Welcome to Singapore, but…

A Travelfish long read by Kirsten Han
First published on 31st March, 2021 |6,875 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.

None of Wham’s activities had caused any public disorder or harm. In countries that respect people’s right to freedom of assembly, such acts would not be criminalised. But Singapore isn’t a country that respects people’s civil and political rights, and these convictions aren’t even the most absurd of Wham’s “offences”: he’s also facing charges for posing for photos with signs, one of them being a smiley face on a piece of cardboard. On 3 March, Louis Ng, a member of parliament with the ruling party, revealed that he’d been questioned by the police for similarly holding up a sign in support of Singapore’s hawkers. In a separate incident, the police released a press statement to say that an opposition politician should have applied for a permit to collect petition signatures on a municipal issue.

Singapore can be a comfortable place to live—if you fit in. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Singapore can be a comfortable place to live—if you fit in. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The right to freedom of speech, assembly, and association is enshrined in my country’s Constitution, but there are caveats that allow such rights to be curbed by other laws. While there are legitimate reasons—such as dealing with hate speech that incites violence and harm—to restrain things like free speech, Singapore’s laws are expansive, giving the authorities maximum discretion.

For example, the Public Order Act requires police permits to be obtained for any public gathering meant “to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government; to publicise a cause or campaign; or to mark or commemorate any event”, an expansive definition that could apply to all sorts of activity. To stretch the authorities’ reach—and the English language—even further, such “assemblies” even include “a demonstration by a person alone for any such purpose”. This is why one can be investigated just for holding up signs with smiley faces.

Watch out for dinosaurs. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Watch out for dinosaurs. Photo: Stuart McDonald

There are other laws like those related to defamation, contempt of court, sedition, racial and religious harmony, and “fake news” that have been used against opposition politicians, activists, and other critics of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Then there’s also the power of the party itself; after over 60 years of uninterrupted rule, the PAP is often conflated in people’s minds with Singapore’s entire government, mashing party and state interests into one.

There are stories of academics failing to get tenure (PDF) or employment in Singaporean tertiary institutions because of their work, activism, or (real or perceived) criticism of the ruling party. It’s been documented that powerful politicians—such as Lee Kuan Yew, when he was alive—would demand that certain journalists be sacked (PDF) (their editors would then have to try to save their jobs by suggesting alternatives like internal transfers). While people are concerned about laws, they’re also worried about these less explicit, more ambiguous threats to their bread and butter. Combined, these factors foster a culture of fear (PDF) and self–censorship, generating a sense that there are some things in Singapore that can’t, or shouldn’t, be discussed. We’ve even appropriated a term from golf for it: “OB markers”, to talk about the limits of public discourse, and topics that lie “out of bounds”.

These restrictions of fundamental civil and political rights cut across all issues and causes, albeit with different levels of force and impact. Whether one cares about the environment and conservation, or LGBTQ+ rights, or the death penalty, restrictions on expression and assembly, and fears of getting blacklisted by the powerful, are issues that one has to grapple with.

Different realities

These oppressive conditions aren’t felt by everyone. Not all speech is policed equally, and the authorities don’t bother clamping down on everyone who wanders up to these intangible boundaries. Instead, as journalism professor Cherian George put it, the coercion is “calibrated” (PDF)—balanced in such a way that Singaporeans are reminded of the need to stay on the right side of the PAP’s power, while allowing enough space to preserve the semblance of openness and freedom.

Say a prayer before publishing. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Say a prayer before publishing. Photo: Stuart McDonald

This calibration means that people can have wildly different experiences of Singapore. It’s not just about residents or tourists, locals or foreigners; oftentimes there are Singaporeans who are also ignorant of instances of oppression or human rights violations. I know, because I used to be one of them, until I came across alternative media sources and started doing my own research, outside of the government–approved school curriculum.

If you’re not interested in politics, and don’t criticise the ruling party and their government (not publicly, anyway), it’s easy to feel free in Singapore—the freedom to live well, to eat well, to enjoy the many comforts of a modern consumer life. (It’s even better if you’re also middle class and above, of the Chinese ethnic majority, and heterosexual; then you’ll find that all sorts of policies and regulations are tailored with you in mind, and are less likely to run into discriminatory or prejudicial practices that work against you.)

For these Singaporeans, complaints about oppression might sound like paranoia or evidence of an “everything also blame government” mentality. Discussions about human rights seem abstract and irrelevant, because they don’t feel connected to their lived experiences.

Respect is required—not desired. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Respect is required—not desired. Photo: Stuart McDonald

My own experience, and that of my peers, point to gaps between those of us in the civil society space, and our “non–political” friends. Many of us, after going through our political awakenings, have found it awkward sometimes to interact with old friends who remain apathetic or disinterested in politics or human rights issues.

“It’s not that they actively take an opposite viewpoint, it’s just something you’re brought up with and some issues, they didn’t know it was out there,” says S, a Singaporean who has worked with international NGOs, and who asked to remain anonymous. The rights–based language that’s used in organisations working on human rights issues, S points out, is often unfamiliar to people in Singapore, where it’s uncommon to see discussions based on human rights principles.

