There are some people in the world who seem so dedicated to their jobs that it’s hard to believe they could have ever done something else. For those individuals, their identities become wrapped up in their professions—what they do becomes who they are. As one of Singapore’s most prominent activists, Kirsten Han certainly belongs in this group.
Kirsten Han, 34
Han is an anti-death penalty activist and has found herself in many an unenviable position over the years—including in the middle of several public police investigations. Her first encounter with the police happened in 2017 at a candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison for Prabagaran Srivijayan, a man who would be executed for drug trafficking the following morning. Participants at the vigil, including Han, were stopped by the police and told not to leave the country.
Earlier this year, Han was once again questioned by the police for allegedly taking part in public assemblies held outside Changi Prison Complex without a permit. This is not Han’s first—and likely will not be her last—brush with the law. Her work, which seeks to reform the justice system in Singapore, starting with abolishing the death penalty, inherently requires her to push up against the strict boundaries erected to keep current systems in place. To transform these systems, as Han and her organisation Transformative Justice Collective want to do, means challenging the powers that be.
“I’ve had to learn to untangle two things: what is legal and what is actually harmful. Holding up a placard may be illegal in Singapore, but I didn’t hurt anyone or cause any harm. I have a clear conscience. So that just means that the law may be too oppressive,” Han says over Zoom one afternoon.
“I’ve realised that I can’t force people to change how they feel about the death penalty—all I can do is provide entry points for them to encounter the issue”
She is sharp and coolly articulate, verbalising complex thoughts and ideas quicker than I can jot them down. Her manner, in contrast to what lopsided media portrayals of her may conjure, is gentle and kind as she patiently takes me through the unsettling statistics of Singapore’s death penalty executions this year.
While it is undeniable that drug use and trafficking exact high costs on society—500,000 global deaths were linked to drug abuse in 2021, while a local study done by Nanyang Technological University found that drug crimes cost Singapore S$1.2 billion in 2015—Han is attempting to open up a conversation about the use of capital punishment to combat the influence of drugs in Singapore.
Anti-death penalty activism may be high stakes by nature, but the risks are heightened in Singapore. With a culture that places civic participation low on its list of priorities and a government that keeps a close eye on voices of dissent, being a practising prison reform activist in Singapore is somewhat like living with a target on your back. Progress is slow and often comes at significant personal cost.
“The pace of executions in Singapore has greatly ramped up this year and the families of prisoners on death row are living on edge,” Han says. From the beginning of 2022 till August this year, 10 men have been executed for drug offences in Singapore. No death penalty executions were reported by the country in both 2020 and 2021.
Han currently works closely with families of prisoners on death row while recording her experiences in her newsletter entitled We, the Citizens. “I meet the families of these individuals up close. Once you see the way they suffer, it’s not possible to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this. It’s going to get me in way more trouble than it’s worth’.”
“There’s no such thing as too much trouble when it’s somebody’s life. How do you tell someone who is about to be killed that you don’t want to help them anymore because someone may write nasty things about you in a newspaper?”
For someone so passionate, it may be surprising to learn how Han found her way into activism. Having returned to Singapore after graduating film school in New Zealand, a younger Han was juggling a job hunt with freelance projects when a friend volunteering with now-defunct publication The Online Citizen asked if she would be willing to help out with a story on something she knew nothing about at the time—the death penalty.
“How do you tell someone who is about to be killed that you don’t want to help them anymore?”
“I thought to myself that it might be weird for me to be a part of a team asking people about the death penalty when I had no idea what it was about. So I did some reading before I went. That was the first time I looked deeper into the mechanics of how the death penalty works in Singapore.”
Han says that she may even have unknowingly supported the death penalty as a teenager. Like the average Singaporean, she understood nothing of what the legislation actually entailed. She didn’t know then that in Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for drug trafficking offences, which means that if an individual is found guilty, a judge has no choice but to sentence them to death. “That was the first thing that didn’t sound right to me. How could it be that mitigation doesn’t apply for something as serious as capital punishment?”
