on Nov. 30, 2017, to a gaggle of reporters and photographers. It was a typically warm tropical morning, and people had been getting restless, waiting for the authorities to process his bail and release him. He greeted friends, mostly fellow activists.* Plainclothes police officers watched quietly from a distance but did not approach.

The day before, the Singaporean authorities had announced that Wham would be charged with three counts of organizing public assemblies without permits, one count of vandalism, and three counts of refusing to sign statements to the police. The assembly charges were for allegedly organizing a forum on civil movements and democracy, staging an eight-person silent protest against detention without trial on a subway train, and holding a candlelight vigil ahead of a death row inmate’s execution. (The latter lasted all of 15 minutes before the police showed up and confiscated 26 tea candles and photos of the inmate.) The vandalism charge was for placing two signs in the subway expressing solidarity with former political detainees. A social worker with more than a decade of experience advocating for the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, Wham, an easy-going figure in his late 30s, was being punished for stepping beyond the bounds of state-sanctioned behavior in this tightly controlled Southeast Asian island nation.

Singapore is a place of contradictions. A city-state of about 5.6 million people squeezed into just over 270 square miles, it’s known internationally as both a free-market haven and a site of widespread state intervention. One of the richest countries in the world, it also has the world’s highest cost of living. The government, which prioritizes economic growth above all else, maintains a laser focus on remaining competitive, pushing Singaporeans to “steal other people’s lunches,” as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said. Officials are determined to turn Singapore into a hub for business, finance, media, technology, research, and innovation. An over-pressurized economy has emerged as a result, and politics tend to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues like transport fares and housing and health-care costs over human rights and civil liberties.

All this has happened under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has not ceded a majority since 1959. (There are multiple opposition parties, but only one has a tiny toehold in Parliament.) Yet even if the PAP’s approval rating weren’t as high as it is, it would still be difficult to remove the party from office. Since it’s been in power, the PAP has gerrymandered electoral districts and imposed strict barriers on political fundraising, advertising, and public assembly. Furthermore, as Human Rights Watch observed in an extensive report released in 2017:

Beneath the slick surface of gleaming high-rises … [Singapore] is a repressive place, where the government severely restricts what can be said, published, performed, read, or watched. Those who criticize the government or the judiciary, or publicly discuss race and religion, frequently find themselves facing criminal investigations and charges, or civil defamation suits and crippling damages. Peaceful public demonstrations and other assemblies are severely limited, and failure to comply with detailed restrictions on what can be said and who can participate in public gatherings frequently results in police investigations and the threat of criminal charges.

It’s an open secret that there is no freedom of expression in Singapore. Organizing or participating in “cause-related events”—a vague and potentially all-encompassing definition—requires permits from the police. Activists are rarely granted permits for events dealing with issues deemed political, controversial, or sensitive, like race and religion, detention without trial, or the death penalty. There is only one place in the entire country where one can hold public, outdoor events without a permit (though only under certain conditions): Hong Lim Park, a small, historic enclosure near the Central Business District.

The government justifies limits on free expression as necessary to achieve law, order, stability, and wealth, and for the most part Singaporeans aren’t inclined to challenge this narrative. “There are laws in Singapore, and people shouldn’t break the law,” is a common refrain. Over the years, the idea of the law-abiding, protest-shy individual has become part of what it means to be Singaporean. It’s as if, after years of indoctrination, political passivity has become part of the national identity.

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Following a three-year occupation by the Japanese during World War II, British colonial power was restored in Singapore in 1945. But things were not the same as before: The British Empire was in retreat and calls for independence were spreading.

On May 13, 1954, almost 900 students from Chinese middle schools clashed with riot police while demonstrating against the colonial government’s desire to introduce conscription. Singapore’s population has been predominantly Chinese since the mid-1800s, and the Chinese had been targeted in systematic purges by the Japanese during the war. Male Chinese students, many of whom had already had their education disrupted by the Japanese occupation, rejected the idea of fighting for the British. The incident escalated into a larger movement, leading to the development of wider networks across the island that brought together Chinese- and English-educated anti-colonial voices.

Singaporeans who lived through this period remember the demonstrations, rallies, and strikes organized by trade unions and left-wing student groups; some may even have participated. The beginnings of the People’s Action Party are rooted in this movement: As a young lawyer returning from his studies at Cambridge University, the ambitious Lee Kuan Yew—who would go on to become Singapore’s first prime minister—represented the unionists and students in the anti-colonial struggle. Through them, he met the leaders of the Chinese student and trade union movements. Their involvement in creating the PAP gave the party access to a significant groundswell of popular support; trade union leaders like Lim Chin Siong, recognized as a great orator in the Hokkien dialect, could communicate with the masses in a way that Lee, born to English-speaking parents, could not. The unions were also crucial in organizing rallies, mobilizing their respective bases, canvassing during campaigns, and getting out the vote. These organizations, Lee said, were “the political muscle [he and his English-educated peers] had been seeking when discussing our plans for action during all those beery nights spent pub-crawling in London.”

