When reading about Mr Jolovan Wham’s run-in with the law, it is easy to react by decrying our government’s heavy-handed approach to regulating public disorder. Some of the charges slapped on Mr Wham seem unreasonable: He has been charged with one count of vandalism for sticking pieces of paper to the wall of an MRT train, and a violation of the Public Order Act for inviting Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong democracy advocate, to speak at an event over Skype without a permit. A first-time violation of the Public Order Act is punishable by fines of up to $3,715.
But instead of reflexively responding to this episode, it would be better to take this opportunity to reflect on whether civil disobedience, no matter how benign, is effective in our country. If it is not, then free speech activists would be well-served by acting within the ambit of the law.
I consider myself a faint-hearted supporter of free speech. That is to say, intractable claims about fundamental rights and liberties do not interest me — the rancour which has come to characterise social discourse in the West has inflicted considerable psychological harms on communities who have borne the brunt of hate speech and political polemics. The alternative, however, would be to let the government define the permissible contours of “free” speech; to let it strangulate civil society and suppress anti-establishment voices. This may work in the short run, given the dual conditions of an extremely competent government and a very narrow set of national concerns. But these conditions are exceptional: A new, less competent, generation of leaders will be met with a dearth of external opposition, leading to gradual institutional decay. And when people have come to rely on the government to set the agenda, it becomes hard to have meaningful conversations about broadening our value-systems and national priorities.
The important question to ask, therefore, is whether civil disobedience in Singapore can effect meaningful social change, or if it does nothing but encourages further restrictions on expression. Unfortunately, it tends to be the latter. Civil disobedience works by revealing the injustice of law; when activists are dragged off the streets by police for sitting in the “whites-only” section of a restaurant, or innocent civilians are harassed for participating in an independence march, people eventually come to recognise that the law itself must be changed. But this only works if Singaporeans perceive, or eventually come to perceive, our regulations on free speech to be unjustified. All evidence suggests that Singaporeans do not: We couldn’t care less about mythical rights to speak freely. Even when we do care, our concern is superseded by more pragmatic desires. How many of us would write to our MPs about Mr Wham’s treatment? Or petition for change? Simply put, the unease we feel when hearing about stories like these does not translate into tangible political pressure.
Dr Chee Soon Juan, known for civil disobedience early on in his political career, has come to recognise this reality. In the past, Dr Chee would engage in protests like a hunger strike to protest his “unfair” dismissal by the National University of Singapore. In his own words, he admitted that his acts of civil disobedience led him to be perceived as a “near-psychopath” when he first ran for office. Indeed, Dr Chee was never able to gain more support than his estranged mentor, Mr Chiam See Tong, nor has the Singapore Democracy Party (SDP) been able to supplant the Workers’ Party as the leading opposition force. Today, Dr Chee has rehabilitated his public image somewhat. He plays by the rules, and has cast himself as a more mature and considered political actor. Mothership.sg called him a “quotable quote-machine” at the 2015 General Elections, and the SDP’s rallies consistently trended on social media. Time will tell if this new strategy will reap quantifiable dividends, but it is clear that it has a better chance of succeeding than brash civil disobedience.
Since most Singaporeans don’t perceive existing regulations on free speech to be unjustified, if we want to encourage more people to participate actively in social conversation — the bedrock of any thriving civil society — then we need to show how this participation can be a legal and normal part of everyday behaviour. This is evidenced by the success of events like Pink Dot, which have strived to abide by government regulations on foreign sponsorship and the use of Hong Lim Park. When Pink Dot was first held in 2009, it was estimated that 2,500 turned up. In 2017, an estimated 20,000 people attended the event. Pink Dot has succeeded because it isn’t seen as “edgy”, or an event organised by anti-establishment elements with a history of antagonising the state. It’s just a nice day out with friends, in support of a meaningful cause.
Activists like Mr Wham might claim that this model of civic engagement — fastidiously playing by the rules — depends on the largesse of the Singapore government. If the state decided to remove the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, or prosecute online dissidents with renewed fervour, civil society would be crushed under the bootheel of authoritarianism. And that is true. Just because following the law is the best means to enact social change doesn’t mean that the law ought to be there in the first place. However, what these activists forget is that a staggering majority of Singaporeans trust our government. This is a fact. We do not regard our leaders with the kind of Madisonian distrust which characterises liberal Western democracies. This does not mean that people are brainwashed: It merely means that for the average Singaporean, their interaction with the state has been a largely positive one. Ours is a brand of authoritarianism that only starts chafing when you stick your neck too far out of line.
Like it or not, ideological free speech activists need the majority of Singaporeans on their side. Without popular support, stunts such as Mr Wham’s MRT protest will be, at best, seen as a minor annoyance, and at worse, perceived by the government as a demonstration that the people cannot be trusted with regulating their own discourse. This does not mean we cannot have discussions on highly controversial issues. Last year, I attended a screening of the movie 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy. It told the story of Operation Spectrum, where 22 people are arrested by Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) and accused of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy”. The victims were detained without trial, and they alleged that ISD officers put them through inhumane interrogation procedures. The movie was screened legally at The Projector; it was rated R21, so I was sure to bring along my ID for verification purposes. We weren’t harassed by the police, and got to speak to the director of the movie and some ex-detainees after the screening.
That’s the type of civic engagement that may encourage more Singaporeans to be politically aware, and active in seeking out controversial issues within our society. When free speech — and consequently, being a vocal citizen — is not tainted by the overhang of criminality, that’s when more people are willing to have conversations that we as a society sorely need. I sympathise with Mr Wham; his heart is in the right place. However, he is no martyr for free speech. Civil disobedience, along with speech acts of slander and defamation, is what drives the government to clamp down harder on expression. If we are to persuade our fellow countrymen and our government that we can responsibly exercise our right to free speech without contravening the law — no matter how unjustified we think the law is — that’s when we become more effective agents of change. It may feel unfair that we have to play by the rules set by the government, but if we don’t, then be ready to get played by the rules.