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Koh Jee Leong in front of the Singapore Consulate in New York on Oct 9, 2018. In tribute to Seelan Palay's original art performance, the mirror reads "Interrogation of the Mirror 2." Source: Koh Jee Leong/Singapore Unbound

Literary NGO Singapore Unbound calls upon Singaporean writers to condemn artist Seelan Palay’s imprisonment

New York City-based literary non-profit Singapore Unbound has called upon Singaporean writers to explicitly condemn and to petition against the imprisonment of artist Seelan Palay, which it has deemed to be "an attack on free speech."

Founder Koh Jee Leong declared in a public statement on Monday (22 Oct) that "the right is enshrined not only in the European and American Conventions on Human Rights, but also in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights," suggesting that freedom of speech and expression are not an exclusively "Western" domain.

"Newly freed from colonial domination, Singapore, along with other newly independent nations, also enshrined free speech in its Constitution. The Singapore Constitution states that “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression” and that “all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.

"However, this present government has been steadily eroding the rights of Singaporean citizens by expanding colonial-era restrictions on free speech and assembly. A free people, sovereigns of their own persons and of their own nation, should be able to speak freely, without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction," he argued.

Mr Koh, a poet, stressed that "free speech is essential to the proper functioning of democracy," and that citizens of a democratic society should not be fully reliant on "free and regular elections."

"For democracy to function at its best, the political culture must consist of the values, practices, and norms of free information, vigorous debate, and respect for opposing views. Free speech is both a vital democratic value, practice, and norm, and a vital ingredient in other democratic values, practices, and norms. A free press, for instance, is dependent on the idea of free speech," Mr Koh illustrated.

He also argued that "free speech stimulates a culture in which imaginative freedom thrives."

"When writers and artists are consumed by the need to look over their shoulders, or by the need to isolate and protect themselves from a toxic culture, they cannot devote their full energies to producing their best work.

"In Singapore, the award and withdrawal of state grants spells out what novelists can and cannot write about. The banning of alternative narratives renders chroniclers ignorant of their past. The immigration of disenfranchised poets abroad lowers general morale.

"Local writers, editors, and publishers labor heroically to produce a self-confident, self-regarding, self-critical literature, but their efforts are radically undermined by state policies of political repression and economic instrumentalism," said Mr Koh.

As a Singapore citizen himself, Mr Koh acknowledged that "for writers to condemn publicly Seelan Palay’s conviction involves a certain amount of risk, given the nature of the present governance, and that in contrast, Singapore Unbound is "calling for such action from the relative safety of New York City."

He maintains, however, that Singapore Unbound "cannot have the same effect as writers based in Singapore can have," adding that "different writers have different exposures to risk" even within Singapore.

Thus, for that very reason, he said, the organisation urges Singaporean writers to "re-assess their risk in the light of the injustice done against fellow artist Seelan Palay, of the state of democracy in Singapore, and of the intrinsic value of human freedom."

Noting an incident from Singapore Writers Festival's tribute to poet and teacher Lee Tzu Pheng last year, he recalled how renowned playwright Alfian Sa’at "spoke movingly of how Dr Lee encouraged him to publish his controversial verse and then reviewed his book in the Straits Times in a way that shielded him from accusations of using poetry as a vehicle of dissent, even sedition."

Quoting Mr Alfian, Mr Koh wrote:

"And today, in the same spirit of speaking up for fellow writers," Mr Alfian said, he highlighted the disturbing pattern of academics and writers being blackballed apparently for engaging in activism or writing critically of the government.

It was a powerful tribute to the influence of Dr. Lee, who said to Mr. Alfian after the event, "Thank you for standing up. If writers are to survive we must stand up for something."

Mr Koh warned that despite Seelan's release from prison on October 16, "his conviction and imprisonment remains on his personal records," and that "the consequences, moreover, go beyond one person."

He added: "Mr. Palay’s conviction and imprisonment will retain a chilling effect on Singaporean society and discourse, unless many people speak up against it. Writers can take the lead in doing so, using the many platforms that they have.

"In the closing of his tribute to Dr Lee, Mr Alfian issued a clarion call: “Even as we are celebrating, at the Singapore Writers Festival, our freedom to write and express ourselves, there are others who are penalised for exercising those same freedoms. And I ask that we all stand in solidarity with them,” he concluded.