Jolovan Wham, the well known Singaporean human rights defender and activist, talks to PJ Thum about his most recent stint in jail for civil disobedience. They discuss Singapore’s arbitrary laws, his experience with jail, issues with the criminal justice system, and why he is advocating for prison reform. Learn more, and get in touch with Jolovan, at prisonlife.sg.

Transcript

PJ Thum (00:00:01):
So, hello and welcome back to Political Agenda and welcome back to our show, Jolovan Wham.

Jolovan Wham (00:00:06):
Yes. Hello. Thanks for having me.
PJ Thum (00:00:08):
Welcome back, Jolovan. So you’re just fresh out of prison.
Jolovan Wham (00:00:12):
That’s right. I was released last week.
PJ Thum (00:00:14):
Wow. And you were in there for what?
Jolovan Wham (00:00:16):
10 days.
PJ Thum (00:00:18):
Good golly. Tell us, how did you end up in prison?
Jolovan Wham (00:00:22):
I was convicted of an offence under the Public Order Act. What I had done was to organise a public talk which featured the democracy activist from Hong Kong, Joshua Wong. Because I didn’t apply for a permit, I was convicted of an offence.
PJ Thum (00:00:41):
This was when?
Jolovan Wham (00:00:42):
This was in 2016.
PJ Thum (00:00:45):
Right.
Jolovan Wham (00:00:45):
Yeah. So it took four years for the entire case to conclude because I, upon conviction at the state courts, I also appealed to the High Court and to the final Court of Appeal. So, after all that, the verdict was still that I was guilty.
PJ Thum (00:01:01):
Well, I think, we understand that based on the letter of the law, as I’ve discussed on the show, that these laws are extremely broad so that any political behaviour by Singaporeans can technically fall under the Public Order Act. Right? We’ve seen that withSeelan. Just by walking down the street, he got arrested in jail for an illegal public procession. And of course yourself, you’re wearing a shirt – can everyone see the shirt? – Where all you did was hold up a sign of a smiley face and somehow that is also breaking the Public Order Act.
PJ Thum (00:01:43):
I don’t think we need to get into a lot of detail with that, but what really startles me is that living in this day and age of COVID-19 where everyone is having a foreigner come inand having webinars with foreigners and people in Singapore, routinely attending webinars with foreigners speaking on very sensitive subjects like our economy labor how you run your businesses, your mental health – a huge wide range of subjects. Somehow, all of that is okay. But what you did is still illegal. Did your lawyer in court, in the final appeal, make this point at all?
Jolovan Wham (00:02:34):
No, because he stuck to the legal and technical arguments. The reason I’m targeted is because I’m an activist, I’m very vocal, and I’m involved in organisingpeople and events. Encouraging people to question the status quo and to be critical. So I think when you’re involved in these kinds of activities, you’re on the government’s blacklist. I believe the government persecuted me as a warning to everyone else not to engage in this kind of activity. But what I’ll say is thatI mean, despite the persecution, I generally don’t think the cost is that high. Because these convictions often just result in a fine. So when I went to prison, it was more as a protest against the injustice of the law. I could have easily paid up the fine. I’ve done research on people who have been convicted of public order offences and nobody has actually been sentenced to jail. No matter how many times they have been convicted of the Public Order Act.
PJ Thum (00:03:44):
Oh, really?
Jolovan Wham (00:03:44):
Yes. That’s right. If you talk about Chee Soon Juan, for instance. People have this idea that he goes to jail a lot and he’s been sentenced to jail – but that’s not true. All his convictions have been fines, but he chose to go to jail as a protest. The same with Seelan Palay as well. He was actually convicted with, I think the fine was $2,00 to $2,500. He chose to go to jail. So that was part of his activism. So, I’m just following the footsteps of people who have come before me.
PJ Thum (00:04:22):
Okay. Time out, we’re going to adjust the volume cause it’s a bit too… How does that sound now? Yeah, I think that’s a bit better. Okay. So where were we?
PJ Thum (00:04:58):
So that’s really interesting to note actually that there seems to be limits. Obviously these are not limits in the statutes, but what the courts will do is only impose a fine, and these fines tend to be in the order of a couple of thousand?
Jolovan Wham (00:05:21):
That’s right. Yeah. I think the Singapore government’s thinking on this is that they want to do just enough to scare everyone, but not too much to make you a martyr, so to speak. So then you don’t become a prisoner of conscience. So any decision that an activist makes – whether to go to jail or not, will be a very personal one or whether you want to make a political point.
PJ Thum (00:05:47):
Right. I suppose if it becomes an international issue, the government can say, “Hey, we didn’t send them to jail. They are to jail because they’re refusing to pay a fine, not because of the Public Order Act.”
Jolovan Wham (00:06:00):
Yes. That’s right.
PJ Thum (00:06:03):
Very interesting. So I suppose then, people don’t actually need to be that afraid of the Public Order Act. Given that it is usually, or as you pointed out it always has only been a fine on the order of a couple of thousand. Which in theory, could be crowd funded or something. But then there’s other costs, right? What about your legal fees or your time? You said it’s taken four years of your time, plus your lawyers. You fought it all multiple levels?
Jolovan Wham (00:06:36):
Yeah. So it depends on how far you want to go with it. It took four years because I wanted to claim trial at every stage of the process. But if you choose to plead guilty when they charge you, it can be over in a matter of days even. It’s really what you want to do with the case.
PJ Thum (00:06:58):
Was there significant court costs? Cause I assume there’s two different costs, right? There’s the court costs and there’s the lawyers’ fees?
Jolovan Wham (00:07:10):
Yeah. So lawyers’ fees would be the one that might be a bit tricky. I’m sure there are quite a number of lawyers out there who are willing to take on these kinds of cases pro bono because it would be in the public interest to take on these cases. So I think lawyer fees shouldn’t be a hurdle. Also, there won’t be any court costs because the government is the one that’s charging you. So it’s not like a civil suit where you have to pay the other side if you lose. Because in this case, the government is charging you of an offence. It’s like any other offence that the government charges you for – whether it is theft or cheating.
PJ Thum (00:07:52):
So really apart from the final fine, the only real cost to you was just a lot of time fighting this case. Four years, you said?
Jolovan Wham (00:08:04):
Yes, that’s right. But even so, because I have a very good team of lawyers who do all the research for me, the only thing I needed to do basically turn up in court.
PJ Thum (00:08:15):
Right.
Jolovan Wham (00:08:17):
And life for me goes on. My work still continues. I still get to travel although, of course, that is restricted because the government has my passport, but they have never denied me my passport whenever I asked for it.
PJ Thum (00:08:30):
Right, right.
Jolovan Wham (00:08:31):
So they allow me to travel and they don’t see me as a flight risk because I’m not interested in claiming refugee status elsewhere or fleeing the country. I mean, I’m doing this very purposefully and very consciously, right?
