Singaporean social worker and civil rights activist Jolovan Wham today begins his 10-day jail sentence for organising an indoor event featuring Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong via a Skype call four years ago.
In a Facebook post on Friday (21 August), Mr Wham said — after his appeal against the conviction was dismissed — that the decision was “a farce but hardly surprising”.
“The panel of 5 judges can hide behind their legalese but any functioning democracy with a true respect for the rule of law and our Constitutional rights would not have found me guilty of hosting a peaceful, indoor discussion with only 50 people,” he said.
Despite the outcome, however, Mr Wham maintained that it was “still important” for him to have made the appeal.
“Win or lose, every act of resistance is a refusal to stay silent, and a refusal to let oppression and fear be normalised in Singapore,” he stressed.
Mr Wham also thanked his counsels Eugene Thuraisingam, Suang Wijaya, and Johannes Hadi for representing him pro bono in the case.
He also extended his gratitude to other “civil society activists and friends who stood in solidarity” with him.
“I will make the best of the situation to learn more about prison life while I’m inside,” Mr Wham assured.
Yesterday, the Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Wham’s final appeal against the conviction.
The court is set to release its written judgement at a later date.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said in a statement yesterday evening that Mr Wham’s imprisonment “shows the intellectual and political insecurity of the People’s Action Party, which is afraid of challenging ideas from both their own people and other places like Hong Kong”.
“Only in the thoroughly warped world of Singapore governance would an activist be sent to prison for having someone Skype call from overseas into a meeting,” he said.
Mr Robertson added that “Singapore’s intolerance for freedom of association and expression is really shocking”, and that such a decision is a form of “politically motivated persecution”.
Background of the case
The case pertains to a public indoor event called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements”, which Mr Wham had co-organised on 26th November 2016.
The discussion featured Mr Wong via a Skype call — popularly known as the face of the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — as well as journalist Kirsten Han and artist Seelan Palay.
As a result of the event, Mr Wham was found guilty in January last year of organising a public assembly without a permit under the Public Order Act and refusing to sign a police statement under Section 180 of the Penal Code.
The following month, he was subsequently handed fines of S$2,000 and S$1,200 respectively, or 10 days’ and 6 days’ jail respectively in default of paying the fines.
In his appeal to the High Court, Mr Wham challenged the constitutionality of the provision that criminalises organising a public assembly without a permit on the basis that it infringed the constitutional right to free speech.
Justice Chua Lee Ming, however, dismissed his arguments and upheld Mr Wham’s conviction and sentence in October last year.
Wham then applied for leave to refer questions of law of public interest to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal gave the green light for Mr Wham to proceed with his constitutional challenge against the provision creating the POA offence in March this year, but rejected leave in respect of the questions relating to refusal to sign police statements.
Nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience among some of the most necessary “tools” to expand Singapore’s “already shrinking civil and political space”: Jolovan Wham
This is not the first time Mr Wham has opted to serve a jail sentence in lieu of paying a fine.
At the end of March and early April, he served a week-long jail term in Changi Prison after being found guilty of contempt of court.
In a Facebook post on 31 March — the date his jail sentence commenced — Mr Wham said that acts of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience are among some of the most necessary “tools” for opening up Singapore’s “already shrinking civil and political space”.
Such acts, said Mr Wham, “often starts with one person, or a small group of people”.
The activist said that a society that has endured “[d]ecades of oppression and persecution” is bound to become acclimatised to “injustice, especially political injustice and threats to our civil rights”.
“We have shrugged it off so much that over time, we’ve become numb to it, instead of feeling outraged,” Mr Wham added.
Said apathy, he said, is a result of the “normalisation of fear”.
“If we can’t speak up, assemble freely, and campaign without looking over our shoulders, the reforms we want can only be done on the terms of those in power. We will have to wait for when they are ready,” said Mr Wham, adding that the only issues that might have a chance at being addressed without such freedoms are possibly those that are “low-hanging fruit”.
“All the levers of change are controlled and those who don’t follow the script are persecuted. We are so muted, we can only plead, but never make our demands as equals,” he added.
Thus, said Mr Wham, the people “need to speak our truths, and to do so, we should refuse to fear”.
“I refuse to be complicit in the diminishment of my spirit: resistance is no longer a choice in a system determined to de-humanise you,” he said.
Mr Wham, however, acknowledged that not everyone may have the privilege to “not only negotiate the boundaries but transgress them”.
“Not everyone can take this position and I understand those who can’t, because the costs may be high; my privilege, on the other hand, allows me to take greater risks, and for that I am grateful,” he said.
“Those of us who can risk it, should. Those who can’t, should show their support, because solidarity is the first step to change,” Mr Wham urged.