October 22, 2018
Call on Singaporean Writers to Condemn Seelan Palay’s Wrongful Imprisonment
Singapore Unbound respectfully calls on Singaporean writers to condemn the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of Seelan Palay for illegal assembly.
On October 3, 2018, Singaporean artist and activist Seelan Palay was convicted by a Singapore court for “staging an unlawful performance without a permit” under Section 7 of the 2009 Public Order Act and sentenced to pay a fine of S$2,500. Mr. Palay reasonably refused to pay the fine and was imprisoned for two weeks in default. The performance in question was Mr. Palay’s performance art piece “32 Years: The Interrogation Of A Mirror,” which involved holding a mirror outside Singapore’s Parliament last year on October 1. Mr. Palay was arrested and charged under the Public Order Act, despite the fact that the performance-protest was conducted by one person only and in a peaceful manner, without any disruption to public order.
Singaporean writers should be concerned with the conviction and imprisonment of Seelan Palay for three reasons.
First, as a matter of principle. Mr. Palay’s conviction is an attack on free speech, and free speech is the inherent right of a free people. Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right is enshrined not only in the European and American Conventions on Human Rights but also in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Newly freed from colonial domination, Singapore, along with other newly independent nations, also enshrined free speech in its Constitution. The Singapore Constitution states that “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression” and that “all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.” However, this present government has been steadily eroding the rights of Singaporean citizens by expanding colonial-era restrictions on free speech and assembly. A free people, sovereigns of their own persons and of their own nation, should be able to speak freely, without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction.
The second reason why Singaporean writers should condemn the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Palay is that free speech is essential to the proper functioning of democracy. Democracy is not simply a matter of free and regular elections. It must be constantly maintained by democratic public institutions and reinforced by a democratic political culture. For democracy to function at its best, the political culture must consist of the values, practices, and norms of free information, vigorous debate, and respect for opposing views. Free speech is both a vital democratic value, practice, and norm, and a vital ingredient in other democratic values, practices, and norms. A free press, for instance, is dependent on the idea of free speech.
Thirdly, free speech stimulates a culture in which imaginative freedom thrives. When writers and artists are consumed by the need to look over their shoulders, or by the need to isolate and protect themselves from a toxic culture, they cannot devote their full energies to producing their best work. In Singapore, the award and withdrawal of state grants spells out what novelists can and cannot write about. The banning of alternative narratives renders chroniclers ignorant of their past. The immigration of disenfranchised poets abroad lowers general morale. Local writers, editors, and publishers labor heroically to produce a self-confident, self-regarding, self-critical literature, but their efforts are radically undermined by state policies of political repression and economic instrumentalism.
We understand that for writers to condemn publicly Seelan Palay’s conviction involves a certain amount of risk, given the nature of the present governance. We also understand that we are calling for such action from the relative safety of New York City. By the same token, however, we cannot have the same effect as writers based in Singapore can have. Even in Singapore, different writers have different exposures to risk. We are respectfully asking Singaporean writers to re-assess their risk in the light of the injustice done against fellow artist Seelan Palay, of the state of democracy in Singapore, and of the intrinsic value of human freedom.
Last year the Singapore Writers Festival organized a tribute to beloved poet and teacher Lee Tzu Pheng. At the event, writer Alfian Sa’at spoke movingly of how Dr. Lee encouraged him to publish his controversial verse and then reviewed his book in the Straits Times in a way that shielded him from accusations of using poetry as a vehicle of dissent, even sedition. “And today, in the same spirit of speaking up for fellow writers,” Mr. Alfian said, he highlighted the disturbing pattern of academics and writers being blackballed apparently for engaging in activism or writing critically of the government. It was a powerful tribute to the influence of Dr. Lee, who said to Mr. Alfian after the event, "Thank you for standing up. If writers are to survive we must stand up for something."
Although Mr. Palay has been released from imprisonment on October 16, his conviction and imprisonment remains on his personal records. The consequences, moreover, go beyond one person. Mr. Palay’s conviction and imprisonment will retain a chilling effect on Singaporean society and discourse, unless many people speak up against it. Writers can take the lead in doing so, using the many platforms that they have. In the closing of his tribute to Dr. Lee, Mr. Alfian issued a clarion call, “Even as we are celebrating, at the Singapore Writers Festival, our freedom to write and express ourselves, there are others who are penalised for exercising those same freedoms. And I ask that we all stand in solidarity with them.”
Koh Jee Leong
Founder and Organizer, Singapore Unbound
Poet and Singaporean Citizen
Singapore Unbound is a NYC-based literary non-profit dedicated to the advancement of freedom of speech and equal rights for all. We work towards these goals through the development of cultural exchange between Singapore and the USA.