Historian Thum Ping Tjin says Singapore’s laws are made broad to “make all public expression of any opinion illegal”

On Tuesday (17 September), Singaporean historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin took to his Facebook to state that the country’s laws are created to be extremely broad in order to “effectively make all public expression of any opinion illegal”.

His post was referring to an incident involving Mohammad Nafiz Kamarudin who was disallowed by the Yellow Ribbon Project Singapore from participating in the Prison Run 2019 on Sunday (15 September) because he appeared at the event wearing an anti-death penalty T-shirt.

The T-shirt had “2nd chances means not killing them” printed on the front, and “#antideathpenalty” printed on the back.

“So they did not allow me to run, despite being clear on their site that runners can use any other tops than their official t-shirt. First they told me I need to change my bib. Now they want to police me on what to wear,” Mr Nafiz wrote in a Facebook post.

As such, he said that he will not participate in the event but will run parallel with them.

In an earlier post, Mr Nafiz highlighted that the organiser contacted him last week to request him to change his bib as the message written on it “is not in line with the cause”. At first, the organiser didn’t have any problem when they printed the same anti-death penalty slogan on his bib, instead of his name. However, they later changed their mind and asked him to change his bib with one that bears his name.

Mr Nafiz told TOC that after rejecting the request from different staff from the organisation to change his bib, he finally agreed to do it as he planned to wear a T-shirt with the same message on the day.

After exchanging his bib, a staff even told him that he can appear at the race with any T-shirt of his choice. But, he was still denied the permission to participate in the race.

In fact, a police report was made against him and his wife, who also attended the race adorning the same T-shirt, due to Sunday’s incident.

In a press statement released on Tuesday (17 September), the Singapore Police Force (SPF) did not identify the couple but stated that they are “investigating a 38-year-old Singaporean man and a 30-year-old Singaporean woman for offences under the Public Order Act.”

The statement added, “It is a criminal offence under the Public Order Act to take part in a public assembly or procession without a police permit. Investigations against the duo are ongoing.”

Mr Nafiz went through a two-hour interview at Bedok Police Station yesterday and his wife will be going for her interview today.

When Mr Nafiz went in for his police interview yesterday, New Naratif editor-in-chief Kirsten Han told that she was “almost not allowed into the police station”.

Mentioning this in a Facebook post, Ms Han said that her team was told at the police station’s registration gate that the Investigation Officer (IO) instructed that no one should be allowed in.

“I asked what authority they had to disallow a citizen from sitting in the waiting room of the police station, but didn’t get an answer. We called but couldn’t get connected to the IO. But they did eventually give me a visitor’s pass,” she wrote.

Dr Thum’s view on the matter

Referring to this whole saga, Dr Thum who is also the managing director of New Naratif, said that this incident is “an example of how systemic oppression works in Singapore.”

“First, self-censorship: you are pressured to voluntarily not express your opinion. Then, marginalisation: if you refuse to self-censor, you are excluded and made invisible. Third, intimidation: if you insist on being visible, Singapore laws are so broad as to effectively make all public expression of any opinion illegal,” he wrote.

He added that based on this way, oppression can be excused under “rule of law”.

Although Dr Thum opines that Mr Nafiz will most likely no face prosecution as it “would cross a line and make the authoritarianism too clear-cut”, but he feels that the bigger problem here is the fear and intimidation that is being disseminated to the wider population so that they don’t utter an opinion that is different from the government officials.

“And the crucial aspect – the real tragedy – is that all this happens not because of a directive from those in power, but merely out of fear and caution by those in middle management,” he said.

He continued, “Authoritarianism today is far more sophisticated than jack-booted thugs. It’s boring, bureaucratic, and administrative.”