Once in control, the PAP was savvy enough to dismantle—or at least severely undermine—the freedoms and political structures that had brought it to power. The new government prioritized stability, economic development, and a unified national culture. A policy of detention without trial, which had been introduced by the British during the colonial period, was used to lock up political opponents and dissenters. In 1963, a major sweep known as Operation Coldstore led to the arrest of more than 100 people, including leading members of Barisan Sosialis, a left-wing breakaway party, as well as other trade unionists and activists, under the guise of fighting communism. With Barisan’s key people detained—some for more than a decade—the PAP’s strongest opponents were stymied.

Strikes were outlawed, and other public demonstrations restricted. The Punishment for Vandalism Act—later amended to the Vandalism Act—was passed in 1966 specifically to deter left-wing activists from carrying out poster campaigns. Legislation was passed that prohibited newspapers from publishing without a permit and enabled the government to appoint a paper’s managing shareholders. Student groups were also targeted. In 1974, the University of Singapore Student Union came under attack from the government for its support of social-justice causes, from flood relief for Bangladesh to better severance packages for workers. Accusing students of “espousing the causes of communist political detainees, interfering in labor disputes and trade union affairs, and generally taking up anti-establishment political issues,” the government amended that university’s constitution to prevent the union from engaging in political causes.

On the labor front, the government reduced the power of the trade unions by introducing a system they called tripartism, which encouraged strong collaboration between the government, the trade unions, and the employers’ federation. The National Trades Union Congress—an umbrella organization formed by the PAP in 1961—is led by a minister from the PAP government, with other party members firmly entrenched within the group. With the party exerting so much control over the unions, observers have described union officials as “remarkably timid advocates of their members’ rights.” “Strong tripartism provides a stable and positive environment for investors to bring in good jobs, and allows us to take better care of the interests of our working people,” the National Trades Union Congress’ website still proclaims today.

Although many of the activist firebrands were browbeaten into submission by the late 1970s, not all civil resistance was wiped out. “Because of the systematic way in which [the PAP] killed all the autonomous organizations … the only organizations left were the student unions,” said Tan Tee Seng, who was active in the Singapore Polytechnic student union from 1976 to 1978. “So we needed to take up the cudgel, to continue the good work.” In 1978, Tan participated in a campaign against raising the bus fare. “We felt that the bus fare hike was unjustified, mainly because to the people who made the decision, [a raise of] 10 cents was nothing to them. But the students, we could feel the pressure on our parents,” he recalled.

A group of about 50 students first put out a petition, printing leaflets and collecting signatures across the country. When that failed to get a reaction from the government or the bus company, they decided to escalate. They organized into small groups, put on “anti-bus fare hike” T-shirts, and hit the streets. They would get on a bus, refuse to pay the fare, and hand out protest flyers to passengers. After three or four stops, they would get off and repeat the process. The bus conductors “didn’t stop us,” Tan remarked with a chuckle. “I don’t know if they thought that we were justified, but they looked at it quite amusingly.” He recalls that some passengers even gave the protestors thumbs-up. This demonstration, while modest compared to the mass mobilizations 20 years earlier, was far more confrontational than the silent protest that Wham would be arrested for about four decades later. “Now, they would say that you broke the law,” Tan said of the bus protest. 

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Today, younger generations of Singaporeans have no knowledge of their country’s politically charged past. A survey conducted in 2014 found that only about 17 percent of respondents were aware of Operation Coldstore. About 19 percent were aware of Operation Spectrum—a 1987 sweep in which 22 social workers, lawyers, and activists were detained without trial. “I don’t remember learning about [Operations] Coldstore and Spectrum,” said Isaac Neo, a third-year university student, when asked about his high-school curriculum. 

Instead, the government frames history in terms of law and order. A social studies textbook for high school students, for example, will cover the rights enshrined in the Singapore Constitution—equality before the law and freedom of speech, assembly, and religion—but will also note that “such rights may be restricted if Singapore’s security, political stability, racial harmony, or public morality is affected.” Issues related to activism and civil liberties are almost never included, and Singaporeans are encouraged to be engaged citizens by singing the national anthem, volunteering, or giving the government constructive feedback.

One of the only sectors in which these values are occasionally challenged is the arts. Neo mentioned that the first time he had heard about the May 13 middle school protests was in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a graphic novel that narrates Singapore’s history through the eyes of a fictional comic book artist. Because it questioned the official narrative of Singaporean history, the work was accused of potentially undermining the government. In 2015, the National Arts Council withdrew a publishing grant for the book, ironically propelling it to the top of local bestseller lists. In 2016, a play that touched on leftist struggles in Singapore’s history was rated “R18” for its sociopolitical content, requiring producers to refund tickets sold to those under 18. A year later, writer and translator Jeremy Tiang revealed that state funding had also been withdrawn for his debut novel State of Emergency, which intertwines Singapore’s leftist history with that of a fictional family’s experience.

