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The #SaveNagaenthran campaign heats up

We, The Citizens is a newsletter covering Singapore with a focus on politics, democracy, human rights, and social justice. These weekly wraps are free to access—feel free to forward them on to anyone you like!

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We are four days away from Nagaenthran’s scheduled execution. After going through all the requirements detailed in this special issue, his younger brother, mother, and cousin have arrived in Singapore to see him. His younger sister will arrive later today (Saturday).

According to his younger brother Navin, Nagen is not in a good place. He seems very disoriented, has trouble making eye contact, and claimed that he’d been taking three-hour-long baths daily (which can’t possibly be true on death row). It’s really worrying to hear; it seems as if being alone in a cell for over a decade has really taken its toll on Nagen.

Meanwhile, the case has garnered international attention and lots of action in Nagen’s home country of Malaysia. The Transformative Justice Collective (of which I’m a member) has published a statement, as has other rights groups like FIDH, Human Rights Watch, and Harm Reduction International, just to name a few. There have been stories by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Washington Post and Associated Press, among others. At the time of writing, a petition launched in Singapore has got over 54,000 signatures, and the amount raised by our crowdfunding campaign has gone over $19,000, which allows us to cover costs and expenses for the family.

In response to the success of the petition, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a statement reiterating that Nagen had been convicted by a court that had found that the actions of this guy with an IQ of 69, ADHD and impaired executive functioning skills were the result of a “criminal mind”. They also said that the Singapore Prison Service was assisting the family, and that the costs the family have to bear are the same as any others who want to enter Singapore from Malaysia at this time.

I tweeted a response to MHA’s shameful statement (click on the tweet to open the thread!)

We’re not going to give up on Nagen as long as there is even the tiniest sliver of hope. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, please do. You can also email your MPs, or Cabinet ministers, or President Halimah Yacob, to urge them to take action to get the death sentence commuted.

Many feels about untruths in Parliament

This round-up is not an easy one to write. Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan admitted in Parliament on Monday that she had lied about having accompanied a survivor of sexual assault to the police station; instead, she had heard the anecdote in a women’s support group. She made up the part about having accompanied the survivor because she hadn’t wanted to admit that she was a part of this group and out herself as a survivor of sexual assault herself. She has since been referred to the Committee of Privileges for breach of parliamentary privilege, and WP has also convened a disciplinary panel.

This has unsurprisingly triggered loads of discussion online, with all sorts of people weighing with hot takes. Some say it’s not such a big deal, others say she should resign. When I wasn’t completely absorbed by the capital punishment nightmare, I’ve spent this past week feeling really conflicted about all this. It’s really because there are so many aspects of this situation, all of which I feel are simultaneously true and valid, without cancelling each other out. This is my attempt to unpack them:

  1. Raeesah shouldn’t have lied. It was a really serious error of judgement, especially since it also involved breaching the confidentiality of something that was shared in a support group. I’m disappointed about this.
  2. But she’s been dealing with trauma herself, and while I feel like she made a big mistake in the way she went about it, I can totally understand why she was reluctant to out herself in Parliament as a survivor of sexual assault. I feel a lot of sympathy for this. While I really wish she hadn’t done it, I don’t think she did it out of malice, and I think it counts for something that she admitted it in Parliament and is trying to make things right.
  3. While Raeesah should be held accountable for what she’s done, all the calls for accountability and punishment and resignation also reminds me of how we often don’t make such strong demands for accountability from those in greater positions of power when they do shitty things. If only people could have been this incensed about untruths in Parliament when Shanmugam was sliming me, PJ, and Terry in Parliament during the FICA debate! If only we could have demanded a disciplinary panel against Vivian Balakrishnan when he somehow managed to forget a massive piece of legislation while assuring Singaporeans that contact-tracing data would only be used for contact-tracing! If only we have seen some transitional justice and accountability over the way people have been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act on the basis of trumped up accusations! Why are there such double standards? Why are we talking as if this error is something Raeesah, our youngest MP, can’t come back from, when we have repeatedly cut so much more slack for more powerful people? This pisses me off.
  4. This episode is distracting attention away from the very real issues of reporting sexual assault and the professionalism and care of law enforcement when they handle such cases. Raeesah might have lied about the details of the anecdote, but the issue that she was bringing up is valid and sound. Now that attention has been diverted to “Raeesah lied”, the government might end up getting let off the hook on this issue (at least for the time being). This is frustrating.
  5. Considering that credibility and sexual assault is already a big issue, people have accused Raeesah of hurting survivors because now people have more ammo to doubt women’s accounts and accuse them of lying. This is infuriating; the people who would exploit this incident to disbelieve or discredit women were not approaching this issue in good faith anyway, and the blame cannot be laid at Raeesah’s door for that. The blame should be squarely placed on the shoulders of people who are shit to women, talk over them, and dismiss their experiences.

For me, all these things are simultaneously true, and shouldn’t be talked about in isolation from one another.

Censoring a book about censorship

The Infocomm Media Development Authority have declared Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship, a book by Cherian George and Sonny Liew, to be objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act. The book won’t be able to be sold here, which surely just makes it seem even more alluring now.

In their statement, the IMDA cited some controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons reproduced in the book to justify their decision. In a post on their website, George said that the book’s distributor had been engaging with the IMDA on Singapore’s regulations, and that they’d even been open to the idea of redacting art that might have been deemed too offensive.

I might be one of relatively few people in Singapore who’s actually seen the book; I was sent a review copy, only I haven't yet managed to review the book because FICA and everything else exploded in my face. While not presented as a traditional piece of academic work — understandable given that the subject matter has to do with political cartoons, and one co-author is an Eisner-winning artist — Red Lines is an extensive study of censorship, art, politics, and the challenges faced by political cartoonists across the world. It’s in this context that work is reproduced and discussed. It’s not like the authors reproduced controversial or even offensive cartoons just to provoke people; the fact that these pieces are controversial, contested, and/or problematic is part of the discussion about where “red lines” are, should be, or could be. These are not easy questions to answer or simple conversations to have — the authors are very well aware of this — but it’s something that we need to collectively navigate if we want to mature as a society. Unfortunately, the IMDA has seen fit to deprive us of yet another opportunity.

A pair of hornbills paid us a visit one morning this past week!
A pair of hornbills paid us a visit one morning this past week!

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