Han’s accidental journey into activism—“I grew up a typical middle-class Chinese kid. The system had pretty much been built for me,” she recollects—mirrors pathways taken by older-generation activists who played a crucial hand in moulding the scene here, like Constance Singam.
It may also explain why Han, despite the severity of pushback she has seen, has a nuanced view of what the way forward is. To her, being effective in one’s activism is far more essential than being the loudest voice in the room.
“I’ve realised that I can’t force people to change how they feel about the death penalty—all I can do is provide entry points for them to encounter the issue. Hopefully, then, people can better understand the reality faced by the men on death row—some of whom spend their budgets for their last meal buying snacks and drinks for the other guys in their prison cell block.”
It may be their final opportunity to enjoy something they love or relive a childhood memory, but they choose to spend it bringing a moment of joy to the friends they have made in captivity—whom they know are destined for a similar fate down the line.
Constance Singam, 86
We are in Constance Singam’s home, clustered around her dining table as she gets her make-up done for her Vogue photo shoot. Singam suffers from chronic sciatica, the pain from which makes it difficult for her to be outdoors for extended periods of time.
No matter, for she has a steady stream of visitors—writer friends she has known for years, younger activists seeking her counsel or starstruck journalists like myself—nearly every day of the week. Her apartment, which she has lived in for 25 years, is like a perfectly preserved time capsule—full of quaint wooden furniture, pieces of art and bird memorabilia.
Connie, as Singam is affectionately known to those close to her, is well-loved by her neighbours, including the staff at the provision shop in her estate. I get my first glimpse of why Singam commands the respect she does when Han joins us for the photo shoot. Han has had a particularly heavy day—she is coming from a death penalty execution that took place earlier that morning.
Singam wraps her arms around Han the moment she walks in, shoulders slumped. “I am so sorry,” Singam whispers, as Han sags against her and reciprocates the hug. “But you are a good girl, you go through all this pain to help others.”
“If women come all the way to the police station and lodge a report, why don’t they want to carry it through to court?”
Tears prick at my eyes. Han had been with the family before and after the hanging happened. She had barely had a moment to grieve or process the fact that a life she had been fighting to save for weeks had been lost, for she needed to stay strong for the inconsolable family members of the executed prisoner.
It was with Singam that she could finally relax as she knew that if anyone could understand the complexities of how she was feeling—how she was devastated and yet knew that she needed to keep going—it was Singam.
That is who Singam really is—the godmother of activism in Singapore. As a pioneering member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), she had served as the president of the group for three different stints, the latest one lasting from 2007 to 2009.
She has been an active feminist for over 40 years and has the wisdom— and an abundance of colourful stories— to prove it. In the ’80s and ’90s, as the only representative of a women’s rights organisation present at meetings alongside ministers and commissioners of police, Singam would repeatedly raise the question of why, despite a high number of domestic violence and rape reports to the police, victims would seldom take their cases to court.
“If women come all the way to the police station and complain, why don’t they want to carry it through to court? There must be a reason. Eventually, they got tired of me asking and said that I should write a report suggesting what they should do.”
Jumping at the opportunity, Singam put together a committee to investigate. They would meet up on the weekends to study the data in Singapore and systems in other countries like Australia and Canada. Eventually, they discovered the reason why cases of domestic violence and rape rarely went to court.
“It was because the victim’s first experience with the police officer was so traumatising. They felt so disempowered that they did not want to put themselves through the process of bringing a case to court,” Singam recounts. “We needed to find a way to make the process more compassionate, so we crafted a report explaining the problem and [proposed] setting up a protocol on how to improve the system. Three months after I submitted the report, it had not been acknowledged, not even to say thank you.”
Then, a media representative rang Singam on the phone one evening to ask for a quote on a domestic violence incident that had occurred in a different part of the world. “I told the reporter, ‘We submitted this report to the committee in Singapore, but haven’t heard anything back from them.’ It made headlines on the seven o’clock news that night. Within an hour, I got a phone call from the commissioner. ‘Constance, I’ve misplaced your report. Could you send me another copy?’ I responded, ‘I will come and give it to you personally’.”
