Singapore’s Ambassador to US and Jolovan Wham holding smiley face card

Singapore makes “no apologies” for holding on to its “own values” by calibrating “the right to protest” against “the rights of others not to be inconvenienced by such protests”, said Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States.

Mr Mirpuri made his statement in his open letter reply to a news article by The New York Times on charges faced by Singaporean social worker and civil rights activist Jolovan Wham under the Public Order Act.

One of the two charges against Mr Wham — made in the District Court on 23 November — was for his act of holding up a placard depicting a smiley face at Toa Payoh Central in April, in support of two youth climate activists investigated by the police.

Mr Wham said that at the time he held the smiley sign, he was only there for a couple of seconds, which was long enough for the photo to be taken before moving away.

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.

Mr Mirpuri said that Mr Wham could have exercised his right to political expression at the Speakers’ Corner and could have applied for a permit before doing so.

“He did not. If he chooses to break the law, then we must enforce the law,” the ambassador stressed.

For Mr Wham’s case where he ‘protested’ alone, Mr Mirpuri pointed out that the consequences would have been different if a few thousand people instead had gathered without a permit.

As such, Singapore’s approach is to allow public protests only at the Speakers’ Corner — where protest rallies numbering in the thousands have been held — with a permit, which will allow the authorities to assess the public-order risks, said the diplomat.

“We balance the right to protest against the rights of others not to be inconvenienced by such protests. And we make no apologies for holding to our own values.

“We do not try to impose them on other countries, and others should likewise respect our sovereign right. In any case, we do not think ‘free speech’ as it is now playing out in the United States commends itself to us,” said Mr Mirpuri.

In the NYT article, titled “It was just him and his smiley face. He’s charged with illegal assembly.“, the author described Singapore as “bound by strict rules on civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly” and “[a]verse to potential threats to its stable, orderly state”.

“Public protest without a permit is allowed in just one spot in the city-state, and only after completing a registration process. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which was enacted last year, polices activity online,” the article read.

Background of Jolovan Wham’s case

One of the charges against Mr Wham — made in the District Court on 23 November — was for his act of holding up a placard depicting a smiley face at Toa Payoh Central in April, in support of two youth climate activists investigated by the police.

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.

Mr Wham said that at the time he held the smiley sign, he was only there for a couple of seconds, which was long enough for the photo to be taken before moving away.

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.

On 23 November, lawyer Teo Soh Lung revealed that 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”.

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”.

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.

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