Jolene Tan, a writer and activist, has had this experience too. “Broadly speaking, there’s little accurate understanding of what activists do, our motivations, or the challenges faced in getting a fair hearing for differing points of view, due to state control of physical and institutional spaces. The general public’s view of activism has improved over the last few years, but the baseline remains suspicion. Some see any criticism of the status quo as objectionably ‘anti–Singapore’, but many more are merely indifferent or simply see this kind of engagement as a futile or poorly informed waste of time.”

She continues: “Some are quite sympathetic and interested, but I have noticed hostility and suspicion from others. At least one friend in the public service has openly admitted to concern about being seen with me in a public space.”

Going beyond the Singapore “brand”

If this is the challenge that Singapore’s activists face with our own compatriots, what more the international community?

Everything works... except when they don’t. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Everything works... except when they don’t. Photo: Stuart McDonald

I don’t expect tourists to go out of their way to probe under the surface and pay attention to all these nuances of coercion and authoritarianism in the country, especially if they’re only going to be in Singapore for a short time—it can be a real buzzkill for a holiday that’s meant to be about rest, relaxation, and fun. And it isn’t a tourist’s responsibility to become a country expert of, or activist for, every destination country. (There are also many instances in which it isn’t helpful for an outsider or newcomer to take it upon themselves to “fight for freedom” for the locals.)

Yet there are also consequences to Singapore constantly being portrayed as a tourist attraction, a playground for the rich and famous, and praised to the skies as an example for the rest of the world. When Singapore’s problems are obscured under the fog of adulation, it becomes harder to seek and build transnational solidarity, and to get people to pay attention to the struggles that exist here.

From their experience, S says that most international NGOs are aware of the authoritarianism of Singapore’s successive governments, but it can still be a challenge to get them to truly understand the context and how things work.

If there is nothing to hide ... Photo: Stuart McDonald.
If there is nothing to hide ... Photo: Stuart McDonald

“The first thing is always to try and make them understand what the context is like. I think Singapore is very unique in that sense in that you need to actually sit down and explain to people what it’s like to be in a country like this,” they say. “Like Cambodia, Myanmar, [INGOs] understand corrupt regimes, the military taking over… all these things are things that people understand quite easily. But Singapore is like… you really need to be within the country to understand it, to absorb it, to understand that you can have an efficiently–run country that has rule of law in general, and still be very stifling and restrictive of rights.”

Even so, human rights defenders who work on Singapore might still find it difficult to get the attention of international organisations. Some of this is understandable, because there are much more egregious violations happening in Southeast Asia. When there’s a literal genocide, and now a coup, going on in Burma (Myanmar), even Singaporean activists know that our cases of police harassment, or enforcement of overly restrictive laws, have to take a back seat. But continued neglect of Singapore’s problems can also mean losing chances to better appreciate tactics of subtle authoritarianism that might, and do, get adopted elsewhere.

“When you have a country within the region which is developmentally very progressive, but still keeping to regressive legal norms, it’s just existing as an example that this is allowed,” S says. Other governments look to Singapore and realise that, with the right economic incentives and more optics–friendly calibrated controls, powerful countries and organisations are willing to close an eye to authoritarian structures and practices. “So when that exists, all the other countries are like, ‘Oh yah, that’s what we aspire to as well.’”

Singaporeans have sometimes been described as birds in cages. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Singaporeans have sometimes been described as birds in cages. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Tan agrees. “Singapore actively exports its development model. The notion that we succeed without all that bothersome human rights stuff is a dangerous myth with outsize influence—think of the ‘Singapore–on–Thames’ aspiration pro–claimed in the UK. I’ve heard activists from Indonesia say that their efforts against flogging meet the objection that Singapore is such a developed country, and Singapore does it too.”

Caning isn’t the only human rights abuse that Singapore retains—our government is known to be a leading voice on the international stage arguing for the retention of the death penalty. A recent tabulation of statistics from different sources found that Singapore hanged 491 people between 1991 and 2019, most of whom would have been for drug offences. While Singapore’s continued use of capital and corporal punishment might be known abroad, I’ve often seen them mentioned by foreigners as if they were mere quirks of Singapore’s straight–laced nature, joked about alongside quips about chewing gum—“be careful in Singapore, they’ll whip you for having chewing gum!”

Best to learn from history ... or not. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Best to learn from history ... or not. Photo: Stuart McDonald

No, we won’t, and jokes like that diminish the torture and inhumanity of caning and the death penalty. If people could be more aware of what’s actually involved in floggings and executions, perhaps they wouldn’t find them so easy to dismiss.

Some governments copy directly from Singapore’s playbook. Singapore’s stellar international reputation lends our policies and legislation a veneer of legitimacy and respectability, regardless of whether or not it’s deserved, making it easy for governments to frame copycat laws as learning from the best.

Take, for example, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA. It’s a piece of legislation that was passed in 2019 to tackle misinformation and disinformation circulating online, giving government ministers the power to decide what is or isn’t a “false statement of fact”, and order corrections, take–downs, or access blocks as long as they feel it’s in the public interest to do so. Under this law, due process is turned on its head; while targets of POFMA orders are able to appeal to the courts, they can only do so after they have complied with the minister’s order, and had their appeal to the minister rejected. As pointed out from the very beginning, POFMA is a highly flexible and useful tool for governments to regulate and meddle with public discourse.