PJ Thum (00:08:46):
Yeah, and I think based on what the government has done before, they would be happy if you fled and never returned because then they could say, “Oh, this person, see, they’re disloyal. The first sign of trouble they flee and they don’t stand up for their beliefs,” etc. Which is the kind of line they’ve done on a lot of other political detainees in the past who have fled. But of coursepeople like YPO or Francis you’re actually faced serious consequences for what they did in the seventies and eighties when [the government] would routinely torture people who were held under the ISA, but not today, I suppose.
Jolovan Wham (00:09:33):
Yeah. I think the likelihood of it happening is very, very, very low in this day and age. I mean, I will not discount it entirely because we are still living in an authoritarian state, so anything can happen. But I believe the political costs would be too high for the government.
PJ Thum (00:09:48):
Right. Right. And I suppose there’s also marginal things that are hard to say that meet the definition of torture, but can be. Like putting someone in a room with extremely cold air conditioning. Right. And given that we we’d probably be dressed for the tropical weather, leaving someone in a really, really cold room for a couple of hours until you go in and ask them questions. Right, that technically means the definition of torture.
Jolovan Wham (00:10:20):
Yes, it does. And I have no doubt that they still do this actually. But they won’t do it with Singaporeans or people whom are more empowered. Yeah. I mean about 10 years ago, I heard of a Sri Lankan who was a victim of sex trafficking. She told the embassy that the police put her in a cold room and assaulted her to force her, to give the name of the person who trafficked her. She said that she was in tears. These kinds of tactics are possible to do on disempowered marginalised populations because they are so scared, they will not want to speak up. Over the years, I’ve heard stories from other migrant workers who have alleged physical assault from police officers. But many of them are just afraid to file any official complaints or to do anything for fear of retaliation.
PJ Thum (00:11:18):
I guess for Singaporeans we can be more assured – especially for someone who is trying to make a political statement. Cause, in any other country, what you did wouldn’t be considered a crime. I mean, in Singapore, if you did it today, I don’t think it’d be considered a crime. But we do have to keep in mind that there are plenty of people who don’t have full citizenship rights in Singapore. I suppose that’s a whole separate conversation.
PJ Thum (00:12:05):
So before we go on let’s clarify. Cause I think there’s a lot of confusion out there, as well as based on what I’ve seen. What exactly happened at this meeting? So it was a closed door meeting with Joshua Wong skyping in and a few other speakers including yourself?
Jolovan Wham (00:12:29):
No, I wasn’t a speaker. I was actually the facilitator of the event. There were two other speakers, one was Kirsten Han and the other was Seelan Palay. The topic was on civil disobedience and activism and democracy. This was where Joshua Wong came in to talk about his experiences being involved in civil disobedience activities in Hong Kong. The entire conversation, the tone and tenor of the conversation was very moderate actually. The discussion was actually, I would say, quite a quiet discussion. It wasn’t anything which met the objectives of why the Public Order Act needed to be used to control this event. If you look at the objectives or the Public Order Act, it’s actually to prevent public disorder. Emotions weren’t running high at this event. Nobody was gesticulating or raising their arms and their fists. It was a very rational and calm discussion. So that’s why the decision to charge me was entirely misplaced, and of course, politically motivated. The event was attended by slightly over 50 people. It wasn’t really anything that attracted a lot of attention also. It was a public event though, in that the public was invited to attend but they had to RSVP so that we could control the crowd size. The venue that we were using was the Agora and it was a very small venue. You can’t really take more than 50 to 60 people in that space.
PJ Thum (00:14:20):
So, when the government charged you specifically as facilitator or organiser, what grounds did they give specifically for charging you?
Jolovan Wham (00:14:34):
That I didn’t apply for permit for cause-related event that was open to the public.
PJ Thum (00:14:42):
So, it’s not that the event was in any way dangerous or wrong; or what you were discussing was dangerous or wrong; or anything do with the content; or anything to do really with any sort of intention? The charge was purely sort of technical – you didn’t apply for a permit?
Jolovan Wham (00:15:01):
Yes, for something that was cause-related and public. Anything can be cause-related, right? Collecting coins is also a cause, right? If I encourage people to do that, it’s a cause. Like you said, right, the laws are deliberately worded very broadly and vaguely so that they can pick and choose how they want to apply it.
PJ Thum (00:15:19):
Throughout the trial, that’s where they come and emphasise that you didn’t apply for a permit. Did they actually bring up anything to do with your intentions? Or a consequence of the gathering? Did they imply or say outright that it would cause disorder?
Jolovan Wham (00:15:42):
No, nothing of that nature was talked about. The entire trial was run on technicalities. Technicalities that I had breached. The judges also insisted that I had the constitutional right to free speech and free assembly,.But because the constitution also constraints my right if they are public order concerns. That’s why I was guilty. Though, they never explained why what I did was a public order threat. I don’t think they wanted to go there as well because that would mean that their arguments wouldn’t make sense.
PJ Thum (00:16:22):
What did your defence focus on?
Jolovan Wham (00:16:27):
Well, we talked about the nature of the event and also that it wasn’t a public order threat. This was talked about in the State and the High Court but at the Court of Appeal, a very technical question was being posed to the judges; which was that: even if I had applied for a permit,nothing can stop an unreasonable government official from granting me that permit, even if I had grounds. Because the law does not,empower,the judiciary to instruct the Commissioner or Minister to give me a permit, if it was found that my reasons for applying were reasonable. So it was on a very technical question that the court of appeal was addressing.
PJ Thum (00:17:21):
Coming back to the broader pattern, this is what we’ve seen in a lot of different laws – where things aren’t [outrightly] banned, you just need to apply for a permit. But the ability to get a permit is extremely constrained and the people who make the decision have a huge, more arbitrary power whether to give it [or not].
Jolovan Wham (00:17:39):
That’s right. And to give an exampleRachel Zheng, who was the co-organiser of this event [who] was convicted a couple of years ago, applied for a One Woman Procession on International Women’s Day. She was denied of that permit. This is for a one person walking for, I think, 500 meters or something and it was denied. I have also personally made applications to hold placards at different parts of Singapore i at 7:00 AM for only five minutes. The permits for these applications were also not granted. So what kind of public order threat could there possibly be for me holding up a sign at seven in the morning for five minutes at an ulu part of Singapore? So, clearly it is not about whether the event will cause public disorder. It’s about wether they like you. Whether they think you’re an appropriate person to be granted this permit.
PJ Thum (00:18:39):
We’ll flip it around – who has been granted permits? Do you know?
Jolovan Wham (00:18:43):
Yes. A couple of years ago, I think when the penguin gate incident happened when the National Library wanted to pop the gay penguin storybook Jolene who is an activist applied for a permit and she got it. About 10 years ago NTUC – but of course NTUC would get it – also applied for a procession involving I think, hundreds of people to commemorate World Consumer Day. They got the permit. So, they pick and choose and decide who they think is worthy of the permit, without any objective or standard criteria. This is something that needs to be challenged.
