The two charges currently faced by social worker Jolovan Wham for holding up a smiley sign and a placard on separate occasions has attracted attention from major international media outlets.
Reuters reported Mr Wham as saying in a text message that branding what he had done an assembly — in both instances, he held the signs alone — “is an abuse of the English language”.
“How can one man standing in public for a few seconds for a photo op be a threat to public order?” He questioned.
South China Morning Post reported Mr Wham as saying that he finds it “bizarre” for him to be “charged for actions that have not disturbed public order or safety”.
“It makes a joke of our constitution, which guarantees us freedom of speech and assembly,” he added.
The Guardian quoted the civil rights activist as saying that while many tend to perceive Singapore as “a progressive, modern, developed country”, the republic is also “a country where a lot of people also live in fear”.
“People are often afraid to speak out and say what they think about the political situation in the country, or even to talk about social issues,” he added.
The New York Times in its briefing on Tuesday reported Mr Wham as saying regarding the two recent charges against him that they show how laws in Singapore can be applied “in ridiculous and overbearing ways.”
Al Jazeera also reported on Mr Wham’s charges, with references to artist Seelan Palay’s case, in which Mr Seelan served a two-week jail term in lieu of a S$2500 fine after being found guilty of conducting a “procession” without a permit under the Public Order Act (POA).
Mr Seelan opted to serve jail time after refusing to pay the fine.
The offence he was found guilty for pertained to an art piece he performed called “32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror” at Hong Lim Park in 2017.
Mr Seelan was charged by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for allegedly holding a “public procession […] to publicise the cause of “the illegal detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh”.
As no permit has been granted under Section 7 of the Public Order Act (POA), Mr Seelan was deemed to have committed an offence punishable under s.16(2)(a) of the POA.
Commenting on the court’s decision, Mr Wham wrote in a Facebook post on 3 October 2018 that “the judge has rejected the constitutional argument” that suggests that Mr Seelan has “the right to freedom of expression and assembly” on the grounds that “the constitution allows Parliament to circumscribe such expression through law.”
In this particular case, Mr Wham added, the POA “criminalises a one-person procession, even if it is peaceful.”
Background of Mr Wham’s two charges
Mr Wham was charged in the District Court on Monday (23 November) for taking a photo with a smiley face in front of a police station and a placard outside of the court on two separate occasions.
Mr Wham held the smiley sign at Toa Payoh Central in April for a photo shot, in support of two youth climate activists investigated by the police. He has said that he was only there a couple of seconds which was long enough to take the photo before moving off.
One of the youth activists was seen, in a photograph on the @fridays4futuresg Instagram page, wearing a face mask and holding up a cardboard placard that read “SG IS BETTER THAN OIL @fridays4futuresg” in front of Toa Payoh Central Community Club and Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre. The 20-year-old man, said the police, “did not apply for the necessary police permit” before carrying out such an activity.
The other activist–an 18-year-old woman–in a separate event the same day, had reportedly held placards with the words “PLANET OVER PROFIT”, “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE” and “ExxonMobil KILLS KITTENS&PUPPIES” against the Harbourfront Tower One building signage.
The other charge was based on a separate, unrelated instance of holding a sign outside the State Courts which urged the Government to drop the criminal defamation charges against TOC chief editor Terry Xu and TOC contributor Daniel De Costa.
Increased bail despite objection from accused
The judge had ordered Mr Wham’s bail to be increased “as requested by the prosecution, saying that it is because Jolovan had committed new offences when he was out on bail”, said civil society group Function 8 director, Teo Soh Lung, the day the two charges were made.
Mr Wham’s bail was increased from S$8,000 to S$15,000.
Ms Teo said that Mr Wham had objected to the increase, as “his passport is with the police and he is not a flight risk”.
“He has been attending court without fail. As for the 2 offences he is being charged, they have not been proven,” she wrote.
Mr Wham had already been convicted for three of the seven charges and has served the sentence.
“With the 2 new charges the total number remained at 6. Therefore there is no reason to increase the bail,” said Ms Teo.
She stressed that bail is offered to “ensure the attendance of an accused person and not whether he is accused of committing additional offences when he was out on bail”.
“I therefore disagree with the order for additional bail,” said Ms Teo.
Ms Teo noted that Mr Wham is not represented by any lawyer for the two charges.
Mr Wham in a Facebook post later in the evening said that he did not expect the prosecutor to increase his bail amount.
“I argued that it was not fair to decide on this matter now since the prosecutor had not made out a prima facie case for my offence, and therefore at the very least, a separate hearing for my bail amount has to be convened before making a decision,” he wrote.
The judge, added Mr Wham, had “disagreed with all my arguments without explaining”.
A person found guilty of partaking in a public assembly without a permit may face a fine of up to S$5,000.
A pre-trial conference will be held on Friday (27 November). Mr Wham will be able to raise issues on bail during the pre-trial conference.