No fake times please. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
No fake times please. Photo: Stuart McDonald

After POFMA’s passage, the Philippines considered a very similar law, which has thankfully faded into the background after not gaining much traction (instead, the Philippine authorities are using old cybercrime laws to target critics and journalists). In Nigeria, efforts to pass a law that borrows heavily from POFMA triggered protests; the debates are still ongoing. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s government, in the middle of a huge crackdown on the pro–democracy movement, is also considering Singapore’s law as a model as they mull over measures to deal with “fake news”. Even if Singapore’s government, with its sensitivity to its international reputation, might only selectively exercise its wide powers, we can’t expect every copy–cat to be similarly restrained.

Are you being served?

There’s one other aspect of Singapore that isn’t very well–known, yet has an immediate impact on anyone who sets foot on our shores: our Constitution does not guarantee a right to privacy.

Singaporean police document the scene after putting out tea lights for a candlelight vigil for a death row inmate. Photo: Kirsten Han.
Singaporean police document the scene after putting out tea lights for a candlelight vigil for a death row inmate. Photo: Kirsten Han

Our government is extremely tech–optimistic; they believe all sorts of things can be made better with technology. There’s an entire office, led by a government minister, known as the Smart Nation and Digital Governance Office, whose job is “to drive pervasive adoption of digital and smart technologies throughout Singapore”.

This has led to tech “solutions” being rolled out faster than they can be properly debated, scrutinised, and considered. Singaporeans saw evidence of this earlier this year, when the minister–in–charge of this Smart Nation initiative had to stand up in Parliament and admit that, when he confidently promised citizens in June 2020 that data collected by digital contact–tracing systems would only be used for Covid19 contact–tracing, he’d actually failed to realise that Singapore’s criminal procedure code would grant law enforcement access to this information for their investigations. It was only after a public outcry that the government introduced legislation to allow the police access to this data only if it’s necessary for investigations into seven types of serious offences, like rape, kidnapping, or murder.

That’s not the end of it, though: digital contact–tracing methods are only one way in which surveillance takes place in this country. There are almost 90,000 police cameras installed across the island, with more on the way. Last October, the authorities announced that iris and facial scanning would become the primary bio–metric identifiers used for immigration clearance. “First–time foreign visitors to Singapore will need to enrol their iris, facial and fingerprint biometrics on arrival at the manual immigration counters,” the announcement said.

These measures are repeatedly sold to the Singaporean public as making our lives much simpler and more convenient. The trade–offs are much less discussed.

As we say in Singapore, “So how?”

If Singapore can be such an enigma, then what are visitors and other foreigners meant to do?

If you can’t risk protesting in person, there’s always Animal Crossing. Photo: Kirsten Han.
If you can’t risk protesting in person, there’s always Animal Crossing. Photo: Kirsten Han

People can start by not talking over Singaporeans. I’ve seen this over and over again; in the comments sections of articles about Singapore, in opeds about Singapore that don’t include (or even consider) the voices and views of Singaporeans, on social media. It goes in all directions; either loudly proclaiming that Singapore is a totalitarian police state (it isn’t), that Singapore has come up with perfect solutions (we haven’t), or that the things Singaporeans are discussing are misinformed or untrue, simply based on their own visits to the country (maybe time for the Twitter mute button).

This sort of ‘splaining can even happen with the most mundane of things: once, in a comment responding to a story I’d written. about a hawker stall that had received a Michelin star, a Guardian reader insisted that I’d got it wrong because he’d “just [got] back from Singapore” and hawker centre prices weren’t what I’d reported. This, even though my article was accompanied by a photo of the hawker stall, with its signboard and prices in full view.

Both S and Tan say that foreigners can start by getting educated about Singapore’s issues. The information is out there, after all; while Singapore might not always be hogging headlines, more overt clampdowns on civil liberties do get reported in the international press. And there’s also social media, allowing people to easily look up local voices and discussions.

All too much? You can always go fly a kite. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
All too much? You can always go fly a kite. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Most Singaporeans are fluent in English, so there’s plenty of accessible material produced by individuals and civil society organisations. Some of my favourite Singaporean Twitter follows—like @sharanvkaur and @ikanselarkuning—put together amazing threads that help even Singaporeans learn about our own country and history. Books like Air–Conditioned Nation Revisited, Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History, and Eating Chili Crab in the Anthropocene, give insight into Singapore’s society and politics, its history, and its struggle with its own ecology. Towards the end of last year, I was involved in setting up the Transformative Justice Collective to seek reform of Singapore’s criminal punishment system, including advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. Beyond that, I also run a newsletter aimed at giving people a run–down on developments in Singapore every weekend.

Taking the trouble to look under the surface can also enrich an experience. As Tan says: “Don’t cultural and historical specificities make destinations more interesting to travellers? At the very least, it is worth better understanding what it means to enjoy Singapore’s creature comforts as a tourist—and perhaps avoid the pitfall of also absorbing and reproducing its myths.”

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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