Getting the Chills: Activism & the Politics of Fear in Singapore

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‘What is the worst that could happen? They’re not gonna jail me!’

Not so long ago, in 2012, I naïvely and stubbornly insisted to my anxious parents that getting involved in civil society activism in Singapore was no longer a frightening prospect. ‘We’re not breaking any laws,’ I insisted. Drafting statements, conducting research, advocating policy change, writing letters to the newspapers, blogging—that’s hardly radical.

‘You’re a mother now,’ they pleaded. ‘Think of your child.’

That statement grated, at the time—it seemed like unwarranted overreaction. Plus, I was thinking of my child, and the kind of country I wanted him to grow up in.

Four years later, I’m not writing this from a jail cell, bankrupt and bereft, but the prospect is no longer as ludicrous as I’d thought it would be. It’s much easier to break the law than you’d think, when laws surrounding our civil liberties and freedom of expression keep shifting, and are not just restrictive, but simultaneously vague enough to include—and thereby curtail—a broad range of activities.[i]

It doesn’t even have to involve a physical presence (such as participating in what the state deems an ‘illegal assembly’). As a writer, and a blogger (albeit an infrequent one), I could have penned a commentary on an ongoing case of public interest, only to have it judged as contemptuous of court. I could have written an article involving a politician, and have it deemed defamatory. I could have published a Facebook post—as an individual, to my FB friends only—in support of an electoral candidate on Cooling Off Day, and have my home raided by a barrage of unidentified police officers without a search warrant, my personal electronic devices seized and taken apart, because it is, apparently, an ‘arrestable offence’.

Now, I realize that the amorphous fear that gripped my parents, which I dismissed as irrational and disproportionate, was not just that I’d get thrown into prison (at one extreme), it was their belief that being an open and public critic of the status quo creates ‘trouble’. It could make life in Singapore unnecessarily onerous, not just for that person but for that person’s family—and why would anyone, much less someone who led a comfortable life, want to trade that ease for anything lesser?

Last Saturday, at the event ‘Let’s Talk: Poverty and Social Inequality in Singapore’, Yeoh Lam Keong—former chief economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation and Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy—was asked by an audience member from Hong Kong why it was that when she was overseas she only heard the ‘good stuff’. She noted: ‘The news is always good about Singapore … how do we find out more about the issues I am hearing about today?’ Yeoh replied:

We only hear good news because we have the most efficient system in the world I have ever seen for self-censorship. It is managed by the government, but it is implemented by you and I, all of us, we don’t dare say certain things. We don’t dare say certain things because it has direct repercussions for our careers, for our business prospects, for our clients, for our government contracts, etc. etc., and you know exactly what I mean, right? Because this is one of the most efficient authoritarian regimes I’ve seen … we call it market-based authoritarianism. Market-based because the government doesn’t have to do much, they do one or two things, they set the price, and everyone polices themselves ….It is a system even more efficient than Eastern Europe’s, because there is so much more money at stake. So until we break this market-based authoritarianism, you’ll never hear enough news, we’ll never get enough ideas, we’ll never know what to do, the government will never give us enough information to have a serious discussion about policy alternatives, there will not be the forums or debates for that.

‘etc. etc., and you know exactly what I mean right?’ You may have heard the whispers and the murmurs? The employment contracts that don’t get renewed, or are delayed, month after month; the visas that don’t get approved (no specific reason granted); the withdrawal of funding; the rescinding of awards; the amending of invitation lists; the behind-the-scenes beration from a boss or board of directors. These whisperings and their circulation are major currency in a system that trades on fear, a fear grounded in practical day-to-day concerns.

For those who’ve missed out on the news, here’s a summary: On 27 May 2016, an unnamed Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) from the Elections Department (ELD), a department in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), filed police reports against two individuals and one socio-political site for possible breaches of Cooling Off Day and Polling Day laws. The ARO alleges that the two individuals, Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng, as well as the site, The Independent Singapore, published articles and postings that may be ‘tantamount to election advertising’. This is prohibited on both Cooling Off Day and Polling Day, ‘as this campaign silence period is meant to give voters time to reflect rationally on issues raised before going to the polls’.

