Welcome to Singapore, but…

A Travelfish long read by Kirsten Han
First published on 31st March, 2021 |6,768 reads.

Years ago, when travel was still an accessible privilege, I attended a workshop in the United States for activists from all over the world. During lunch breaks, conversations often turned—as they are bound to do when you put a bunch of activists in close proximity—to the issues we face in our countries, and the deep dysfunction present in many of our political systems.

Midway through one such conversation, an attendee from Nepal turned to me. “You’re from Singapore,” he said. “You must love your government!”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I was surprised to hear it in this setting—if I really did love my government and was happy with what it was doing, why would I be attending a workshop for activists focused on democracy and social change?—but I generally never know how to respond to such statements.

Singapore has a great international image. It’s often seen—and markets itself as—a wealthy, gleaming metropolis of sleek skyscrapers and consumer indulgence. People think of the infinity pool at the Marina Bay Sands, the luxury brands of Orchard Road, and the resorts on Sentosa. It’s a food paradise, a shopping paradise, a stable, orderly country fit to host significant international events like the Trump–Kim Summit (even if that ultimately went nowhere). It’s the land of Crazy Rich Asians, where good–looking, confident Chinese people schmooze, back–bite, and party by “Super Trees”.

Gorgeous, crowd pleasing distractions. Photo: Sally Arnold.
Gorgeous, crowd pleasing distractions. Photo: Sally Arnold

It’s easy to roll my eyes at the gross misrepresentation of my country in films like Crazy Rich Asians, but things get more awkward when I’m face–to–face with gushing foreigners, talking about how much they’d love to move to Singapore, how it’s just so much better than wherever they’re living, how it seems so beautiful and wonderful and everything “just works”. In that moment, I don’t want to be that party pooper who goes off on a rant, because that feels impolite and also unfair to both my country and the speaker who just wants to pay a compliment. But I’m also reluctant to let go of an opportunity to raise awareness of the struggles Singapore’s activist and pro–democracy advocates face. More often than not, I’m just left with a sense of ambivalence.

Civil and political rights—or the lack thereof—in Singapore

Recently, my friend Jolovan Wham spent some time in prison. He served two–thirds of a 22–day sentence, in lieu of fines he’d refused to pay. He’d pleaded guilty to organising an “illegal assembly” in 2017, in the form of a silent protest on the MRT train, and “vandalism”, which referred to the act of sticking up two sheets of A4 paper in the train carriage, drawing attention to the Internal Security Act and the history of detention without trial in Singapore. Also taken into account was his organising of a small candlelight vigil for a death row inmate; if the stern warning I received from the police for my participation in that vigil is anything to go by, this “illegal assembly” lasted all of 15 minutes.

Guidelines on how to behave are plentiful. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Guidelines on how to behave are plentiful. Photo: Stuart McDonald

“My public assembly is just to raise awareness for important national issues… I plead guilty but I believe my conscience is still clear,” Wham told the court in February 2021.

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About the author

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, mostly focused on covering politics, human rights, and social issues. She tweets @kixes and runs the Singapore-focused newsletter, We, The Citizens.

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