Singam throws her head back and laughs. To her, this was merely one of many instances when she had taken on the brass throughout her lifetime of advocacy. To me, it was a first-hand account of a monumental moment in Singapore’s history—a moment that would go on to forever change the way domestic violence and rape was treated in our country. What would follow was a series of training sessions AWARE conducted with the Singapore Police Force to improve the way victims were treated in the process of reporting crimes and taking them to court.
Singam may have spent her life in the pursuit of equality for women, but the wealth of her experience extends far beyond the confines of feminism. Her keen understanding of Singaporean society and how people think lend her great insight into how different movements in Singapore—including anti-death penalty activism—can move forward.
“In Asian societies like ours, individual lives tend to matter less than what people perceive as collective good,” Singam says. “So the key is to change their minds about what is actually good for us as a community. To change a Singaporean’s stance on the death penalty, you have to convince them that sentencing a disenfranchised person to death is not just a problem for them, but indeed, for all of us.”
Tammy Gan, 24
Originally an environmentalist, activist Tammy Gan is beginning to branch out. Through op-eds in various media outlets and content on her own platform, she has talked about the perils of fast fashion, the value of mutual aid and even rallied against the death penalty. Having finished university, she is now juggling a myriad of projects, including working virtually with Advaya, a UK-based transformative education brand.
“I have been fortunate enough to not have to enter a fixed corporate job. I’ve allowed my intuition to lead me, jumping into opportunities that came my way and felt right,” Gan says. When I first approached Gan to be a part of this feature, she turned it down. “I was hesitant about taking up space in the scene, in place of people who are really doing much more incredible work,” she explains. This was not a symptom of imposter syndrome as much as it was a sign of somebody who places fairness and representation at the centre of everything they do.
In part, this intrinsic awareness of intersectionality can be attributed to the young age at which Gan and her fellow activists became sociopolitically conscious. Where both Han and Singam discovered their causes in adulthood, Gan is part of a generation that grew up with an intimate knowledge of social justice firmly embedded in their world view. For this generation of activists, their formative years were shaped by learning about what exactly is wrong in the world and how they can work to fix it.
“There is a strong history of political consciousness in Singapore, and the idea of resistance is not at all a Western import”
Gan is fiercely passionate about challenging the frequently held notion that activism in Singapore has foreign roots. “There is a strong history of political consciousness and youth activism in Singapore. Some of this may have been forgotten because there was never proper archival of these movements before they got stamped out. But the idea of resistance and standing up for what you think is right is not at all a Western import—the issues we fight for here are so often uniquely Singaporean.”
Gan elaborates: “Once we begin to record the work Singaporean activists have done, we’ll begin to see this fabric of activist inspiration that isn’t from the West. This will help to grow a generation of activists here who are informed by that history and experience.”
An archival of that sort is something Gan is keen on doing some day. “Part of the reason why I won’t do it right now is because it can be quite dangerous to have all of that down in writing. But eventually, looking at local activist history is going to make our work more effective.”
Where Gan is looking back to her forebears for guidance, experienced activists like Han are impressed at how the younger generation have chosen to organise themselves. “Gen Z seem to work in collectives that don’t spotlight a particular person. And this is a conscious choice, because they have seen how previous generations of activists have sometimes been bogged down by personality politics, or there is a lack of continuity when one person leaves an organisation.”
“Gen Z seem to work in collectives that don’t spotlight a particular person as they have seen how activism can be bogged down by personality politics”
Han points to the SG Climate Rally, a group of younger activists working to bring the climate crisis to the forefront of public consciousness. “You can’t pin down exactly one person as the face of the collective. I think that is a thoughtful choice—there is a power in anonymity.”
The common threads that join generations of activism in Singapore are no mere coincidence. There is sacred knowledge that has been passed down from activist to activist, even if there has never been a formal record of the work that was done. The mutual support and aid that exist in our civil society are what feed its soul. The way forward—Singam, Han and Gan can all agree—is to come together to share stories and solidarity.