PJ Thum (00:19:30):
And so can I ask about the – I know there are all sorts of laws constraining this – but you’re still in court for a whole bunch of other charges at this point in time? Plus you’re under investigation for the smiley face incident and the status of all of those is still up in the air?
Jolovan Wham (00:19:51):
It’s still up in the air. Yes.
PJ Thum (00:19:53):
But we can’t really talk about that because of the protection of justice administration and the law (inaudible)…?
Jolovan Wham (00:19:58):
Yeah.
PJ Thum (00:20:00):
Yet another law making it very difficult to have, you know, any sort of proper political discourse in Singapore.
Jolovan Wham (00:20:08):
Absolutely. Yeah.
PJ Thum (00:20:11):
Just to point out with this one – the smiley face one – you just went to that point in support of the climate strikers, held up a sign and then took a photo and left?
Jolovan Wham (00:20:24):
That’s right.
PJ Thum (00:20:25):
And then you got a letter from the police saying you were contravening, was it? You had broken the Public Order Act?
Jolovan Wham (00:20:31):
Yes. That I had possibly broken the Public Order Act because after I took the photo and I posted it on my socials saying that I was doing this in support of the climate strikers who were being investigated. So I think because I said I was doing in support of them. So that’s why they said, I had violated the Public Order Act because any kind of support can be interpreted as cause-related. So anything that’s caused-related, it requires a permit, right.
PJ Thum (00:21:03):
Oh boy.
PJ Thum (00:21:05):
Materially, it is no different from the millions of selfies and photographs being taken anywhere in Singapore at any point in time. But just because it’s, you really, and because it’s in support ofan issue, which I think everyone from the Prime Minister down has agreed – the climate crisis – is really important and yet somehow you’re getting this letter and being investigated and you had to go to the police station.
Jolovan Wham (00:21:39):
And they took my phone. But I knew they were going to take my phone. So that’s why whenever I get involved in activism and I get involved in these kinds of activities, I will use a phone which I don’t mind losing. So then my actual phone and my work stuff doesn’t get affected.
PJ Thum (00:22:00):
Right. Yeah. This is something that I think a lot of activists have become very accustomed to getting a sort of “burner phone” to show up at the police station with. So that when they demand your phone, you just hand it over.
Jolovan Wham (00:22:11):
Yep. That’s right.
PJ Thum (00:22:12):
Yeah. But at this point they haven’t given Rachel back a laptop, right? This is the laptop that was used in the…
Jolovan Wham (00:22:20):
…In The Skype event, yeah. Because we Skyped Joshua Wong through that laptop so they haven’t returned it. But she was aware of the fact that they might take it away. So she used the laptop that she doesn’t use on a daily basis.
PJ Thum (00:22:36):
It’s expensive being an activist, right? We get back-up laptop, back-up phone. I don’t know if Soh Lung has gotten her stuff back from the raid in [2016] after the election where they took her phone and her laptop.
Jolovan Wham (00:22:49):
Yeah, she did. I think she also managed to get them to pay her some amount because I think they broke them.
PJ Thum (00:22:56):
Really? Oh, okay. Good for her. Yeah. She took a very firm stand cause I remember they just want to give it back to her broken and she was like, “I’m not taking it back until you compensate me and admit that you broke it.”
Jolovan Wham (00:23:05):
Yes, that’s right. So that’s great because I think it’s important not to be cowered and to be bullied, So even if they persecute you, it’s important to take a stand and to assert your rights.
PJ Thum (00:23:18):
Because of course I think Terry has gone through so many computers every time TOC is raided, he’s lost another computer, but like you say, right, he’s taken a stand and he’s also contested all of these charges.
Jolovan Wham (00:23:31):
Yes that’s right. And it’s important to have the community also support you. So if you need another laptop, you need another computer, you know, somebody gives it to you. Yeah. Because they believe in what you do and they believe in your work. Yeah. So while we take kinds of risky actions, but we also have support behind us. The community who believes in what we do and I think that’s very important in order for your work to be sustainable and to survive.
PJ Thum (00:23:57):
You know this is one of the points I’ve been making – that actually, I think it’s far safer to be extremely public with what you do and your activism than to do it on the down low and the quiet. Because if you get a lot of attention the political cost for the PAP government is higher if they want to persecute you, if they want to oppress you, harass you because you’re more well known and a lot of other people will then immediately say, “Hey, this person is being harassed.” Whereas if you do it on the down low in the hopes of not getting attention, if you do get in trouble, no one knows, right?
Jolovan Wham (00:24:38):
Yes, that’s right.
PJ Thum (00:24:38):
And then the support community support. You know, one of the things that amazes me about Kirsten is that she shows up at the police station when people are being questioned for all these political activism. And even if she doesn’t know the person, she’ll show up there to support them and to let them know they’re not alone. Which is amazing. I mean, well, she’s an amazing person. But she can’t do that if she doesn’t know that you’re there.
Jolovan Wham (00:25:12):
Yes.
PJ Thum (00:25:12):
Then of course the community being willing to help you get equipments or help you learn about the ways in which we protect ourselves – such as getting the second phone or second laptop or the kind of things to prepare, contingency plans. All of that comes through the community and learning from each other. But again, if you don’t make yourself known that you’re doing this, then the community can’t support you.
Jolovan Wham (00:25:43):
Yes, that’s right. I think like what Kirsten and what several other people do when they go to the police station is to say that… We’re doing this because human rights are inalienable, right? It’s not just about because you are my friend, because I know you, or you are a good person. So anyone, regardless of who they are, should not have to suffer this kind of injustice. They should not have to be investigated by the police for something as minor as that. So I think when this public show of support, I think it also sends a very strong signal to the police officer who is doing the investigation that, we are watching them, we are monitoring them. Even though they will still go ahead with the investigation and the persecution, I think it’s still important that to do this.
Jolovan Wham (00:26:37):
Because those in power need to know that they are being watched by the people.
PJ Thum (00:26:42):
Well said. Okay. So let’s talk now about you actually going to prison. What was that like? I think most people we have [an idea that] it’s very scary and fearsome. So what was the experience? It’s your second time, right?
Jolovan Wham (00:26:57):
Yeah. It’s my second time. I should preface it by saying that I didn’t get a very long sentence, so that’s why, whatever feelings I have about it, I can’t say it’s representative. Each time I went in, my sentence was always the shortest among everyone that I shared the cell with. The first time it was seven days and this time around it was for 10 days. Prison is just basically very boring. It’s just very boring. You just have so much time and nothing to do. How I survive it is read a lot of books. I have never done so much reading in my life. So if you want to catch up on your reading, go to prison. I read three novels and they average five to 600 pages. I finished in 10 days. If you enjoy chatting and talking to people – which I do – because I enjoy hearing stories. I enjoy reading stories. I enjoy hearing stories so I have very good conversations with my cellmates. So it helps to be curious about people’s lives and to find out about the history. I was in a cell with someone who had lived through the cultural revolution.
