The Stories That Need To Be Told
The following is a short speech (with slight variations) that I gave at the ICNC Summer Institute at The Fletcher School in Tufts University, Boston, USA on 20 June 2016.
June 2016 didn’t start very well for Singapore’s civil society. Two activists — both friends of mine — were called in for police investigations. The Elections Department, an office under the Prime Minister, had lodged reports claiming that they broke election advertising laws on the eve of a by-election when they posted about politics on Facebook.
The investigations involved long hours of interrogation, followed by police raids on their homes. Laptops, computers, mobile phones and hard drives were seized, and the authorities demanded access to social media accounts like Facebook. They had the power to do all this without a warrant.
The investigation was not reported by the mainstream media (apart from the joint statement by the police and the Elections Department), nor by the international media. I was the only journalist there, sitting for hours outside the police station.
The incident achieved what it likely set out to do: it sent ripples of fear across Singapore’s small and already over-stretched civil society. People started downloading panic buttons on their phones, encrypting data and moving hard drives. There was a sense that the authorities were fishing for information, and might come after more people. It reminded us of the late 1980s when social workers, activists and lawyers were detained without trial (in fact, Teo Soh Lung, one of the two investigated, is a former detainee).
I, too, spent the days following the investigation cleaning up my computer and encrypting my files. I’d tried to laugh it off at first, but too many people were warning me to be prepared. Many of my friends thought I could be next; I wasn’t sure that they were wrong.
When we talk about key moments of activist work, we often think of victories or failures, and what can be learnt from these high or low points. What I would like to talk about is a different but no less significant: the tough slog of being stuck in the rut of burn-out.
It feels indulgent and even whiny for me to be talking about fear and intimidation when journalists and activists in other countries are facing threats far more severe than boring interrogations and the confiscation of laptops. But burn-out, stress and fear cannot, and should not, be ignored when we talk about civil resistance and activism, no matter the circumstances.
In the weeks before I left Singapore for the US, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering if I would suddenly be told I had committed some offence for which the police would sweep in and take all my stuff without warrant. It was all very depressing. I found myself wandering listlessly around my small flat thinking about friends who had run into problems — employment passes not renewed, jobs lost, lawsuits and investigations.
A number of friends talked about leaving, about whether it was worth it to put up with all this in a country that clearly doesn’t want you around, for a population that, for the most part, doesn’t feel like there’s anything wrong with Singapore and won’t thank you for pointing out the problems.
I’ve wondered the same thing myself. Being a freelance journalist engaged in advocacy in Singapore is a drudgery of underpaid work, of trolls and misogynists and official agencies being deliberately unhelpful, with little international interest or protection should anything happen. At a time when young freelance journalists are flocking to cover big international stories around the world, why do I still insist on toiling in this trench?
I was thinking about this when I went to visit an Indonesian domestic worker I’ve been interviewing for a story. Her journey to Singapore had ended in abuse and injury. She was staying in a shelter run by a migrant rights organisation, in a country where she now cannot work, and where she barely speaks the language. We sat with her and chatted for a bit, then I lent her my phone to make an international call to Indonesia. She burst into tears on the phone, and when she hung up she reached for me and held on. She cried and cried and cried. It turned out that she hadn’t been able to afford to make calls, and hadn’t spoken to her family, or heard a familiar voice from home, for three weeks.
Hers is a story that needs to be told. There are so many stories in Singapore that need to break through the veneer of economic success and stability we’re usually known for, and few journalists able to do the telling. With citizen journalism and alternative media sites floundering under regulations and the lack of funding, bailing on Singapore would leave many of these important issues buried under the establishment narrative.
I still haven’t decided if I would really sacrifice family, life or career just to stay in Singapore, but in low moments of burn-out, it’s the thought of these stories that give meaning to my work and remind me why I stay, taking one story at a time.