“There is so much potential to create spaces for collective visioning and collective imagination, to expand our minds and raise consciousness together,” Gan says.
Han agrees: “I’ve learnt that activism is an issue of imagination. When we are taught not to question what is happening, what is actually happening is a limiting of imagination so that we cannot even see other possibilities. What keeps me going is imagining a future Singapore that I would like to live in—together with my friends.”
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Hair Greg O using Keune and Shiseido
Make-up Angel Gwee using L’Oréal Professional and Anastasia Beverly Hills
Stylist’s assistant Jason Sonja
Below is a response to this story from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Singapore.
Ministry of Home Affairs’ Response to Vogue
1. We refer to the article “Kirsten Han, Constance Singam and Tammy Gan on the future of activism in Singapore” published in Vogue Singapore on September 12, 2022.
2. Your writer says that anti-death penalty activism may be high stakes in nature, but the risks are heightened in Singapore. This is untrue. Singaporeans are free to and do express their views and champion various causes. One example is PAVE, which, through its advocacy, brought about amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act which included the setting up of a Protection from Harassment Court. Activists also freely express their views on the death penalty in Singapore.
3. Why is the death penalty imposed on some drug traffickers in Singapore?
4. Drugs exact a significant toll on lives and society. Globally, 500,000 deaths were linked to drug abuse, in just one year in 2021. In the US alone, there was a record number of more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021. The opioid epidemic is an important reason for the recent decline in US life expectancy. Around the world, large numbers of babies are born with withdrawal and addiction symptoms. In the US, nearly 80 newborns are diagnosed every day with neonatal abstinence syndrome. There are also significant monetary costs incurred by countries because of drug abuse. The estimated economic cost of opioid use disorder and fatal opioid overdose in the US was estimated to be about USD$1 trillion in 2017. The total annual cost of drug misuse was around 15.4 billion pounds in the United Kingdom in 2014. Locally, a study done by NTU found that drug crimes cost Singapore S$1.2 billion in 2015.
5. There is often a focus on abolition of the death penalty and on the emotions of the drug trafficker and family members, without also considering that drug traffickers and the drugs they traffic inflict very serious harms – not only on individual abusers, but also their families and the wider society. Traffickers destroy many thousands of lives. The traffickers make a cynical calculation, to traffic drugs for personal gains, profiting from the misery of their victims.
6. In a recent case in Singapore, a man killed his mother and grandmother after he took LSD. How many people cry for these innocent lives lost linked to drugs?
7. Our tough approach to drug trafficking has been effective. The number of drug abusers arrested each year in Singapore has decreased from over 6,000 in the 1990s, to about 3,000, even though our population has grown from about 3.05 million people in 1990 to about 5.5 million in 2022.
8. Most Singapore residents support the capital sentence and are of the view that it deters serious crimes. Based on a 2021 survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs, more than 80% believed that the capital sentence had deterred the commission of these offences in Singapore.
9. In seeking to glamourise campaigners against the death penalty you are pushing an unbalanced argument that does not point out the consequences of the actions of drug traffickers.
MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS
- WHO Fact Sheet – Opioid Overdose
- CNN, In 2021, US drug overdose deaths hit highest level on record, CDC data shows (May 2022)
- Annual Review of Public Health, Declining Life expectancy in the United States: Missing the Trees for the Forest, 2020.
- CDC Data and Statistics About Opioid Use During Pregnancy
- CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – State Level Economic Costs of Opioid Use Disorder and Fatal Opioid Overdose – United States 2017
- House of Commons, Debate Pack CDP-0230, Human and Financial costs of drug addiction, 21 November 2017
- MHA COS 2022 on ‘Singapore’s Approach to Criminal Justice’
- MHA COS 2022 on ‘Singapore’s Approach to Criminal Justice’
- MHA COS 2022 on ‘Singapore’s Approach to Criminal Justice’