PJ Thum (00:28:26):
Ooh. Wow.
Jolovan Wham (00:28:26):
This is a Chinese national, so I spoke to him a lot about that and I learned about his motivations. – Why did he come to Singapore? What are his experiences like? – And he was a migrant worker. He worked in a restaurant and he shared a lot about his experiences of exploitation and all that. So I enjoyed that conversation with him and the other person that was in the cell with me, was someone who had committed a sexual offence. So I listened to his story, I heard a lot about his life and yeah. So, you actually kinda, in some ways develop a bond with the people that you share the cell with. And these are people whom I might ordinarily wouldn’t know in everyday life. So these kinds of conversations I think, are in some ways quite precious to me. I do cherish them.
Jolovan Wham (00:29:25):
And quell the boredom, what you do is you need to create a routine for yourself. I did a lot of stretching exercises, I chit-chatted a lot, I read a lot. A lot of my routine was just focused on these three things. I showered a lot also because there’s really isn’t much to do and the cell can also get a bit warm sometimes because you are not given a fan. So each time you feel warm, you just strip and go to the shower area behind and have a shower. I think I must have showered 10 times a day cause there’s nothing else to do. But you just need to psych yourself up for it. Just keep doing stuff no matter how little things there are to do, but just keep doing them. And before you know it, time flies and it’s time for you to be released.
Jolovan Wham (00:30:22):
What’s difficult though. I think, was the first few nights because you are not given a bed or a mattress. Singapore prisons don’t have beds and mattresses,. You’ll only be given a straw mat to lie down on. So that was quite uncomfortable for me because have a skinny ass. So that meant my backside was aching for like the first three nights. But then after that you get used to it. So then from the fourth night onwards, I got used to it and I could sleep properly already.
PJ Thum (00:30:57):
Help us build a mental picture. So what I’m seeing is like a room, poured concrete. Is there a window?
Jolovan Wham (00:31:05):
Yes, there is a window, but it’s covered by a wire mesh. So you can’t really see outside. Though, a little bit of daylight comes in. It’s a four by two meter sized cell. The four by two meter is enough for you to move around. At the back is the toilet and the shower, so the toilet and the shower is together. It’s a squat toilet. Oh yes, I did a lot of cleaning when I was in the cell also. I mean we cleaned the cell so much because there is nothing else to do.
PJ Thum (00:31:39):
But do you have cleaning products?
Jolovan Wham (00:31:40):
Yes. You have rags that you can use, and soap so then you just do a lot of cleaning. I mean the cell was so clean you could eat off the floor.
PJ Thum (00:31:49):
So you are expected to clean your own cell?
Jolovan Wham (00:31:53):
Yes.
PJ Thum (00:31:53):
And then this toilet bathing wash area, is it in any way partitioned from the rest of the cell or is it just open?
Jolovan Wham (00:32:02):
It’s partitioned. So there is, what they call a ‘modesty wall’.
PJ Thum (00:32:06):
Okay. So that’s at one corner in the back. Then the front, is it like the old, tiny sort of bars or is it more of a door with a slit in it?
Jolovan Wham (00:32:19):
That’s a very stereotypical image of prison. Right, you have the bars that you see people grasping at the bar. It’s not like that, it’s just a door. Yeah. It’s a door with a window, but that window can only be opened by people outside. So, which means if the prison guards decide to open it, then you get to see outside. But if not, you can’t see anything beyond the four walls of the cell.
PJ Thum (00:32:44):
And there’s no ventilation then?
Jolovan Wham (00:32:45):
There is some ventilation, but it’s not that great. So there’s a little vent at the top of the door and you can feel a bit of wind coming in. So most inmates just sit around the cell shirtless. Yeah. So you just sit around you’re just staring at each other’s tits. That’s all.
PJ Thum (00:33:08):
Okay. So apart from that wash area, the bath area at the backthe bathroom area there’s no other furniture? Just like three mats that you [were given?].
Jolovan Wham (00:33:20):
Yeah. So you are just given three straw mats and two blankets. So one blanket you use as a pillow.
PJ Thum (00:33:28):
Oh so two blankets each?
Jolovan Wham (00:33:28):
Two blankets each. So I will use the books that have been given as my pillow and then the extra sets of clothing I will use to cushion my bum.
PJ Thum (00:33:39):
Wait, so you can bring in books, but I remember one of the things you said after your first time was that they never gave you the books that you brought in.
Jolovan Wham (00:33:47):
Yeah.
PJ Thum (00:33:48):
So these other books, where did they come from?
Jolovan Wham (00:33:50):
They’re actually from the prison library, so you can request.
PJ Thum (00:33:55):
Oh, okay.
Jolovan Wham (00:33:56):
Yeah. At first I was given books which were very religious…
PJ Thum (00:34:00):
Such as?
Jolovan Wham (00:34:00):
Like Joseph Prince’s musings. So there was a book on Joseph Prince and then there was ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’. Then there was a Chinese one that said [inaudible], which is, “don’t complain so much do more,”. So they had a lot of these kinds of books. I rejected all of them. I told the prison guard, “I’m returning all these to you. Can I have more books on fiction and history?” And he was actually nice enough to like actually search out those books for me and he gave them for me to read. So they were quite nice to me. I mean, of course that’s my experience. I suppose they are nice to me because they’re aware of the kind of case – why I’m inside and also because my offence is minor. But I think those with more serious offences, the conditions that they experience are a lot more inhumane.
PJ Thum (00:35:01):
We’ll get to that in a second. I just want to ask about meals and whether, you mentioned exercise, does that take place all in the cell or do you get out to have meals and exercise?
Jolovan Wham (00:35:15):
Okay. So because it is COVID-19, so the prisons have stopped all yard time. So all inmates are entitled to a one hour yard time. This is time for you to get out of the cell, get some exercise move around in other places, apart from your cell. So all that was denied because they were afraid that there will be an outbreak in prison. So I made a lot of noise about that actually, because it’s no joke to be locked up in itself or two whole weeks. So, that only happens for two weeks because that is the period in which the virus is set to manifest itself. So, any new inmate that enters prison will have to be confined in a cell for two weeks. But I never finished my two weeks term of course, because my sentences were seven days and 10 days respectively. But I made a lot of noise about it. I said, “isn’t it possible to stagger the yard time? So the inmates who don’t have the virus and inmates that might have the virus don’t mix?” I mean, there are 24 hours in a day and there’s nothing for us to do.
PJ Thum (00:36:28):
Right, that’s true.
