by Teo Soh Lung
I was in the spanking new state of the art Court No. 32A of the State Courts on 15 February 2021 where Jolovan Wham was sentenced to pay a total of $8000 or in default 32 days in prison.
It was utterly absurd and incredible that he should be penalised so heavily for peaceful acts of civil disobedience which in any other country, including developing countries, would not have batted an eyelid.
It was even more bizarre listening to the prosecution baying for blood, and the judge taking in everything as gospel truth.
Jolovan was charged for organising an “unlawful assembly” in 2017 on trains running along the North South line.
A small group of young people held the book ‘1987 SINGAPORE’S MARXIST CONSPIRACY 30 YEARS ON‘ during their train rides. They were photographed standing or seated with or without blindfolds made from black plastic strips of trash bags.
At some point in time, two A4 sheets were scotch taped to a glass panel of a carriage. The words on the papers were “MARXIST CONSPIRACY? #notodetentionwithouttrial” and “JUSTICE FOR OPERATION SPECTRUM SURVIVORS #notodetentionwithouttrial“.
These papers were immediately removed when they left the trains.
What is so wrong with such an activity on our trains? Are commuters not permitted to read or perform on trains? They were not inconveniencing anyone even though the prosecution and judge would like to believe that they had inconvenienced some commuters.
Jolovan and his friends were clearly inspired by the survivors of Operation Spectrum who had a few weeks earlier, commemorated the 30th Anniversary of the 1987 incident with the launch of the book. The book was published to place on record what actually happened in 1987. The book contains essays about the incident written by survivors, their friends, and supporters.
The Government may wish to forget the grave injustice done to 24 people in the 1987 incident. This incident is not in its official history. Unfortunately, many of the victims are still alive and well today. They have managed to arouse the curiosity of young people like Jolovan and Seelan Palay who not only did their own research about the incident but took upon themselves to publicise it so that it is not erased from the collective memory of Singaporeans. They have paid the heavy price of going to jail.
I can think of no country in the world where peaceful assemblies and protests are disallowed by law on the pretext that such assemblies would result in chaos and bloodshed.
What is even more deplorable in Singapore is the law that even one person is not permitted to stand with a placard or perform in public without a police permit (which incidentally will never be granted), and certain areas in the city are out of bound to any person who wish to publicise a cause.
When the law disallows peaceful expressions, and the judiciary’s duty is merely to administer such a law, what can a person do to bring attention to his cause or unhappiness? Hold a placard in the middle of government sanctioned Hong Lim Park?
Pushed to a corner in colonial India, Mahatma Gandhi found a solution. He organised peaceful disobedience to unjust laws. He perfected civil disobedience, and contributed to gaining independence for his country. He concluded:
“Civil disobedience is not only the natural right of a people, especially when they have no effective voice in their own Government, but that it is also a substitute for violence or armed rebellion.”
The judiciary in India sent Gandhi to jail several times.
Martin Luther King Jr, who was inspired by Gandhi, led huge protest marches against racial discrimination. He too was sent to jail several times. Reflecting on civil disobedience in Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
It is to be noted that while in India and America, people were and are allowed to march and protest peacefully, in Singapore we do not have such a right.
The Public Order Act, like so many recent laws passed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government are unjust laws. Our judiciary has time and again ruled that laws, including unjust laws are to be obeyed, and it is their duty only to administer such laws.
What then can a person, especially a citizen do if he wishes to champion a cause or voice his unhappiness over any matter? Disobey the laws or support the unjust system with silence?
We may have splendid buildings for the administration of justice, but what justice can we receive?
Jolovan is presently serving a 22-day prison sentence for organising an unlawful assembly and vandalism. He paid the fine of $2500 for the charge of failing to sign a statement made in the course of police investigation.
Under the law, the police have a discretion to insist that the person sign such a statement, and if he refuses to sign, our colonial master and the PAP government can send him to jail.
In solidarity with Jolovan Wham, Function 8 is publishing a Solidarity Edition of ‘1987 SINGAPORE’S MARXIST CONSPIRACY 30 YEARS ON‘. Details of this publication will be released soon.
This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page, and reproduced with permission.