[Singapore] Civil rights activist’s conviction raises specter of wider crackdown on dissent

On November 26, 2016, civil rights activist Jolovan Wham held an indoor discussion in Singapore, titled “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements,” which featured other speakers, namely, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, fellow activist Seelan Palay, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who talked through Skype.

“It was a harmless and straightforward discussion about social movements,” said Wham.

He was consequently charged with organizing an illegal public assembly. (Wham is awaiting sentencing for three of eight other charges that he has been slapped with.)

On Thursday, 3 January 2019, Wham was found guilty of violating the Public Order Act, for organizing the event without a police permit, as well as for refusing to sign a police statement that he had made, a copy of which he tried but failed to obtain. He is scheduled for sentencing on 23 January 2019.

Wham, who is an outspoken critic of Singapore’s repressive policies, was charged under the Public Order Act of 2008.  

Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, assembly and association under Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution, these fundamental rights are severely restricted in Singapore. The Public Order Act, which broadly defines public assembly, has been used to criminalize free expression and right to peaceful assembly in Singapore.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Act distinguishes between “cause-related activities and social, recreational or cultural activities so as to accord them different extent of regulatory oversight.”

In April 2018, Singapore passed the new Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, which, according to Wham, “criminalizes large-scale assemblies and prevents journalists from reporting within areas which have been zoned by the police in the name of public order.” 

The new law extends “police powers to better prevent and respond to any incident or likely incident involving serious violence or large‑scale public disorder in Singapore.”

It authorizes the home affairs minister to issue a “communications stop order” that will effectively prevent the media and the public from sharing information about “serious incidents” such as terrorist attacks.

“This (law) is another means in which the government is trying to muzzle the media,” he said.  

On his Facebook page, Wham described the November 2016 event as “an invitation to discuss and consider the role of civil disobedience and other social change tactics in movement building.”

He argued that “participants and speakers have their points of view, which may exist in various shades of grey. How does the law distinguish between promoting a cause, and facilitating a discussion? Are the lines drawn so clear? In this event, participants were not asked or invited to advocate for any issue, nor were they exhorted to take action. All views from the participants were welcomed.”

The case of Wham is both an example of the citizens pushing back against restrictions in the city-state of Singapore and the heavy-handed approach of the government against the public asserting their right to freedom of expression.

Singapore has a net freedom status of “partly free” in the 2018 Freedom in the World index of independent watchdog Freedom House due to the city-state’s tight policies on free speech and free expression, with the national media owned by companies linked to the government and extensive restrictions on public assembly, among other things.

There are pockets of change in sight, however, with a slight improvement in terms of “growing prevalence and importance of alternative media, including international services and domestic online outlets that cover a wide range of perspectives,” according to Freedom House.

But while Wham agrees that there are more alternative media outlets operating in Singapore today, any gains that have been made in the past decade are “being systematically eroded as the government seeks to make it more difficult for news sites to function independently without being harassed.” 

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