PAP’s overwhelming dominance makes civil rights advocacy challenging, says Jolovan Wham

PAP’s overwhelming dominance makes civil rights advocacy challenging, says Jolovan Wham

Advocating for civil rights will continue to be a challenging task for Singaporeans in the future, given the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party (People’s Action Party), said Jolovan Wham, a prominent Singaporean activist.

This was said in a podcast interview with Wham conducted by Dr James Gomez, the Regional Director at Asia Centre, to discuss the impacts and developments of FICA since its introduction in 2021.

Wham voiced his belief that it will be difficult to push back against draconian laws like Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) unless the ruling party loses more power.

“Because they control all the major institutions of the state, and this actually has been happening for decades, ” said Wham.

Wham explained that the ruling party, PAP, controls all major state institutions, making it hard for civil society groups, citizens, and political parties to have a significant impact on civil and political rights in Singapore.

“In terms of the civil and political space that we have for civil and political rights, it hasn’t extended very much and in fact, in some ways, it is shrinking.”

Wham added that the only way to move forward and push back against draconian measures is for civil society groups, citizens, and political parties to come together as a collective voice and say “no”.

Wham has been long-recognised for his continuous advocacy work on migrant workers, the death penalty, and civil and political rights in Singapore. He has served time in the Singapore prison for offences under the Public Order Act and the Vandalism Act.

In 2021, Singapore introduced the FICA, a law touted to safeguard its politics from foreign interference.

75 PAP Members of Parliament and 5 Nominated MPs voted in favour of the legislation, whereas 11 from the Workers’ Party and the Progress Singapore Party objected with two abstentions.

FICA has two sets of provisions: the first provision empowers the government to shut down organizations deemed to communicate “on behalf of a foreign principal” with the aim of manipulating Singapore’s domestic political discourse, while the second provision is on counter measures of local proxies or politically significant persons suspected of being foreign agents.

Critics have voiced concerns over the vague and broad definition of foreign interference in FICA and how the law may be used to stifle civic space and curb critical political engagement in Singapore.

Fear as major obstacle to activism in general

When asked about the possibility of people coming together to push back against FICA and other restrictive measures, Wham said fear is a major obstacle to activism in general, not just in relation to FICA.

“These fears are understandable because it could affect your employment, affect your livelihood.”

“But in order to to move forward, I think we have to be more proactive in supporting one another, so that we can create this ecosystem for a resistance movement to grow, ” he said.

‘No way for the government’s decision to be challenged’ under FICA

Wham pointed out that despite the fact that the FICA law has been in effect for almost two years, there has been no movement on it since its enactment.

“The government hasn’t designated anyone as a ‘politically significant person (PSP)’ as the law allows them to do so. ”

When asked how locals and civil society groups in Singapore have adapted to FICA, Wham mentioned that some groups sought clarification from the government on whether the laws would apply to them.

The government has assured some groups that they are not the targets of the law, but the law’s wide-ranging and arbitrary application means that even such assurances can be difficult to trust.

“There’s no way in which the government’s decision can be challenged, because there’s no right to judicial review under this law.”

Under FICA, independent judicial review is severely limited as any appeal decision made by the Minister of Home Affairs, Reviewing Tribunal, which is appointed by the Minister, or other authorities is “final” and “not to be challenged, appealed against, reviewed, quashed or called in question in any court”.

Challenges for CSOs to collaborate under circumstance of FICA

Furthermore, Wham said collaborations with other civil society organisations (CSOs) from the region will be a challenge because the law is broad enough to cover that.

“This has impact on civil society solidarity, Because a lot of what we do is to talk about our shared struggles and to and to work together on issues that affect everyone in this world.”

“With a law like this, these kinds of collaborations would be a lot more difficult.”

Chilling effect

Dr Gomez asked Wham if he believed that there was a chilling effect on people in Singapore, including locals and foreigners when it came to engaging in activism and advocacy work.

Wham shares that, in his experience, many individuals were concerned about the impact on their employment prospects and the potential for legal action against them or their organizations.

“They are concerned about their employment prospects, whether their families will be worried about them when they get involved in work like this, or whether they will get charged in court or sued.”

“Because they have seen examples of how individuals and organizations have been targeted by the state.”

These fears limited the types of activism and advocacy work that people were willing to engage in, despite their interest in the cause.

‘Getting involved in activism is a lonely road’

Mr Wham explains that in Singapore, there is a stigma attached to activism and civil society work because the country is highly regulated, and there are fixed paths to success.

“Getting involved in activism is a lonely road, so to speak, because it’s not something which many people get involved in. ”

“People who are involved in non-political civil society work are seen a little bit differently; If you’re involved in social work, non-profit work, you already seem to be outside of the street. ”

If someone joins opposition politics or campaigns on sensitive political issues, they are even more stigmatized.

He added that when the state targets and shames individuals in the media or takes legal action against them, the stigma is further entrenched, making support for this kind of work even less.

Ruling government uses various laws to entrench the culture of fear in Singapore

Dr Gomez also asked Wham if operating outside of Singapore is a viable option to avoid the suppression from FICA, citing the example of The Online Citizen (TOC) being shut down and the editor having to shift operations to Taiwan.

In response, Wham acknowledged that operating outside of Singapore would be safer for individuals and groups as the state apparatus could come after them at any time.

However, he noted that FICA could still affect them if registered overseas. He mentioned that it was possible for people to apply to TOC and have the editor designated as a politically significant person.

When asked about his thoughts on the POFMA, which relates to online falsehoods  consumed by residents in Singapore, Wham said that he believes that the chilling effect of POFMA actually greater because everyone has a stake in what they post on social media, while not everyone could easily be designated as a foreign agent or politically significant person under FICA.

“POFMA again is a political tool by the government to target people it doesn’t like. ”

“We saw that when the first person that the first entity or the first person that being POFMA-ed, was an opposition politician. they (ruling party) didn’t even bother to target some of the non-political things at first. They just went straight for who they thought were their enemies.”

Wham said these various laws that curtail freedom of expression, such as POFMA, FICA, and the Administration of Justice Act, are cumulative and add up to entrench the culture of fear in Singapore.

Readers can listen to the full interview on Spotify.

The podcast episode is part of the Foreign Interference Laws in Southeast Asia series, in partnership with the Japan NGO Centre for International Cooperation:

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