Jolovan Wham (00:36:29):
So why can’t you stagger it? Administratively, I think it would have been more troublesome, but I mean, they can’t say because it’s troublesome, so that’s why [they] won’t do it. Because the mental health of all inmates is important. I mean, prison is a punishment, but it shouldn’t be degrading and inhumane. It should not lead to a deterioration of your mental health. Otherwise it goes against the principles of rehabilitation and restore and renew, which the prisons and the Yellow Ribbon campaign likes to talk about. But these appeals of course fell on deaf ears. I had also written a letter to the Commissioner of Prisons to ask for yard time for new newly arrived inmates, but that letters also went unanswered.
PJ Thum (00:37:18):
There’s some really interesting things here. First of all, why do you think… It sounds like there’s a certain rhetoric about rehabilitative prison system. When we talk about justice, from my limited understanding, there’s a sort of spectrum between retributive justice and rehabilitative justice. Studies have shown that rehabilitative justice is actually more effective at preventing, again, I’m not an expert on this, but my understanding is rehabilitative justice is more effective at preventing people from committing crimes again and keeping people out of prison. But we seem to have a justice system that on the one hand, rhetorically talks about rehabilitation, but from everything you’re describing and everything I’ve heard focuses more on retribution.
Jolovan Wham (00:38:26):
Yes, that’s right. So that seems to be the approach to justice. Rhetorically, like you said, they will say, “Oh, we believe in rehabilitation.”. But in reality that isn’t the experience of many inmates. I spoke to one inmate who was convicted of robbery and violence, and he was sentenced to seven years and 12 strokes of the cane and the caning aside – which is an atrocity and it’s very barbaric, but that aside, throughout the seven years, he was kept alone in a cell and had only one hour of yard time every day. So you can imagine being just locked up in the cell all by yourself for seven years of your life with only one hour to socialise and interact with others. How does this help in rehabilitation?
PJ Thum (00:39:23):
Solitary confinement, I thought… I mean, if you see any movie, I have no idea whether the movies are accurate, but solitary confinement is something that is worse than normal prison that you impose on prisoners who are misbehaving or something because it’s so much more [degrading]. As we have found out in this COVID crisis, being alone in a room and unable to go anywhere and alone is actually extremely mentally torturing. But this person just committed robbery and violence, and that was his day-to-day life.
Jolovan Wham (00:40:09):
This is day to day life. I don’t know how this helps in rehabilitating someone because when you dehumanise someone in such a way, how does that actually help that person develop and grow and turn over a new leaf? But that seems to be the overriding approach, which is that these kinds of conditions are supposed to deter you. But if you look at prison systems and in a lot of other places around the world with very low crime rates, they don’t treat the inmates in this way. So that link between dehumanising someone and low crime rate is actually very tenuous. I don’t think the evidence for that is strong just by looking at a lot of how other countries run their prison system. This guy also that I spoke to told me that he was punished for getting involved in a fight with someone and he was put in a punishment cell and the punishment cell is what you mentioned it’s like a solitary confinement. I mean, he was already in solitary confinement in his normal cell. But, but for this one, it was even worse because he didn’t even have one hour of yard time. He said that throughout his time in that punishment cell, the lights were on. He, he never got to experience darkness.
PJ Thum (00:41:41):
Oh my goodness.
Jolovan Wham (00:41:42):
The only way he could sleep was to put a t-shirt or a piece of cloth over his eyes for three months in that cell.
PJ Thum (00:41:48):
Three months?!
Jolovan Wham (00:41:49):
Yes, he was in the punishment cell all by himself for three months.
PJ Thum (00:41:53):
Wow. Okay. Oh, golly. Three months with no darkness. I can’t imagine that. I mean, that’s just scary. Wow. Okay. What you described in prison, there’s no opportunities to say…like what you might see in other places [like] take classes, learn a skill, learn something different, prepare yourself for a different life when you come out. It sounds like based on what you are… Oh, there are?
Jolovan Wham (00:42:28):
There are, so you can take classes. I think the people that I talked to tell me that they take classes not because they are really interested in them but they were just wanting an opportunity to get out of the cell. So some people pretend to be religious so that they can go for the religious classes. There are also opportunities to work. But the wait list is very long. So someone I spoke to said he had to wait a couple of years before he was allowed to work.
PJ Thum (00:42:55):
Are they paid for this work?
Jolovan Wham (00:42:56):
Yes. They are paid for this work and what I understand is that you get $1 a day,
PJ Thum (00:42:59):
$1 a day?
Jolovan Wham (00:43:00):
Yes.
Jolovan Wham (00:43:04):
These are all accounts from inmates so I’m not able to corroborate all this. So you don’t get POFMA-ed.
PJ Thum (00:43:11):
But the problem, again with Singapore right in general is that there are all sorts of things going on and we just don’t have the information.
Jolovan Wham (00:43:19):
That’s right. So the lack of transparency and accountability… I was trying to find out more about prisoners’ rights. There’s a Prisons Act but everything is so minimal and vaguely worded that it doesn’t really give you much insight into the kinds of rights that prisoners have.
PJ Thum (00:43:36):
Around the world, advocating for the human rights of prisoners is always tricky because there’s people [who] are going to feel like, “well, these people committed crimes and they deserve to be in there and they deserve to suffer”.
Jolovan Wham (00:43:55):
The common Singaporean response will be: “What you expect it’s prison. What you think about holiday chalet, is it?”. That’s a very common kind of response it’s like, “you deserve it”. Yeah. I think one of the big challenges and obstacles to prison reform is also changing people’s mindsets about what prisons should be like. If we want to advocate for prison reform or even abolition of prisons for that matter, I think we have to make that connection between rehabilitation and prison conditions itself. So people have to see that there is a benefit to society for prisons to be reformed.
PJ Thum (00:44:34):
I think also people need to understand, not everyone who goes to prison is some sort of hardcore unrepentant criminal.
Jolovan Wham (00:44:40):
That’s right.
PJ Thum (00:44:41):
Starting with yourself. There’s a lot of correlation between running a foul of the law and social class. There’s a lot of issues that exist within our broader society, about a lack of opportunities for people of certain classes, certain races and the kind of challenges that they face. I think there are some statistics which are very clear. For example correct me if I’m wrong, the majority of people in for drug offences are Malay. Right. The question then is, well, which way is the causation? As we see a correlation, but which way is the causation and how do we address that systematically and in terms of our society? Rather than simply sending a lot more Malay people to jail for drug offences.
Jolovan Wham (00:45:44):
Right. Yeah, the correlation between poverty and imprisonment. It’s very clear. So if we can do more to address the inequality and the poverty in our society, then we can definitely reduce the number of such convictions and the recidivism rates and all that. Yeah. So, in that sense, it’s a much more structural issue.
