In acting freely, we are becoming free.

by Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe

“Not In My Name. Abolish The Death Penalty.”

“2nd Chances Means Not Killing Them.”

When we wore T-shirts bearing anti-death penalty slogans into police interrogation rooms, it was in recognition of the fact that we are being harassed for our anti-death penalty work, and an expression of our refusal to be cowed by such reprisals. 

Neither of us expected to have those shirts seized off our backs for some ludicrous alleged “illegal procession”. Perhaps we should have. In recent times we see a growing pattern of harassment and intimidation, designed to wear down those who believe in a different and better future, and to spread fear among Singaporeans. What we experienced on Friday morning does not affect us alone; the implications ripple out of the interrogation rooms at Bedok Police Division and are felt by everyone watching. 

From the overreach of legislation like POFMA and FICA, to thinly-veiled threats and vindictive statements by government functionaries, to the direct punishment of us and the communities we care deeply about: there is a growing chill in the atmosphere, a turning of the screw against people and groups who express views and positions that diverge from those in power.

On Friday, we were told that the T-shirts we wore and our walk across the street constituted an “illegal procession”, for which our shirts would have to be confiscated. On Monday, we found out via a news article that the authorities had just as suddenly decided it was not an offence after all. Such harassment is calculated to sow uncertainty in the hopes that we will be paralysed by our doubts and worries. Those in power want our time and energy spent on our fear, so that we may ultimately conclude that the safest course of action is silence and obedience.

We are now seeing a Singapore where a migrant worker is ejected from the country simply for embarrassing the government with his poetry about the discriminatory and exploitative conditions that workers face. Where the authorities use investigations into minor, non-violent events as pretexts to demand that we give up our privacy and hand over passwords to the accounts we use to work, play, and communicate. Where, when the state kills in our names, they also expect us to seek their permission before even a small number of us can gather outside the prison to express our grief and anger over such violence.

When we hear of the oppression hitting new heights of absurdity, it is easy to react in fear and despair. We do not seek to minimise the impact that such clampdowns can have. We do not pretend to be unaffected or unfazed by what we have experienced. We do not claim to be fearless or without concerns about the reprisals we face for our activism. 

But instead of letting fear bind us, we can let our outrage over such oppression motivate us to not only stand our ground, but continue pushing for the changes we want to see. Instead of feeling helpless and powerless, we can recognise that such ridiculous abuses of power reveal the anxiety and insecurity of our oppressors. If they are trying to get to us like this, it can only mean we are getting to them.

As anti-death penalty activists, the work we do is marked by one cruelty after another. Even before a hanging, people on death row and their families are put through multiple indignities and difficulties. We see the despair and desperation of family members as it sinks in that no lawyer in the country is willing or able to help them, as they watch desperate attempts to save their loved one get dismissed and condemned as “abuse of process”. We bear witness to their grief, and the pain and trauma that follows them for the rest of their lives. 

Despite all this, there is also great love, solidarity and power. Over the past few months, we have seen families come together to support one another. We have been buoyed by the strong turn-out at Hong Lim Park protests against the death penalty, and encouraged by the unprecedented momentum of the movement towards abolition in Singapore. We have drawn strength from everyone who has expressed care and support since Friday. Acts of oppression are aimed at breaking up communities and driving people apart; by choosing to come together instead, we are laying claim to our collective power. 

We should not be required to seek permission to air our thoughts, gather with our communities, and mobilise for issues we care about. When the powerful try to take this away from us, our response should be to stand all the more firmly for our freedom. 

We will continue to speak up on the issues we care about. We will continue to stand in solidarity with the communities we support, and to hold and create space for others in Singapore to step forward too. We continue to imagine a better, fairer, gentler Singapore in which people are treated with dignity and able to thrive. We hope you will join us.

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