Jolovan Wham at the public forum which featured Joshua Wong as one of the speakers, through skype

The flames that burn in the heart

by Vincent Wijeysingha

I used to live in Singapore. Born and bred, I left in my twenties to study in the UK and remained for several years after.

In 2009, I returned home and, with some years of social work experience, I became involved in one or two human rights and political projects. I also taught at a local university.

One day in 2015, I was summoned to a senior manager. Without any awkwardness, entirely as a matter of course, he said “our friends” had paid him a visit and, therefore, he could no longer keep me.

The friend, I had no doubt, was the Internal Security Department, Singapore’s secret police, who have formidable powers, mostly carried over from colonial days, to torture and to imprison without trial. (Their longest detainee was held without charge or conviction more years than Nelson Mandela who had had, for all the flaws of South Africa’s detestable apartheid system, a free and fair trial in court.)

I looked for a new job and, within six months, found myself abroad, again teaching social work.

In the intervening time—some two and a half years—several of my friends came up against the Singapore police for various offences inscribed in the public order statutes.

I kept away from their troubles. I took the view that, as a matter of fair-mindedness, one should not criticise a regime from the safety of another country. And if I’m honest, I must admit to a certain petulance: if my countrymen were content in their servitude, then to what purpose my exertions on their behalf.

Suddenly, however, while cooking dinner last Thursday, I got several texts and missed calls. ‘Jolovan has been arrested’, they all said in one form or another. My self-imposed exile was interrupted.

Because Jolovan is a very dear friend.

And a fellow social worker. As with many social workers, we both—kind of—stumbled into social work, him because the enrolment line at university was the shortest, me because I was running out of options as I hit my twenties!

But social work enters the blood, alas. And for Jolovan Wham, it is his blood. The nation has watched as, over the last decade and a half, he worked incredibly hard to mainstream causes that were—are—unfashionable. Unsafe. Unwelcome. Troublesome to the powers-that-be.

Low-waged migrant workers.

Victims of sex trafficking.

Abused children.

Human rights defenders.

People discriminated for their sexuality.

And, lately, the survivors of Operation Spectrum and victims of Singapore’s death penalty.

The late British parliamentarian, Tony Benn, said his motivation across six decades of public service was the belief that two flames burned in the human heart: the flame of anger at injustice and the flame of hope that a better world is possible.

At close range, I observed those flames burn brightly in Jolovan’s heart. Indeed, they tended to illuminate my own path. And so today, almost inevitably, we find him opposite the spiteful might of the Singapore state.

For organising a discussion on democracy.

For reading a book on a train.

For holding a memorial vigil for a prisoner on death row the night before his execution.

Jolovan may go to jail. He may pay hefty fines. He may even be caned. (And make no mistake, this is not some shambling English schoolmaster tapping you on the bum with a yard rule but a thick bamboo rod intended to tear the flesh, thereby causing intense pain but no lasting injury.)

But it would be a greater tragedy—if such a tragic thing could be measured—if Singaporeans turn silently away from this horrible injustice that their government will do in their name.

This was first published on Vincent Wijeysingha’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission