by Jolovan Wham
When community worker Kokila Annamalai recently shared on Facebook the taunts, death threats, racist, and sexist abuse she had received as a result of campaigning for better food for migrant workers residing in the dormitories, it followed a familiar pattern.
I also understand that journalist and activist Kirsten Han also faced attacks of a similar nature. Such attacks seem to intensify after an accusation has been made by a Minister, as if the attackers are waiting for an order from above.
Kokila revealed that the online abuse also got worse when Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam insinuated that she was spreading falsehoods for publicising photos of poorly prepared and inadequate meals. As if on cue, the internet brigade of trolls were unleashed.
Over the years, many others have been subjected to harassment, smears, and police investigations: Leslie Chew was arrested and held in police custody for 2 days for publishing political cartoons critical of the State. Sangeetha Thanapal was questioned and issued a warning letter for her anti racism advocacy, and Terry Xu has been investigated, charged and sued for the critical pieces that The Online Citizen has published.
In 2012, when I was still the Executive Director of migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), my colleagues, friends and I from other NGOs were followed and harassed by ISD officers when we bailed out four bus drivers accused of organising a strike and starting a campaign to make their voices heard.
The government publicly accused us of making use of the four drivers for our own political ends.
Managing our fears
Such harassment strikes fear in many people interested in advocacy work. Many more are discouraged when they see others who are censured by critics for being confrontational, and are accused of ‘sowing discord’ and ‘disunity’.
Somehow, it is confrontational when activists try to speak truth to power but when the State retaliates by raiding your house, calling you up for an investigation, and confiscating your personal property for having a political opinion on social media, it is ‘rule of law’ and the police are just doing their jobs.
Over the years, I’ve been approached by students, other activists and people who want to be active but are afraid of getting into trouble. The fear is so palpable that one documentary film maker I once talked to kept looking over his shoulder unconsciously whenever he was criticising the government.
This is not uncommon and statistics bear this out: a survey conducted by Reuters in 2018, revealed that more than 60% of Singaporeans were afraid of expressing their views on politics and social issues online.
Such fears are understandable. For those of us who are interested in advocacy, it is important that we take small steps and start with actions we are more comfortable with first, and adopt an incremental approach to risk taking.
Build a network of support and stay engaged in the community: mutual support is important in movement building and when things go wrong, it is important to keep our spirits up and avoid burn out and feeling de-moralised.
Working ‘behind the scenes’ is good but not enough
At the height of the spread of COVID-19 infections among foreign workers in the dormitories, appeals were also made by some on social media for individuals to work behind the scenes, not be confrontational and channel feedback quietly: the argument was that we should unite in times of crises and not ‘fight’ publicly.
But it is precisely in times of crisis that freedom of expression should flourish so that vigorous public debate allows for public accountability. NGOs and activists are constantly told, whether there is a crisis or not, to be less confrontational. Moreover, calls for unity never question the fact that is often on the terms of those in power and inconvenient questions get swept under the carpet to preserve this ‘unity’.
There are many groups and activists who don’t wish to be confrontational because they want a seat at the table with the government and our political leaders.
In an authoritarian one party state where networks of power and influence are so tightly controlled by the government and the ruling party, and civil and political space so limited, it is understandable that we want to work with leaders who promise change if we don’t engage in public advocacy. There’s nothing wrong with a non confrontational approach per se. Engaging our leaders, building relationships with them are necessary if we want reform.
What’s problematic is that this is the prescribed way and anyone who deviates from it is punished, and stigmatised.
Closed door dialogue is a legitimate strategy which needs to be complemented by other tactics: meaningful change doesn’t come about through behind the scenes discussions with politicians and civil servants alone.
If it does, it will be at the pace the establishment is comfortable with or on issues it deems less controversial. This may take years and meanwhile, problems are allowed to fester and injustices continue unabated. Public pressure, awareness and advocacy are also just as important for change that is peopled centered and empowering.
These tactics take on more urgency precisely because it is frowned upon and we need to normalise them. Apart from the importance of practising dissent and resistance in order to open up our civic space, there are actually some positive effects, as the last few weeks have shown.
After pictures of poorly prepared food were first circulated online, the Ministry of Manpower made assurances that they would look into the issue. Consistent public pressure from NGOs such as HOME, TWC2, and Centre for Culture Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) and other individual activists made the wellbeing of the workers affected by COVID-19 such a concern that the government felt compelled to regularly update the public on the measures they were taking to ensure that more was being done to take care of the workers.
Even though Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Zulkifli Masagos publicly rebuked petitioners for campaigning against the ban on home business owners to operate during this period, it resulted in a concession by the government shortly after when their operations were included in an announcement about circuit breaker adjustments, and that home businesses could operate for delivery/collection from next week onwards.
While these are little tweaks, imagine the change that can be created together if more citizens and NGOs engaged in public advocacy?
Staying united despite our differences
In the past weeks, there has been criticism in some quarters that the Ministry of Manpower was favouring some NGOs over others on who it wanted to include in an inter-agency task force to assist the workers affected by Covid-19.
Questions were raised over why HOME and TWC2 were excluded when their contributions and experience were relevant. These questions were meant to raise the point that advocacy organisations were excluded because the government has categorised them as ‘bad activists’ whereas the others were ‘good activists’.
It is important that these questions are asked but at the same time, we should not allow the government’s divide and rule strategy to affect our solidarity. I can understand why many groups and activists avoid public advocacy: the risks and costs may be too high for them.
But solidarity doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s strategies or even agree with one another. Solidarity means that when NGOs are sidelined, or when an activist is criticised or harassed, you don’t talk about them as if they were a cautionary tale in ‘what not to do in activism’, or accuse them of or not playing it ‘smart’. Ask instead, why such harassment is happening in the first place, and why our government and its leaders are allowed to abuse their power.
Recently, when two young people went on climate strike and became targets of police investigation, some NGOs and individuals did not want to sign a solidarity statement urging the government to cease investigations. The reason they gave was that the youths were not being ‘strategic’.
We may not agree on tactics but that shouldn’t stop us from uniting against State harassment. Solidarity means that when an injustice happens to a NGO or an individual, you speak up for them to those in power, even if not publicly if you cannot afford the risks, but through private communication.
Do it because your solidarity is important to hold those who abuse their power to account. Whatever issues that we care about: whether it is women’s rights, migrants rights, the environment, or poverty, we will all benefit from living in a society which values freedom of expression.
Expressing our disagreement with those in power and showing support for those who are persecuted is the first step we can take to reclaim our space.
There is no single way for social and political change to happen. Everyone has their own personalities, strengths and weaknesses. I have always found Bill Moyer’s Four Roles of Social Activism and his book ‘Doing Democracy’ useful for anyone who wants to start out in civil society work and effect change both individually and organisationally.
In Moyer’s framework, activists can be divided into helpers, reformers, organisers and rebels, and each of us can play our roles positively or negatively. Understanding where each of us sits on the spectrum helps us clarify how change happens and the different roles required to get to where we want.