Here's My Story #1: Social worker and human rights activist Jolovan Wham recounts his run-ins with the state
Out and proud
Growing up...in an English-speaking, middle-class family. I was very sheltered with very little exposure to the rest of society. I have four siblings, and I was born the third out of five children. My family has always been supportive, so I didn't feel unloved when I was a child.
Coming out...wasn't an issue, though. They eventually realised that I was gay. I know they're not happy about it, but I suppose they have probably reached a stage in their life where they have accepted who I am. I've been very fortunate and privileged that my parents have never told me what I had to do. Even if they were not happy about my homosexuality, they never did anything to force me to be straight. There were no shouting matches, and there wasn't any anger, or recriminations.
The Internet...had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager in the 1990s, in terms of the kind of ideas that I was exposed to. I was interested in social issues like animal welfare, and vegetarianism — I was a vegetarian for about 5 years. I was also questioning gender norms. As a gay effeminate man, I stood out from the crowd. People teased and made fun of me. A lot of material that I found online such as African-American writer Bell Hooks' feminist theories gave me a critical perspective of mainstream society, and helped me find my place in it.
National Service...opened up my eyes a little bit and exposed me to different things. I was an infantry rifleman. Yes, I participated in outfield exercises and it was really butch. I didn't form any deep friendships with anyone while serving in the arm, but I don't regret the experience. It did test me on a couple of levels. I was teased because I refused to conform to masculine standards of behavior. There was a language barrier as well. Most of them spoke Hokkien, and I spoke Teochew, so I never truly fit in.
My goal...was to go into the disabilities sector to serve especially those that were intellectually disabled, because I felt that they were one of the most disempowered people in society, so I enrolled at the National University of Singapore to pursue social work. With no prior volunteer experience, the course did equip me with some useful skills, but school didn't teach me to think critically, even though it was supposedly one of the best universities in Asia. I recall participating in a small group discussion. There were no more than 10 people in the room. I remember a couple of them: former treasurer of The Workers' Party Yaw Shin Leong and former politician James Gomez.
26 November 2016: He organised a public assembly without permit at The Agora on the third storey of Midview City shopping Mall, which featured Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-Fung
The idea to have a public forum was decided by a group that I was a part of, called "Community Action Group". We formed this group when the whole Amos Yee saga exploded. We wanted to promote freedom of expression.
It was one of the members of the Community Action Group who got in touch with Joshua and invited him to speak. I helped create a Facebook event page to publicise the talk. It might look like I did everything as I am the one being charged, but this was something that the collective conceived.
The lesson we can learn from what Joshua achieved in Hong Kong is the power of people. I admire Hong Kong's society. Even though they are structurally not democratic, they have a very strong democratic culture.
This case is still ongoing, so I'll be appealing the conviction. What I did was pretty harmless, so I believe that the state's decision to charge is an over reaction.
3 June 2017: In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum— an alleged 1987 internal security operation in which 22 activists were arrested for being Marxists attempting to overthrow the government — he organised a silent performative assembly on the North-South MRT line.
Eight or nine of us were involved in that. I felt it was important to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Operation Spectrum in a meaningful and visually arresting manner. Operation Spectrum scared everyone. Civil society went into some sort of paralysis. It was like the dark ages of activism. That fear continues to reverberate till today. We wanted to remind people that 30 years ago, for no rhyme or reason the government decided to arrest these people, torture them, and detain them without trial and then force them into submission and silence. They never had justice, and the government continues to deny it.
We took the North-South train, from Marina Bay up to Sembawang. The whole thing took about an hour. No one stopped us. There was no public disorder, and no one took pictures of us. People probably thought that it was some kind of social experiment, or performance art. I also felt that it was important to get out of Hong Lim Park, because Hong Lim Park is a human rights joke. Why should I be confined to that space? Our rights have been so restricted to the extent, where even taking a photo outside the court — which was what I did — is grounds for investigation.
13 July 2017: He organised a vigil without a permit outside Change Prison Complex in honour of Malaysian drug offender Prabagaran Srivijayan's judicial execution.
This event was co-organized by me and at least two other people. (By now, I hope you can see that even though I co-organized a lot of these events, the state has decided to charge me alone.) We put a picture of him on the fence of the prison, and we lighted some candles. The family came, said a few prayers, and observed silence. That was it. Then, the police came and told us to clear our things. We were very obedient, so we cleared everything. We asked if we could still hang around and they said "yes, as long as you don't start lighting up candles". Then, we just hung out at the bus stop. The issue was that it was an unlicensed public assembly, but assemblies have been organized outside of the prison many times before. This wasn't the first time.
28 August 2018: He met with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, along with journalist Kirsten Han, historian PJ Thum and graphic novelist Sonny Liew.
PJ Thum asked if I would like to attend a meeting with Mahathir. I said yes, and didn't think much about it. In my mind, I thought I'll be in this huge room with plenty of other people and I'll be taking notes quietly in the corner, because I had nothing to say about Singapore-Malaysia relations.
When we arrived at his foundation, I realised that it would only be just the few of us. I remember asking PJ to lead the discussion at first, but it turned out I had a lot to say. Mahathir was spouting all these reactionary and regressive views, so I had to counter them. I have to say he was always sharp throughout the friendly conversation. He said things that were already public knowledge.
Then, when it was found out that we went there, the narrative was skewed. It got twisted, because there's a very narrow sense of what patriotism is. Do you think the meeting would have resulted in a cut in our water supply? It was blown out of proportion, but it was done deliberately to discredit PJ because they were not happy with his historical activism. I never thought that meeting was going be useful or purposeful. It was purely political tourism.
29 April 2019: He was fined $5,000 for scandalising Singapore's judiciary system in a Facebook post dated 27 April 2017. The post — which has been deleted — stated that Singapore's courts were not as independent as Malaysia's with regards to cases with political implications.
Malaysia's government had decided to enact an anti-fake news law, so the news portal Malaysiakini challenged that law, saying that it went against the constitutional right of freedom of expression. When I read that news, I commented on FB that Malaysian judges are more independent than Singapore's in regards to these kinds of cases. I had been doing research on constitutional challenges in Malaysia and I had read some judgments where the judges had ruled against the state and upheld freedom of speech. I admit that I may be wrong. I'm not legal scholar; I'm a lay person with a point of view. If I'm wrong, then say I'm wrong. Why do you have to charge me? I simply made a comparison. Can't I have an opinion on the judiciary? I didn't incite violence or harm, and I didn't even impugn the integrity of the judiciary in any way. It's political persecution.
I've been asked if I ever think twice about my actions, considering the repeated actions taken against me by the state. If I have to live having to think constantly about what's going to happen to me, I'll be perpetuating this culture of fear and self-censorship. I don't want to live my life like that.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of the editor and publication.