It is probably fair to say that for a law to be respected, it must be applied evenly and fairly to all, regardless of whether one is a known government critic or a People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament (MP).
However, this principle seems to be called into question in the case of Nee Soon Group Representative Constituency (GRC) MP, Louis Ng vis-à-vis civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham.
Sometime in April last year, Wham had uploaded photographs of himself on social media holding up a placard depicting a smiley face at Toa Payoh Central.
The action was meant to be a gesture of support for two youth climate activists who were investigated by the police for holding up placards of their own on separate occasions.
Wham was later charged for holding that smiley face placard. His charges seemed so ridiculous that they made international news!
Wham was informed by the police that he had flouted the Public Order Act despite having “left immediately after” holding the placard and having his photo taken with it.
A person found guilty of partaking in a public assembly without a permit may face a fine of up to S$5,000.
Worryingly, the Public Order Act is drafted widely and could bind anyone — even a lone individual such as Wham — for trying to do any of the following without a valid police permit:
- Demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any persons/groups/government;
- Publicise a cause or campaign; or
- Initiate or commemorate any event.
Even those who do not plan to hold any placards at a particular place or wish to speak while present at the place are required to apply for a police permit, as TOC chief editor Terry Xu narrated last month.
More recently, six of Xu’s public assembly permit applications were collectively dismissed by the police, with reasons such as restricting “non-essential” activities during COVID-19 and encouraging safe distancing protocols cited as justifications behind rejecting the applications.
The police also suggested putting up “a video of your activities”, particularly in an indoor setting, as a means to “get public recognition for your views”.
In June last year, Ng uploaded photographs of himself holding a placard in support of hawkers. The placard stated “Support Them“, with a smiley face next to the wording.
He was seen posing next to hawkers at their respective stalls at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre.
It must be noted that Ng’s action also took place during the COVID-19 situation.
On the surface, his gesture appears to be nothing but a “feel good” effort to show solidarity with hawkers.
Looking more deeply, however, one will realise that what Ng had done is no different from what Wham did.
Despite that, only Wham was charged for holding such a placard for a particular cause.
Looking at how the Public Order Act is worded, wouldn’t Ng run afoul too? After all, was he not demonstrating support for hawkers by holding up his placard and publicising such a cause by uploading photographs of it on Facebook?
This is unless, of course, he had obtained a police permit beforehand. But did he?
And if he did not, would it not seem unfair for Wham to be charged?
After all, if nothing happens to Ng, would there not be questions about whether the Public Order Act and other relevant legislation might be used to subjugate those who ask authorities uncomfortable questions? Would it not raise concerns about whether such laws were designed to suppress those who shine a spotlight on issues that the authorities would rather avoid?
If nothing happens to Ng, would it not reinforce the view that Wham was charged due to being a critic of the establishment while Ng remains unaffected because of his status as a PAP MP?
One rule for one and another for others is a surefire way to erode public trust in the law.
It will also create unnecessary speculation and rumour-mongering, something that the Government has worked strenuously to prevent.
The Government has gone through all the trouble to push through laws such as Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act just to clamp down on harmful speculation.
Wouldn’t it be easier just to publicly demonstrate fairness here? After all, rumour mills only churn where there appears to be some opacity in the authorities’ decision-making process.
In this case, the Government should either drop its charges against Wham or charge both him and Ng.
Charging one and not the other is, to put it simply, inconsistent and unfair.