Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 23 November 2020



Singapore charges activist who held up a smiley-face sign

Jolovan Wham posted bail of S$15,000 © via REUTERS

Singapore has charged a civil activist who held a sign bearing a smiley face for participating in an illegal public assembly involving only himself. 

On Monday, Jolovan Wham was formally charged with two counts of prohibited assembly without a police permit under the Public Order Act, which regulates “processions” in the country’s public spaces. 

Mr Wham, who has had several encounters with Singapore’s authorities, said he would not plead guilty to the latest charges and wanted the case to go to trial. The activist, who posted bail of S$15,000 ($11,000), was not obliged to submit a plea on Monday. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Friday.

[This case] reveals everything that is wrong with the city state's authoritarian system

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch

“The charges against me are unacceptable but not surprising,” said Mr Wham. “The Singapore government has shown time again the contempt it has for its own citizens. How can standing in public to take a photo be an offence?”

The first charge relates to Mr Wham holding a sign alone on the state courts’ steps calling for the criminal defamation charges against a writer and editor at a Singaporean independent news website to be dropped.

The second charge is linked to Mr Wham holding a drawing of a smiley face outside a police station after authorities summoned activists who had posted photos of themselves on social media holding signs in public with messages demanding action on climate change. Mr Wham posted photos of himself holding both placards online.

Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch in Asia, said the smiley face matter was a “ridiculous case” that “reveals everything that is wrong with the city state’s authoritarian system”, which has been ruled by the same party since independence in 1965.

Singapore should scrap its rights-abusing Public Order Act, and recognise that a truly 21st-century economy also requires systems to let people participate and express their views about needed reforms,” he added.

Speakers’ corner in Hong Lim Park is the only place on the island where Singaporeans can protest without a police permit.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing, Mr Wham posted a selfie on Twitter wearing a T-shirt and a mask with a smiley face, with the caption: “My guilt is plain for all to see.”

Mr Wham’s supporters have responded to the charges by posting selfies with drawings of smiley faces under the hashtag #smileinsolidarity. More than 4,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the right to freedom of assembly in Singapore.

Earlier this year, Mr Wham was jailed for hosting an event to which Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, participated via Skype.

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