PJ Thum (00:46:09):
I think also to touch on something else, you said about deterrence. The fact that I think most people don’t know what goes on in prison, does that make it more of a deterrence to people or less? In the sense of, if you knew how incredibly dehumanising the prison experience. Now that I’m sitting here listening to you and learning about things that I didn’t know happened, would I then be more afraid of prison or would it demystify it? I don’t know if there’s an answer to that, but there seems to be a complete lack of transparency and awareness about what goes on after someone gets sentenced to jail. I’m very glad we’re having this conversation cause at least, some people learn. I’m learning about it now, but I have to wonder – is the whole system working across purposes? In the sense of people actually don’t realise how bad things are? On the one hand, this means that people don’t push for reform because there’s no understanding. But on the other hand, it also doesn’t really deter, you know what I’m saying?
Jolovan Wham (00:47:31):
Yeah. I guess for me the bigger issue is accountability. Because so much of what happens in prisons is shrouded in secrecy. Then the government says, “trust us, we know what to do”. So I’ve heard of stories of inmates being assaulted, for example, by prison guards. Of course I cannot corroborate these things. But it has happened. Also the punishment system within the prison is also very arbitrary. So if you commit an offence in the prison you won’t have access to any legal representation. There’s no due process. I know of someone who was caned in prison for committing an offence inside prison itself. The entire process does not have the same rigour that everyone else has in the judicial system. So it’s as if the prison system has its own justice system and process which isn’t rigorous at all. Because everything’s decided by them.
PJ Thum (00:48:43):
That’s dangerous.
Jolovan Wham (00:48:43):
So there’s no independent body that oversees how justice is meted out within prison itself when inmates comment offences. In theory, there’s supposed to be the Justice of the Peace, you know, all these people who are supposed to come in and check on inmates’ welfare. But in reality, at least from what I hear from those that I have spoken to, they’ve never met any of these people. If there are any issues that they want to raise, they can only raise to the prison guards. And of course the prison guards will protect themselves and protect their own institution.
PJ Thum (00:49:21):
Yes. I mean, there’s a lot of data about that sort of thing around the world. So if you were a prisoner and you wanted to file a complaint, you just complain to the prison guard?
Jolovan Wham (00:49:35):
That’s right. Yeah.
PJ Thum (00:49:36):
You don’t get to like put anything in writing or…?
Jolovan Wham (00:49:40):
I’m not too sure but at least from my conversations with the inmates who were disciplined inside, their experience has been that everything is done through the prison guards.
PJ Thum (00:49:53):
Oh, wow. Okay. Just to clarifyI missed this earlier. Mealtimes, are they in your cell or [the] common [area]?
Jolovan Wham (00:50:02):
Oh, it’s in the cell. So you there’s no common area.
PJ Thum (00:50:06):
Oh, okay.
Jolovan Wham (00:50:07):
So meals are all consumed in the cell and they are given to you through this little hole at the bottom of the door. So you’re literally like given the food like pigs in a pen, you know. It’s just food that’s just pushed at you.
PJ Thum (00:50:25):
The people who’ve managed to work. Did you speak to anyone who mentioned work?
Jolovan Wham (00:50:32):
Yeah, not extensively. Yeah. I did speak to someone who did some work before and that’s how I know that they are paying a dollar a day. Because that was what he was paid, he said.
PJ Thum (00:50:45):
So what I’m curious about is who is profiting here? Because clearly $1 a day is not a fair wage.
Jolovan Wham (00:50:54):
That’s right.
PJ Thum (00:50:55):
So who is he or she working for? Who are they working for and is someone making any legal profit? Right, right. This is a point that has been raised in other systems where inmates work for a pittance that is actually legalised slavery. It’s a huge, huge issue cause you’re being punished for a crime, but it doesn’t mean that you lose the right to a fair wage. So do you have any [idea]?
Jolovan Wham (00:51:27):
I mean the one that this guy spoke to, he didn’t tell me exactly what kind of work he was doing. Though, I suspect it was work that’s commissioned by the prisons itself, like, you know, delivering meals doing the laundry or cooking, preparing meals. I suspect that was the kind of work that he was doing that got him a dollar a day. But I know that there are private companies out there who will contract prison inmates to do things like call center. So if you call Starhub or Singtel or any kind of company that provides a service and has an operator, it is possible that the person who picked up the phone is an inmate. But I’m not sure how much they are being paid. But I suspect it’s going to be below market rate because we know from other instances and other practices that these companies often pay exploitative wages, like slave wages to, to these kinds of workers. One example I can give is like, for example, SIA, SIA used to have this sheltered workshop where they would allow those were intellectually disabled, they would give them the job of sealing their headphones. I think there was a time when they were only paid like a hundred or $200 a month and it was termed as an allowance. So it’s not a wage. So the way they frame it is to say that this is “vocational training”. So you should be grateful that this company has decided to give you training.
PJ Thum (00:53:07):
Training what? To seal? To just do something a machine could do, really.
Jolovan Wham (00:53:10):
So this is one example that I can cite that I’m aware of. I’m pretty sure that the exploitative practice will be similar in the prisons. I doubt they will paid market rates for the jobs that they are doing.
PJ Thum (00:53:29):
This is part of our whole broader approach that our government has instituted since the eighties where, the word is getting tied, but neoliberal approach where what you’re paid is directly connected to your value as a human being. And it works both ways. Right. If you argue that, “Oh, well, I’m going to pay someone so little because I can get away with it”, their value then is so much less. The other way is you think about it as well – their value as a human being, they’re being dehumanised because they’re a prisoner or because they’re disabled, then I can get away with paying them so much less. So it’s a sort of a two way street of both dehumanising people and not paying them a fair wage that has driven us into this incredibly exploitative global economy that exists today. This is a topic that we’ve been over before and it is widely recognised. But it’s just so frustrating to hear examples of this where either you get a low wage and therefore you’re the dehumanised or you’re dehumanised and therefore you get a low wage. How do we build a society that respects human dignity when we treat the least of us…. Cause we’re not even talking prisoners now, we’re talking [about] disabled people, you know? And you’re exploiting them as well because you can.
Jolovan Wham (00:55:06):
Yes. I think what’s missing here is that – I mean, a lot of these conversations are happening globally, but they’re not really happening locally in Singapore. So even if they are, it’s probably among like a very educated elite group. Yeah. So, how do we like mainstream these kinds of issues and conversations?
PJ Thum (00:55:30):
Well, part of the problem is it’s simply that we can’t talk about these things. There’s no sufficient data there. A lot of these conversations are suppressed, which brings us back to the main topic, right? The fact that just because you tried to have a conversation about peaceful ways of resisting the government, right. Civil disobedience, they send you to jail. So, you know, you have a peaceful conversation, very rational, very calm. A carefully controlled, and they send you to jail. How are we supposed to have honest conversations about a far more controversial topics like prison reform? You know, how we treat the least among us. We can’t! So this is, what’s so frustrating, and this is why it ends up being conversations – just people like us who know how to navigate the system and have far less to fear. This is, what’s so frustrating.
