Following the recent conviction of popular human rights activist Jolovan Wham, the Human Rights Watch has since released a statement condemning the Singaporean authorities for their supposedly draconian approach against free speech.
In November 2016, Wham, 39, hosted an indoor event called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements” for approximately 50 participants. The guestlist included noted Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, who addressed the attendees via Skype.
In January 2019, almost three years later, the Singapore High Courts convicted Wham for “organising a public assembly without a permit,” as he had not applied for a permit allowing a foreigner to speak at a public event.
In addition to these charges, Wham was also convicted for refusing to sign a police statement, as the police were unwilling to provide him with a copy.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch has since slammed the actions of the Singapore government.
“It seems that not a day goes by in Singapore without the authorities coming up with absurd new reasons to deny people their rights to free speech and assembly. One would think the authorities have more important things to do than prosecute Jolovan Wham for allowing a foreign democracy activist to speak at an event.”
Under Singapore’s law, for violating section 16(1)(a) of the Public Order Act, Wham was sentenced to a S$2,000 (US$1,500) fine or 10 days in jail. Instead of paying the fine, Wham opted to serve the jail sentence. Additionally, for his refusal to sign the policy statement, he was prosecuted under Article 180 of the Penal Code and subsequently, fined S$1,200 (US$900).
This is not Wham’s first brush with Singapore’s law enforcement. Previously in April, he served a 7-day jail sentence instead of paying a S$5,000 (US$3,700) fine for contempt of court, allegedly committed in a Facebook comment comparing the Singapore courts to Malaysia’s. When questioned on his refusal to pay the fine, he asserted that he did “not recognize the legitimacy of the judgment and the law, both of which are unjust.”
“It should never be an offence to speak your truth,” he has since stated.
“Decades of oppression and persecution have resulted in the normalization of fear. It is so normalized that we have become indifferent to injustice, especially political injustice and threats to our civil rights.
The Singapore government’s response to Wham’s peaceful activism is a blatant attempt to silence an outspoken human rights defender, Human Rights Watch reiterated. Human rights activists regularly face both public and legal persecution.
“The Singapore government plays a crude game of ‘shoot the messenger’ against social reformers whose opinions and criticism it doesn’t like,” Robertson argued. “The government should drop all charges against Wham and amend the Public Order Act to bring it into line with international human rights standards for freedom of assembly.”