Former Hill Street Police Station, Singapore 2015. Photo by Zairon is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Smile in Solidarity: Singaporeans’ call for political freedom

An interview with Jolovan Wham on Singaporeans’ latest push back against state retaliation.

With the country’s elections slated to take place next month, Singapore is technically a democracy. Yet for decades, the country has been ruled by the conversative party, the People’s Action Party, who not only condemns values like free speech and assembly, but also represses grassroots movements throughout the small country.

In Singapore, speaking in public spaces and sharing opinions that criticize the government online can result in government retaliation, making dissent extremely risky. In fact, there is only one place in the whole of Singapore where its citizens can legally gather—the Speakers Corner. This means that any social justice work often falls neatly into the country’s obedient and not-overly critical network of non-profit organizations. Even still, Singaporeans have bravely stood up to challenge their government.

Over the past months, hundreds of Singaporeans participated in a new online action called Smile In Solidarity. Led by Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham, Singaporeans are sharing images of themselves holding smiley faces to draw attention to their government’s draconian repression of free speech and assembly.

Wham spoke with Lausan editor JS about the Smile in Solidarity action.

JS: What is Smile in Solidarity? 

Jolovan: Smile in Solidarity is an online protest that is meant to raise awareness of the criminalization of free speech and assembly in Singapore. I started this action after the police retaliated against me for holding a sign of a smiley face in public. They confiscated my phone and put me under investigation. When fellow Singaporeans found out, many were shocked. So I wanted to give them a way to stand in solidarity and use this moment to broaden the discussion of free speech and assembly in Singapore. 

That’s why I started Smile in Solidarity. I wanted to come up with a way for people to participate in this discussion about civil liberties through a fun, clever and non-aggressive way.

That’s why I started Smile in Solidarity. I wanted to come up with a way for people to participate in this discussion about civil liberties through a fun, clever and non-aggressive way. I wanted to give people a safe way to show that they disagreed with the laws. So the idea was for people to share a picture of themselves holding an image of a smiley face. (You can explore what people have posted on Instagram: #smileinsolidarity)

When I started this, I wasn’t expecting more than 50 people to participate, given how scared Singaporeans generally are of showing dissent openly. But by now, netizens have sent almost 200 pictures to me. This doesn’t even include all the pictures that people have posted on social media. The reach of this project makes me particularly hopeful, because it shows that Singaporeans are willing to take action on issues related to freedom of expression and assembly.

JS: What made you stand in public holding a smiley face in the first place? 

Jolovan: Earlier this year, two Singaporean climate activists protested the country’s complicity in the climate crisis. One of them, an 18 year-old woman, protested outside Exxon Mobile’s offices. The other, a 22 year-old man, protested outside a police station. Both posted images of their protests to social media. Despite the benign nature of their actions, the police summoned them, confiscated their phones, and formally placed them under investigation.

Photo from Let Everyone in Singapore Have The Right To Freedom Of Assembly Petition

In response, I wanted to be in solidarity with them and show how ridiculous it was for them to be disciplined. So, I went to that same police department and stood outside holding a cardboard sign with a smiley face drawn on it. Sure enough, 2 months later, the police called me to ask why I was standing in public, and placed me under investigation. 

At this point, I still don’t know if they’ll charge me. Regardless of whether they choose to, over the decades, they’ve already done enough to scare everyone into obedience.

JS: How has this retaliation affected you?

Jolovan: The main thing is that it makes me a controversial figure. In Singapore, there is this idea of a ‘good activist’ and a ‘bad activist.’ People only want to be associated with a ‘good activist’, someone who toes the government line. For example, non-profits only want to hire ‘good activists’—those who won’t undermine the government. So, if you’re a ‘bad activist’, you have to be prepared for certain risks, such as your job options being limited. 

Additionally, people in these communities who disagree with my actions will also shun me and not want to publicly associate with me. In Singapore, no one wants to be affiliated with people who’ve broken the law or are too outspoken and critical. 

But that’s not to say that I’m totally isolated. There are people who support what I do. However, I don’t expect most people’s support because there is a strong culture of conformity, even within civil society groups. Those who veer off the script are considered “tainted.” 

Moreover, civil and political freedoms are difficult to campaign for not only because it threatens the ruling party, but also because people do not identify with or have an emotional attachment to these causes. Regardless, I think it’s still important to push these boundaries, otherwise we will never be able to break out of our deeply entrenched culture of conformity and fear. I believe that with persistence, and by acting out of peace and love for the community, we’ll eventually make progress, even if it takes a long time.   

JS: What does this action, and the government’s response to this action, say about Singapore?

Jolovan: I think the most important thing it shows is how powerful collective dissent is and how scared the Singaporean government is of people power. As history shows, masses of people gathering to protest creates change. So to maintain the ruling hierarchy, the Singaporean government has cracked down on dissent to prevent its citizens from taking collective action. The government has taken it to such an extreme that they’ve even criminalized one person peacefully protesting in public.

Unfortunately, this strategy has worked to a large extent. Singapore has a very disempowered population. A few years ago, Reuters did a survey of several countries, and one of the questions they asked was, “Are you afraid of expressing disagreement with the government online?” For Singapore, 63% said yes.

The tactic of selective disciplining allows the government to make examples out of people, so that the rest remain obedient.

The tactic of selective disciplining allows the government to make examples out of people, so that the rest remain obedient. This has created a climate where the dominant type of control is self-censorship. Fearing that dissent could result in legal or career consequences, most people choose to remain quiet. This means that the government doesn’t even have to ‘crack down’ on activists and bloggers, save for a few who refuse to toe the line. Those who are persecuted are paraded as ‘examples’ and cautionary tales to intimidate and warn everyone else.

With Smile In Solidarity, I felt it was important to chip away at this culture of obedience and self-censorship in a widespread and safe way. People could take action and hide their identities if they wished. But this is just the beginning of a broader set of questions we must start asking ourselves in Singapore: how can we embolden people? How do we shed this fear? And how do we create social structures and support networks so that people aren’t afraid to challenge authority?