PJ Thum (00:56:30):
And then of course, then the conversation becomes… Or some people say it’s because people who are less educated don’t have the capacity to deal with this issue. Which is nonsense, right?
Jolovan Wham (00:56:44):
Yeah it is nonsense.
PJ Thum (00:56:44):
People who experience these issues intimately on a daily basis are the best people to understand it.
Jolovan Wham (00:56:51):
And they want to talk about it.
PJ Thum (00:56:54):
Exactly, yes. But they can’t because they have so much more to lose in some ways and so we end up shutting off ourselves also from people who can talk about these things or we just end up talking among ourselves. It just becomes very frustrating. Anyway, mini rant over, okay. So you’re trying to do something about this. You’ve started a website?
Jolovan Wham (00:57:19):
Yes, I’ve started a website. I started it because as someone who was going into prison, I needed information. I wanted to know what was happening inside so I wouldn’t get a culture shock and to prepare myself mentally also. I found that information was scarce and I had to dig into like Reddit and Hardware Zone and SammyBoy’s threads in order to get…
PJ Thum (00:57:46):
Really? of all places?
Jolovan Wham (00:57:46):
Yes!
PJ Thum (00:57:46):
Wow.
Jolovan Wham (00:57:48):
Those were the only places where, you know, some people would share their personal experiences about being an inmate. So that gave me this idea to start this website. A lot of people don’t know… When I went in the first time, there was this guy who didn’t know that there were no beds in prisons. He thought that there would, at the very least, be a mattress and then he was aghast when he found out it was only a thin straw mat. So, I believe a huge demand for a website like this – for people to know what prison conditions are like. So, I’m creating this website so that people can prepare themselves, mentally prepare themselves when they go in. I’m also trying to get more information about caning and I managed to speak to someone who was caned 12 strokes. So I’ll be updating the website soon to talk about that. What the whole procedure and the process is like. I’m also interested in improving prison conditions. I mean the denial of liberty is the purpose of prison, right. That’s the punishment. It shouldn’t be to degrade you further and treat you in an inhumane way so I think that aspect needs to change and I’m interested in looking at prison reform in that way.
PJ Thum (00:59:11):
And this website is prisonlife.sg?
Jolovan Wham (00:59:12):
Yes. It’s called prisonlife.sg. I’m also collecting stories of people’s experiences inside. So anyone who’s listening to this, if you have been in prison before, or you know of someone who’s been convicted, feel free to get in touch with me. I’d like to be able to document your experience. It will all be anonymous so you don’t have to worry about your identity being disclosed.
PJ Thum (00:59:36):
Right. And there’s contact information on prisonlife.sg so they can go there and get in touch.
Jolovan Wham (00:59:40):
Yes. So actually through that website I’ve already spoken to about seven or eight people.
PJ Thum (00:59:47):
You also wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Prisons about the conditions, right? That was specifically what you were talking earlier about the COVID situation and staggering…? Do you have any further plans beyond documenting? Have you thought about how you want to campaign for prison reform?
Jolovan Wham (01:00:12):
I think at the moment what’s important is to get information and data because there’s so little information, there’s so little transparency. I think our call for reform would be better if I can get as many stories and accounts from inmates as possible. And also to look at the research out there on prisons and other places around the world. I mean, I’m not aware of anyone doing prison reform work in Singapore, so it’s really a very new field. It’s also very new for me. I mean my whole life I’ve done mostly like work on migrant workers. But, I’m interested in looking at the criminal justice system. So prison is also one aspect. I’m also interested in looking at police procedures – how the police conduct themselves. I mean, there is this myth that our boys in blue are beyond reproach, which is not true.
PJ Thum (01:01:05):
[Inaudible].
Jolovan Wham (01:01:05):
That’s right. So when you talk to vulnerable populations, especially, police abuse happens there. All that is swept under the carpet. So I think we need to document more of these kinds of stories and get more data on these kinds of things.
PJ Thum (01:01:23):
Okay. When you were sentenced to jail, was there any information given to you at all? Were you just taken straight to jail pretty much and then put through the system? Or was there…? I mean, I suppose it’s too much to ask that you hand out some sort of pamphlet that says “what to know now that you’re going to jail”.
Jolovan Wham (01:01:42):
So I didn’t know anything or what was going to happen. They did ask me if I was gay.
PJ Thum (01:01:52):
[Why’s] That their business?
Jolovan Wham (01:01:52):
I suppose, maybe they think that if you are put in a cell with men and you are gay, you might sexually assault them or they might sexually assault you. So maybe for them, they’re looking at it from a security point of view. I don’t know. But they asked me that question – whether I was gay or straight and very funnily enough… I mean, the guy who asked me I think I was the only person who came out to him – the only inmate that came out to him – because when I said that I was, he looked at me with this shocked look and his eyes looked like they were going to pop out and there was silence actually for like two seconds and then he gave me the [tablet]…. Cause he was actually asking me a lot of questions. Like, what are your dietary preferences? What is your race? Blah, blah, blah, etc. So when it came to the sexuality question, he was shocked when I said I was gay. All that time he was ticking the options on the tablet. But when it came to the sexuality question, he refused to tick it. He passed me the tablet and said, “well, why don’t you just put there yourself that you are gay” So I was like, “okay”. I was asked that question the second time when I was Changi. Cause the first time I was asked, I was in remand. Second time, it was at Changi, but this time the question was a little bit more professional. So they didn’t ask whether I was gay or straight, they just asked, “have you had sex with men recently?” My answer was “no.” No, my answer actually was “yes” but in reality it’s “no” because I’m a born again Virgin. It’s been awhile. I wanted to also find out what would happen if someone says that yes, they’ve had sex with men recently. What would happen?
PJ Thum (01:03:56):
And then what happened?
Jolovan Wham (01:03:57):
Nothing actually. Though, when I was questioned on the second [day], cause on the second day I had a welfare interview. So the guard to me, “so you’ve declared yourself gay, huh? I said “yes, is that a problem?” and he said “Oh no, no, of course not.” And he just left it at that. Yeah. So I don’t think my disclosure led to anything. But again, I see myself as more as an extraordinary case because the reasons I am going in is political. So I’m not sure if the treatment would have been different for someone who was gay and was committing any [of[ the normal offence.
PJ Thum (01:04:40):
But it sounds like, based on what you said, no one declared themselves gay. They just…
Jolovan Wham (01:04:47):
Yeah. I suspect no one does because it’s very rare. And I think people are afraid of the consequences of declaration. So I was probably the only person in a long, long time who did that?
PJ Thum (01:05:03):
You mentioned a welfare interview. So are there any other sort of…what’s the right word…concessions? I don’t know if that’s the right word.
