Singapore — Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, the country’s ambassador to the United States, wrote a letter to the New York Times (NYT) in response to an article about recent charges against activist Jolovan Wham.
Mr Mirpuri asserted that Singapore balances the rights of individuals 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,” the ambassador added.
Mr Mirpuri had written to the NYT in relation to an article about Mr Wham entitled “Protest of One Leads to Arrest of an Activist in Singapore,” which was penned by the publication’s Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Hannah Beech, and published on Nov 23.
Ms Beech had written about charges of illegal public assembly against Mr Wham, who had held up a cardboard sign with a smiley face last March near a police station. “It was a protest of one person. He had, he admitted, drawn the smiley face himself.”
The article went on to mention Singapore’s strict rules on civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, and that protests without a permit are only allowed in one area, as well as the law against fake news, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to safeguard spaces online.
Mr Wham had held up his sign “in response to someone in sg who got investigated by the police for participating in a climate strike.”
Some weeks later he received word that he had violated the Public Order Act and was asked to go to the Tanglin police division.
He appeared in court on Nov 23, where he also faced a charge for contravening the Public Order Act for in 2018 when he held up a message on a piece of paper outside the former State Courts building.
While he had only held up the sign in both instances for a short moment, he could be charged S$5,000 for each offence if he is found guilty.
Mr Wham is quoted in the NYT article, along with Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
In his letter to the editor, Mr Mirpuri wrote that Mr Wham had “allegedly staged a protest in a prohibited area, and another without a permit.
The Ambassador also explained Singapore’s provisions for the kind of protests Mr Wham wanted to make.
“Mr Wham could have exercised his right to political expression at the Speakers’ Corner (which was still open at that time when he broke the law, now closed because of Covid-19) or by publishing his views. He could have also applied for a permit. He did not. If he chooses to break the law, then we must enforce the law,” he wrote.
Noting that the activist had been alone in his protest, Mr Mirpuri wrote that the consequences would have been different had thousands of others been with him.
“The approach in densely populated Singapore is thus to allow public protests only at the Speakers’ Corner — where protest rallies numbering in the thousands have been held — or with a permit, which will allow the authorities to assess the public-order risks.”
Moreover, the Ambassador added that Singapore does no endeavour to impose its laws on other nations, therefore other nations should also respect its sovereign right.
Mr Mirpuri ended his letter by saying, “In any case, we do not think ‘free speech’ as it is now playing out in the United States commends itself to us.” —/TISG
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