A page from Harry Builds A Nation. [Courtesy of Epigram Books]

Meanwhile, a popular title in the country is the 2015 children’s book Harry Builds A Nation, the third installment in a series on the life of Singapore’s first prime minister, (Harry) Lee Kuan Yew. The book focuses on Lee’s efforts to attract foreign investment to a developing Singapore:

To provide jobs for Singaporeans, Mr Lee invited foreign companies to set up factories and businesses here. He gave them a good reason—a stable government. They also did not have to secretly pay money to dishonest ministers or people in charge in order to do business. And they could depend on dedicated workers who would not threaten their business by going on strike.

This rhetoric had been on full display three years earlier, on Nov. 26, 2012, when 171 bus drivers initiated a strike—Singapore’s first in 26 years. The drivers were all migrant workers from China who were being paid less than Singaporean or Malaysian drivers and were forced to live in substandard dormitories.

The response to the strike was a perfect demonstration of how far Singapore had moved from, and deliberately forgotten, its own left-wing history. The national media, which is largely controlled by the government, referred to the action as “illegal.” Newspapers published articles and opinion pieces that hammered home the idea that strikes were antithetical to the Singaporean way of life. The workers’ decision was attributed to their nationality, as if the idea of Singaporeans rebelling against authority were unthinkable.

On Dec. 1, an article in Singapore’s only English-language general news broadsheet, The Straits Times, argued for educating foreign workers more intensively on Singapore’s tripartite system. “Unfortunately, some of the workers come from different cultures and backgrounds—they don’t understand that we have a very strong tripartite relationship as a framework to help them,” the article lamented. Another article in The Straits Times emphasized Singapore’s labor relations as an “intangible national treasure,” and quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong describing the system as “one of the most valuable things we can pass on to our future generations … a core value that holds us together.”

Amid relentless media coverage of the strike, the courts sentenced five bus drivers to up to seven weeks in prison, and repatriated 29 others. A few days after the strike ended, both the bus company and the Ministry of Manpower confirmed that living conditions in the dorms were poor, and the company announced plans to undertake repairs and fumigation to deal with bedbug infestations.

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The domination of a single political party over the past four decades has put Singapore in a curious position: It’s a place where the majority of the population feels safe, comfortable, and privileged, and it’s also a place where most people avoid political activity for fear of repercussion. The public is generally aware that the powerful curb freedom of expression—an “OB (out-of-bounds) marker” is a common phrase indicating that a certain topic is taboo. Even so, there is a lack of will to push for change.

In his book Singapore, Incomplete, journalism professor and political observer Cherian George highlighted this inertia by pointing to the backlash against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, who took to social media in 2017 to accuse their brother of abuse of power. The family feud, which was closely watched, attracted criticism from many Singaporeans, who felt the younger siblings were ruining Singapore’s reputation by needlessly airing the family’s dirty laundry in public.

“What Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang were discovering was something other critics and activists are well acquainted with: Singaporeans’ hypersensitivity to anyone who rocks the boat,” George wrote. “Unless the issue affects them materially and directly, they do not like it when people raise a ruckus. And because they are so accustomed to the still waters of Singapore politics, they react queasily to the slightest motion.”

Tan Tee Seng, the former union activist, acknowledges that Singapore has made great strides in economic well-being since the country’s independence, but he rejects the argument that this was only attainable through trading away freedom of expression and assembly. “The argument was that [our economic growth] is because of this governance … That is a notion that is perpetuated by [the government].”

Meanwhile, the PAP continues to crack down. Last year, new regulations were introduced that have made it even more difficult to hold protests. Among the laws passed was one that penalizes organizers if foreigners are present at a demonstration. Additionally, in February, the government extended the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for the preventive detention of individuals associated with criminal activities. This is the 14th time the law has been renewed since 1955.

And yet, there are hopeful signs. Last July, thousands of Singaporeans showed up at Hong Lim Park, decked out in pink and carrying picnic baskets. Supporters squeezed onto the grass to celebrate Pink Dot 2017, Singapore’s equivalent of a gay pride parade.

Pink Dot has taken place every year since 2009, but in light of the ban on foreigners, last year’s event featured waist-high metal barriers around the park. Only Singaporean citizens and permanent residents were allowed in, and people queued up to have their identity cards checked by security officers. On this day of love, transnational couples were separated at the gate. It was a ludicrous situation, and still, the park was crammed. Some first-time attendees said they’d made a point to show up in defiance of the state’s attempts to undermine a peaceful grass-roots campaign for LGBTQ equality. And so, once more, a uniquely Singaporean situation was created: thousands of jubilant citizens united by a common cause, singing “Over the Rainbow” in unison, penned in by a metal fence.

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Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist covering social justice, human rights, politics, and democracy. She is editor-in-chief of New Naratif and has written for The Guardian, Asia Times, and other publications. She is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, which advocates for an end to the death penalty in Singapore.

*The author was present at Wham’s release and has been involved in Singapore’s protest movements.

[Photo courtesy of 12019]

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Read more from World Policy Journal‘s Spring 2018 issue, “Nationalism and Free Speech”

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