Teo and Ngerng were summoned to the Cantonment Police Complex for an interview/interrogation on Tuesday, 31 May. To their surprise, after their interviews, the police told them they had to hand over their mobile phones, and that their homes would be raided and their personal electronic devices such as laptops and hard drives, would be seized. Teo was told that if she refused to hand over her items, she would be arrested. About seven to eight police officers, who did not have a search warrant, brought Teo back to her home to search her home and seize her things. It was, in Teo’s own words, a ‘terrifying’ and ‘ugly experience’. Ngerng was not allowed to speak to a lawyer present at the police station and not only had his home raided and items seized, had to return to the police station after. He was also asked for ‘all my passwords to access my phone, my laptop, and my Facebook and my WordPress accounts’. The police downloaded his Facebook archives. In total, it was an eight hour ordeal.

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The Election Department’s website states that individuals who transmit personal political views to other individuals, ‘on a non-commercial basis, using the Internet, telephone or electronic means’ are exempt from this ruling. Yet Teo and Ngerng were hauled up, with the ELD’s only ‘explanation’ being that they are individuals who ‘regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues’. Is this now an arrestable offence too? Last I read, Ravi Philemon and Kumaran Pillai, who are involved with The Independent Singapore, have also been questioned by the police, their personal items also seized.

I am not, by any means, a prominent activist/academic/writer/blogger. As the mother of two young children who also works part-time, my ‘contributions’ these days are peripheral, confined to supporting other activists in limited ways—signing statements, a small donation, sharing news on Facebook (armchair activist? guilty as charged!). Yet I feel the chill, a resurgence of paranoia about who’s listening to my conversations, perusing my group chats, scanning my writing and research, then fastidiously adding the data to ‘my file’. What are they searching for? What is useful for them and how will I/those I converse with be implicated? When?

Poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, on 2 June 2016, published a Facebook post after he had coffee with Teo Soh Lung. After Soh Lung mentioned a desire to trek across the Himalayas, Sa’at described his ‘mental image of Soh Lung swathed in cloaks and holding a trekking stick. And there is a blizzard swirling around her but she keeps on walking. It is a postcard of what her life has been’. Sa’at goes on to talk about the ‘chilling effect’ of police raids and seizures, and how sometimes we may avoid those affected, afraid that ‘we’ll bring the winter back to our homes’. He urges us to do the opposite, to band together. He concludes:

For too long the ones who have been standing up to oppression have been lone individuals of extraordinary courage and conviction. But we can also make a difference just by being a little less afraid. But there must be many of us. Because then this is how fear dissipates. It is the combined warmth of the many that will keep out the crippling cold.

The events of the past week have been destabilizing, though it’s hard to ascertain just how broad a swathe of the population has felt its tremors just yet. Public and disproportionate police raids and seizures appear designed to scare, to browbeat into submission the ‘recalcitrant’, to remind those who’ve yet to stick their necks out to lay low, stay safe. I am no more wiser now than before about how best to ‘overcome the fear’, which is tangible; activism, particularly if you champion controversial and politically sensitive causes in this country, has consequences. All I know is that what happened was grossly unjust, and I feel compelled to publicly state this. I am still searching, tentatively, instinctively, for a way to generate some ‘combined warmth’, and I embrace the hope that many others will too.

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‘When the Police Gets Hold of Your Facebook’, by Kirsten Han

‘Singaporean Activists Harassed by Police for ‘Breaching’ Election Rules’, by Kirsten Han

‘Teo Soh Lung Visibly Shaken From Police Raid Involving 7‑8 Officers Without Search Warrant’, The Online Citizen—the article includes videos and comments by lawyers present

‘Covering the Cooling Off Day Investigations’, by Kirsten Han

Statement by International Commission of Jurists (ICJ): ‘End Harassment of Bloggers in Singapore’

To read Roy Ngerng’s account of his ordeal, click here.

To read Teo Soh Lung’s FB post on what happened, click here.

To read Alfian Sa’at’s post, click here.

Community Action Network’s (CAN) Statement: ‘Cease All Investigations Against Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng’

FORUM-ASIA’s Statement: Singapore—Stop Harassing Online Activists and Curbing Online Freedom’

To sign the petition, Cease All Investigations Against Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng’, click here.


[i] In Cherian George’s Singapore Advocacy Awards Lecture (July 2015), titled ‘Free Speech—A Selfish and Irresponsible Right?’, he talks about the ‘3-part test’ for restrictions on freedom of expression: 1) Are the restrictions based on ‘written laws that are clear and precise’? If not, they fail the test, because it then allows persons in power to ‘restrict speech in an arbitrary manner, according to their own interests’; 2) Are the restrictions based on legitimate grounds?; 3) Are these restrictions necessary and proportionate? Read the full speech here.