It feels surreal that we’re almost at the end of 2020. Sometimes it feels like it’s gone by in a blurry flash — I find it hard to keep track of what really happened and what I’ve accomplished this year. Other times it feels like 2020 has dragged on forever, and too many things have happened for it to really just be one year.
It feels fitting, then, that the final special issue for 2020 (as usual, sent directly to Milo Peng Funders, then made public on the website) takes a look back at some of the notable events of the year, and what was written in We, The Citizens about them. 2020 was the first year in which I did most of my writing and reporting for this newsletter, so let’s go:
The first quarter of 2020 was still somewhat “normal”; lots of us gathered and had our usual Lunar New Year celebrations, and even though there were some cases of COVID-19 in Singapore people were generally calm. In February, though, we saw cases of people in hoarding mode, ahead of confusion and anxiety over what the DORSCON levels (remember those?) would mean. Supermarket shelves were cleaned out of things like loo rolls, instant noodles, and condoms. Chan Chun Sing was not impressed, as we could all tell from a leaked audio recording of his comments to the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
March and April
In March, I was writing about police investigations into activists, what happens, and what to keep in mind if you ever get hauled up for questioning. COVID-19 was a concern, but didn’t seem like it was going to be that terrible at this point in time. In early April, We, The Citizens even published the English version of a piece written in collaboration with Roy Ngerng and Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based journalists at The Initium, about how Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have done great jobs dealing with the novel coronavirus.
Just days after that piece was published, though, things kicked off. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore would go into a “circuit breaker” beginning 7 April; just two days before that lockdown was to begin, the first migrant worker dormitories were gazetted and quarantined as it became clear that COVID-19 had exploded in these cramped accommodations. Again in collaboration with The Initium, I wrote a long piece examining the conditions that made the dormitories disasters waiting to happen, and how the workers were struggling to deal with being locked in as a potentially deadly virus circulated. In the course of writing this piece as well as after, some of the workers I was in touch with did catch COVID-19, to varying degrees of severity. Thankfully, everyone I know has recovered.
Although the majority of the workers who were infected with the virus only had mild symptoms, or were asymptomatic, there were others who suffered more. Some workers who were positive for COVID-19 died in this period, but weren’t included into the COVID-19 death tally. Activist Kokila Annamalai and I looked into this, seeking explanations for how deaths are classified as COVID-19 related.
Some myth/falsehood-busting also had to be done in May, after messages began to circulate on WhatsApp and social media claiming that migrant workers weren’t suffering and that they were actually benefitting from the pandemic because they could get paid without having to go to work. It was absolute nonsense.
The extended “circuit breaker” ended on 1 June, but for many people Phase 1 was pretty much a continuation of the lockdown. During this period, I became aware that many people on employment passes were still stuck outside of Singapore, unable to get permission to return after the borders shut. Apart from being separated from family in Singapore, there were also issues like trying to run companies remotely while stranded abroad, or having to continue paying rent for flats that had been left empty. For trailing spouses who were stuck in Singapore with their partners unable to return, the isolation and anxiety was also difficult to bear.
And then it was ELECTIONS!!!
Because of the pandemic, GE2020 was different from the ones that had come before, with the nightly rallies banned and a lot of campaigning shifting online to social media platforms. While we lost out on the atmosphere of the rallies, I realised that one side effect of this change was that people did seem to pay a bit more attention to manifestos and actual issues — my issue summing up the different party manifestos did far better than I thought it would.
I’m not going to go through a blow-by-blow of GE2020, but it had its fair share of mess, one being the announcement of the investigation into WP candidate (now MP) Raeesah Khan. The news blew up on social media, where people criticised it for being politically motivated and also shutting down important discussions about race, discrimination, and double standards.
If you’d like to relive some other highlights of GE2020, here’s the wrap-up I did right after. Post-GE, some anxiety began to get expressed about “cancel culture” and whether there’s still space for “moderates” in Singapore, which I talked about here.
In September, Parti Liyani was acquitted by the High Court of all charges of theft against her. In acquitting her, the High Court judge also raised issues about the investigation and the prosecution, and the case created quite a stir, raising questions about privilege, discrimination, access to justice, fairness, and also the illegal deployment of domestic workers.
That same month, we also saw the case of Syed Suhail, a death row inmate who was granted a last-minute reprieve from execution. In looking into Syed’s case, it was found that the prison had been forwarding correspondence — including correspondence between him and his then-lawyer — to the prosecution without his consent. (I also wrote a general FAQ on the death penalty for drugs at this time.)
In October we got the drama of the trial for the defamation case Lee Hsien Loong brought against Leong Sze Hian. I actually crawled out of bed to queue for a ticket to get into the courtroom on the first day so I could write this summary.
There was good news in October, though, with Gobi Avedian’s life saved after the Court of Appeal set aside his death sentence.
Following the uproar about Parti Liyani, Shanmugam stood up in Parliament to defend the system. Shockingly, he seemed to be re-litigating the case, casting doubt on Parti’s innocence.
In November, I also finally published a story I’d been working on for a really long time, about a prison inmate alleging abuse and mistreatment while inside. Separately, I also summed up the Court of Three Judges’ grounds of decision in the Lee Suet Fern case, where they suspended her for 15 months.
And that brings us to December, where hopefully we can now all have a good rest and a break to prepare for 2021. Maybe everyone have lots of good food and sleep, and if you would like something sweet to watch on Netflix over the holidays I recommend Le Coup de Foudre, Two Fathers, and Touch Your Heart, all shows I watched to get the warm fuzzies.
I’ve also updated the civil liberties overview pinned to the top of this newsletter’s webpage — it’s meant to be a continually updated piece summing up the situation in Singapore with regard to civil and political rights. Feel free to share if you know people who might find it useful!
Thank you, everyone, for being here this year. All the reporting and commentary listed in this issue would not have been possible without the support of Milo Peng Funders — your support is what helps me put food on the table (and very importantly, feed my cats) while also working independently!
From now until 31 December 2020, new Milo Peng Funders can get 20% off: