At this point, Jolovan Wham, a member of the Transformative Justice Collective, is about halfway through his prison sentence.
On 15 February 2021, Jolovan began serving a 22-day prison term in lieu of fines that were imposed on him, after he pleaded guilty to charges of organising a silent assembly on MRT trains, vandalism, and refusing to sign a police statement in relation to this event. The so-called “vandalism” consisted of the act of sticking two sheets of A4 paper up in an MRT carriage, causing no actual damage to property. Also taken into consideration in the sentencing was Jolovan’s involvement in organising a candlelight vigil for a death row inmate who was later executed, and his refusal to sign a police statement when he was investigated for this offence.
We stand in solidarity with Jolovan. We support his choice to exercise his right to freedom of assembly, as well as his decision to serve time in prison. We believe this carries great symbolic significance, as it draws attention to the injustices caused by expansive laws that excessively restrict Singaporeans’ civil and political rights.
The assembly on the MRT was intended to memorialise and raise awareness of Operation Spectrum, the codename for the series of arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial that took place in 1987 under the Internal Security Act. As part of this operation, 22 young Singaporean volunteers, social workers, and artists were accused of involvement in a “Marxist Conspiracy” that allegedly aimed to subvert the political system in Singapore. Some of these political detainees were later forced to “confess” on television, but no clear evidence of their guilt was ever produced, and none of them was given a fair trial in open court.
Operation Spectrum remains a dark period in Singapore’s history. The systematic campaign silenced civil society for many years thereafter, and we are still feeling its traumatic effects in today’s climate of fear. Many of us are afraid of speaking out and having open discussions which are critical of the establishment, due to the very real possibility of persecution or retaliation. To date, there has been no official accountability or attempt at redress for the state’s abuse of power in 1987.
Through the assembly, Jolovan wished to highlight the injustice, violence and brutality that the detainees suffered at the hands of state-controlled apparatuses. He wanted us to not forget our history, and to engage in conversations about the controversial and difficult issues which affect all of us. To Jolovan, these matters are of national importance, since they concern our fundamental rights and freedoms.
In court, Jolovan also expressed his shame and regret at a government which executed a disenfranchised individual who wanted nothing more than to support his family. He organised the candlelight vigil in response to the inhumanity of the death penalty, which disproportionately targets marginalised individuals from low-income backgrounds. Through the vigil, he hoped to articulate his rejection of the death penalty in the name of Singapore’s public order. It is a punishment that is irreversible, draconian and literally murderous.
Neither the assembly on the MRT nor the candlelight vigil outside of Changi Prison resulted in any harm, violence, or public disorder. The activities were purely peaceful and nonviolent. These are not actions that should invite heavy fines or incarceration. Indeed, the law’s punitive response to Jolovan’s actions only proves the very necessity of expanding discourse in Singapore about the political rights and freedoms that we deserve. Jolovan has said that his conscience remains clear — as it should. We stand with you, Jolovan. We are proud of your moral clarity, your unwavering values, and your willingness to fight for a fairer, more democratic Singapore.