By Howard Lee
“Recalcitrant” is a very powerful word. Within it are suggestions of the authority wielded by the speaker and the flagrant deviance exhibited by the recipient.
“Recalcitrant” was the term used by the Singapore government against activist Jolovan Wham, when the Singapore police laid a litany of charges against him on 28 November, which ranged from conducting illegal protests and vandalism to refusal to sign his police statements.
Using a word does not necessarily make it true. However, most Singaporeans reading the news about the charges might already be inclined to think that the government is justified in dealing harshly with Wham. What a petulant child; he must be punished; how dare he disturb the peace and destroy public property; jail and fine; drain the swamp of dissidents; make Singapore great again!
Few would see the emperor standing naked in the corner, praying hard that no one would notice that all the strong paternalistic language can barely conceal his insecurity when dealing with uncertainly.
Now, whether you wish to judge Wham in the word or the spirit of the law, the final decision resides with three wise judges. But something has to be said about the government’s attitude shown thus far.
“Why should peaceful protests be criminalised?” Wham was quoted as saying. “Why should anyone have to seek official permission to hold a Skype conversation? Are we giving the government too much power? These are important questions.”
Yes they are. But you are no longer in any position to ask them, Jolovan. You are now a dissident, outlaw, anarchist – because the government says it is so, and the people believe it is so. Or so it hopes.
The police – the “Everyday Guardians” that their advertising campaigns proudly proclaim – in highlighting Wham’s actions as egregious has not only side-lined him in the public eye, but done us all a disservice.
The blunt truth is that the government is used to doing this. For positions that it cannot win by reason, it forces a penalty goal with verbal violence. We have seen our leaders doing this to opposition politicians, activists and bloggers alike, who have invariably been called failures, rabble-rousers and the lunatic fringe.
The same applies to the causes that Wham happened to be championing when he allegedly broke the law. He organised and participated in events related to the Internal Security Act and the death penalty. The Singapore government has always been adamant about itself being right on these two issues. Marxist Conspirators, revolutionaries and drug peddlers must have their basic rights and dignity, even their lives, stripped away from them. And the government will do it again and again, for the security and prosperity of its citizens.
Yet in spite of its heroic righteousness, the government has never once sought to demolish Wham and what he stood for by doing what many have lauded it for: stick to the facts, apply logic and reason. To this day, the government has not provided concrete proof of the Marxist Conspiracy, or of the effectiveness of the death penalty in deterring drug-related offences.
The only possible conclusion: the government has nothing but words to justify itself with, and can only legitimise its own actions by delegitimising its opponents. When a champion becomes a criminal, he becomes the least capable in manifesting change. That is the harsh social reality that all of us are guilty of perpetrating.
Bold rhetoric reflects self-affirmation. But such self-affirmation only serves to demonstrate how unsure the government is about its own status in the public eye. True strength lies not in silencing your worst critics, but in confronting them head on.
So if you believe in having strong leaders in government, reject such rhetoric and win-by-silencing attitudes. The government should not be allowed to name-call in the hope of hiding behind someone else’s alleged faults.
The state grows stronger with accountability, and the Singapore government has yet to be accountable for the issues identified here: the indiscriminate detention of activists without demonstrable proof, the travesty wrought by the death penalty, and the right for citizens to seek change through unlimited peaceful protest.
It might be time for Wham to face the music, but so should the government.