Jolovan Wham (01:05:15):
I’m not sure you see the welfare interview–
PJ Thum (01:05:18):
The welfare of prisoners, how is that taken care of in prison?
Jolovan Wham (01:05:21):
I had the welfare interviewed the first time I went in and I was the only person who had it in my cell.
PJ Thum (01:05:30):
Really the others…? So you asked the others and said [they didnt have the interview?]
Jolovan Wham (01:05:32):
The other two didn’t yeah. The other two didn’t get that interview. Yeah. So again, that’s why I feel that maybe because of the nature of my case, they were treating me a little bit more differently.
PJ Thum (01:05:44):
You see the fact that they can do that, right? Because if you’re saying, we have a professional prison, every prisoner should be treated equally and there are certain standards then either everyone gets a welfare interview or no one gets a welfare interview. Why is it you get welfare interview and they don’t get a welfare interview?
Jolovan Wham (01:05:59):
So I don’t know, maybe after I was released, they got their welfare interviews? I mean, I can’t confirm it. But it was quite unusual that I hit that welfare interview on the second day of my sentence.
PJ Thum (01:06:12):
And how long had the other two been in there?
Jolovan Wham (01:06:15):
They came in the same day as me.
PJ Thum (01:06:16):
Oh, okay.
Jolovan Wham (01:06:17):
But they didn’t get this interview.
PJ Thum (01:06:19):
And this was your first time or your second time?
Jolovan Wham (01:06:21):
This was my first time.
PJ Thum (01:06:21):
So you’re there seven days and by the end of the seventh day, neither of your other two – the people sharing your cell – had gotten a welfare interview?
Jolovan Wham (01:06:27):
That’s right.
PJ Thum (01:06:28):
Okay and what’s the purpose? You were told it’s a welfare interview?
Jolovan Wham (01:06:33):
Yeah, because he told me, “Oh, you know we just wanted to check on you. How things are? We are going check on your welfare.” So they asked me things like, “how’s the food?” And I said, “what do you think?”
PJ Thum (01:06:43):
It’s also only the second day.
Jolovan Wham (01:06:45):
Yeah. That’s right. “Did You sleep well last night?” So they asked me stupid questions. So I said, “well, I would sleep better if you gave me a bed”. He just smiled and I mean, it was a routine kind of questioning and they just had to show that they ticked the box. So I think that was the purpose of the interview in the event that, you know, they are questioned maybe by international groups or media. I don’t know. So I saw it as a ‘cover backside’ exercise.
PJ Thum (01:07:17):
Yeah. Because historically political prisoners do get questions directed, from outside, directed to the government or prisons from international NGOs, Amnesty raised your case as well. And Amnesty of course encouraged people to write letters, so they probably were checking those boxes. Okay. In terms of prison reform, what is the most obvious thing you need, do you think, needs to be done?
Jolovan Wham (01:07:54):
I think we need to look at agreed…international standards that have been agreed upon. So the United Nations actually has some minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. So I think we need to review the whole system in light of those principles that have been set out. I think that’s the first step. And also very importantly ask prisoners themselves and ex-inmates, “What are your experiences like?” and get them to give recommendations and suggestions. I doubt the Singapore government does this.
PJ Thum (01:08:28):
Yeah. I would seriously doubt that.
Jolovan Wham (01:08:31):
Seriously, yes. I would say they don’t do this at all.
PJ Thum (01:08:36):
Okay. WellI think we’re kind of running out of time. Is there anything else you…?
Jolovan Wham (01:08:43):
I think that’s about it. I mean, these kinds of things is always like you just go with the flow and then yeah.
PJ Thum (01:08:51):
So I guess…
Jolovan Wham (01:08:57):
It’s been an hour, right?
PJ Thum (01:08:58):
It’s been an hour. I guess we can turn this into a two part podcast. Okay. What was I going to ask you? Oh, you, you’ve got a bunch of cases, more cases pending. Do you think if you get convicted and fined again for your other cases, do you plan to go back to prison?
Jolovan Wham (01:09:17):
Yes. Yes. That’s the plan.
PJ Thum (01:09:20):
And like, have you thought about how you’d prepare? Is there anything you want to do before you go in? I guess it’s two separate things. One isif someone else was sent to prison, what would you recommend they do? Apart from reading through your website, of course. And the second is, are there things you’re going to try and find out the next time you end up inside? What you’re most curious about or what you could try and find?
Jolovan Wham (01:09:49):
It’s quite random actually. I mean, when I went in the second time, I wasn’t expecting that I would speak to someone who was convicted for seven years and sentenced to 12 strokes of the cane. And I also spoke to someone who experience prison life in detention barracks, which is different from Changi prison.
PJ Thum (01:10:09):
That’s the army, you mean?
Jolovan Wham (01:10:11):
Yes, the army one. And I hear that the conditions there are worse. Yeah. So I managed to make friends with these people. I mean, I don’t go in with like a set plan so to speak. So I look at the environment, I see what’s happening and then from there I make the most of it. The two cellmates that I was incarcerated with the last timewe are planning to meet, we’re going to have a reunion.
PJ Thum (01:10:43):
This is the Chinese national and the…?
Jolovan Wham (01:10:45):
Yeah. And the, and the local guy who was convicted of a sexual offence. So we’re planning to meet, have a reunion. They’re going to update me about what happens after 14 days, after the COVID isolation period.
PJ Thum (01:11:00):
So the Chinese National was six weeks and the other chap was…?
Jolovan Wham (01:11:03):
Eight weeks.
Jolovan Wham (01:11:04):
So they’re aware of this website that I’m doing. I’ve asked them to contribute to it. So they said they’re happy to do that. I’m hoping to more supporters of the cause through my stints inside.
PJ Thum (01:11:19):
Yeah. This sounds fascinating. If you can tell their stories and especially about their experiences with the system. I think a lot of people are very interested. [It can] Really help us understand our system and what we can change or reform or improve.
Jolovan Wham (01:11:34):
Already, I’m getting questions from students and people who want to know what’s happening inside but can’t get any information. Yeah. So I’m actually arranging to meet up with some of them to talk about it.
PJ Thum (01:11:48):
Cool. Awesome. Okay. Well, thank you very much, Jolovan, for taking time out from your weekend to come here.
Jolovan Wham (01:11:54):
Thank you for having me.
PJ Thum (01:11:55):
And this has been a fascinating conversation. Good luck for your website and for your pending cases. Again, for all of you who want to get in touch with Jolovan, go to prisonlife.Sg. There’s contact information there, send him questions, send him stories, send him information. I think this is a really important issue that we definitely need to know a lot more about. So I’m really glad you’re doing this. So thank you.
Jolovan Wham (01:12:22):
Yeah. Thank you for your support.

 

Producer

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes. Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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