On Sunday (22 December), civil rights activist Jolovan Wham took to his Facebook to point out and question the possibilities of migrant workers in Singapore to write articles of critical nature as they face the risk of deportation.
In his post, he shared an article by the Straits Times (ST) titled “Major writing competitions in Singapore should allow migrant workers to take part: Panel”.
In ST’s report, it talked about how a panel at the Migrant Literature Festival (MLF) opined that major writing competitions in the Republic, like the Singapore Literature Prize and the Golden Point Award, can encourage talented migrant workers to accept their writing works.
This is because, at the moment, these renowned competitions are only opened to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.
The panellists who spoke at MLF on Saturday (22 December) also discussed about offering language or other writing courses to migrant workers, get translators to translate their work written in their mother tongue to English as well as urge local writers to volunteer a few hours to conduct writing workshops for them.
Risk of deportation due to critical writing
Commenting on this, Mr Wham wrote in his post that ST’s article failed to cover a major issue that was highlighted during the discussion at MLF. The issue is “self censorship”, said the activist.
“One of the panellists remarked whether the writers, many of whom are blue collar workers, might explore other forms of writing, eg satire, in their works,” Mr Wham explained.
He added that this prompted playwright Alfian Sa’at to ask the likelihood for such writing given that “freedom of speech is limited in Singapore”.
This is because foreigners face the risk of deportation if they write on sensitive topics, Mr Wham said. He added that even journalists, academics and artists have been affected before.
For instance, rights group ThinkCentre,org shared an article by Simon Burns under Human Rights Watch in 2006, that talked about a popular blogger called Mr Brown (original name Lee Kin Mun) who was suspended as a part-time columnist at a local newspaper after the Government complained about one of his articles.
It appeared that Lee wrote about the rising cost of living in Singapore, hinted that high prices might have been held back due to elections, and poked fun at plans for high-tech cashless society.
Due to his article, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts sent a critical letter to the newspaper, which resulted in the paper suspending Lee’s weekly column.
Separately, academic Cherian George gave his side of the story in his blog about his forced departure from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2014. The University said that the journalism professor was forced to leave as he was unable to meet its academic standards.
Former NTU president Bertil Andersson said that the decision to deny Dr George tenure was solely an academic decision, and not a political one as the professor had been critical of the Government.
Explaining this, Dr George said in his blog: “As for why the university took the exceptional step of withholding tenure from a faculty member who it decided had earned promotion, I will only say that I was assured categorically that this had nothing to do with my research and scholarship, teaching or service, and also not because I had conducted myself inappropriately in any way”.
He also said that “the handful of decision-makers who have made it impossible for me to continue on the academic track in Singapore have no say over my sense of belonging to my country or my vocation”.
“That power resides instead in those whom I care about and respect, like the many, many friends, professional peers, students, fellow citizens and strangers who spoke up and reached out”.
Lack of rights for foreign workers
In Mr Wham’s Facebook post, he noted that upon hearing Mr Alfian’s question of migrant workers writing satirical article, a comment was made that “freedom of expression is a problem for everyone, not just migrants,” the activist wrote.
“It was revealed during the discussion that some of the migrant writers were hesitant about describing the exploitation they experienced in their works for fear of running afoul of our laws,” he added.
Mr Wham explained, “MOM regulations forbid workers from engaging in ‘undesirable activities’. This is how vague and arbitrary the laws are”.
As such, Mr Wham said one of the panellists and publisher Kenny Leck of Books Actually suggested that these migrant workers should publish their work under a respected publisher. This is so they can get “an institutional shield”.
However, Mr Wham pointed out that he is not sure if this method will be effective as well. This is because the Government doesn’t need a reason to deport a migrant worker, and it does not even have to justify itself, Mr Wham pointed out.
“Most people just shrug their shoulders when this happens and treat such incidents as cautionary tales. Instead of collectively resisting, they are seen as lessons in how to ‘negotiate’ boundaries,” the activist noted.