This Week in Asia

Singapore civil activist Jolovan Wham to plead not guilty over 'smiley face' protest

A Singaporean civil activist, once branded by authorities as a "recalcitrant" flouter of the country's tough rules on peaceful public assemblies, said on Monday that he would plead not guilty to two charges of staging a one-person protest without police permits, including on an occasion in which he held up a piece of cardboard with a smiley face on it.

Jolovan Wham, 40, was not required to enter a plea in a hearing at the State Courts, Singapore's court of first instance. The court imposed bail of S$15,000 (US$11,170) in the brief preliminary hearing. Wham arrived in court wearing a T-shirt and mask that were emblazoned with a smiley face. In the courtroom, he put on a shirt over the T-shirt.

At least two supporters were seen in the court's public gallery wearing masks with similar smiley-face prints. Wham told This Week in Asia after posting bail that he "won't be pleading guilty".

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Singapore civil activist Jolovan Wham, clad in a T-shirt with a smiley face, at the State Courts on November 23, 2020. Photo: Dewey Sim alt=Singapore civil activist Jolovan Wham, clad in a T-shirt with a smiley face, at the State Courts on November 23, 2020. Photo: Dewey Sim

"It is bizarre that I am being charged for actions that have not disturbed public order or safety," he said. "It makes a joke of our constitution, which guarantees us freedom of speech and assembly."

Wham also took issue with the court's decision to increase his bail amount from S$8,000 to S$15,000. The amount was "excessive given that the charges against me have not been proven and I have been dutifully attending court and police interviews", he said.

The migrant rights advocate, known for his strident criticism of the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) over its ironhanded approach to civil liberties, earlier posted on Facebook: "My guilt is plain for all to see. On my way to the State Courts #smileinsolidarity."

Singapore's Public Order Act bars all forms of protests - including single-person demonstrations - that are held without government permits outside Speakers' Corner, the republic's sole free-speech park. If convicted, Wham faces fines of up to S$5,000 on each of the charges.

The episode involving the smiley face placard took place on March 28, soon after two students were summoned by the Singapore police for posting pictures online of them posing in public with messages about climate change.

Their actions were aimed at showing solidarity with the global school strike movement founded by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

Wham's second charge was linked to a social media picture he posted in December 2018 which featured him standing on the steps of the State Courts with a piece of paper that read: "Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel de Costa."

The message referenced an ongoing case of criminal defamation brought by state prosecutors against Terry Xu, editor of local website The Online Citizen Asia, and Daniel De Costa, one of the portal's contributors.

Jolovan Wham holds up a cardboard with a smiley face on March 28, 2020. Photo: Handout via Reuters alt=Jolovan Wham holds up a cardboard with a smiley face on March 28, 2020. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Wham's predicament had generated a buzz ahead of Monday's hearing, after the activist last week revealed prosecutors' decision to proceed with charges against him for the incidents.

When he was first called up for investigations over the smiley face protest in May, dozens of Singaporeans posted pictures of themselves holding similar placards or wearing clothes with smiley faces. The activist said some 200 people had since posted such pictures online with the hashtag #smileinsolidarity.

Wham has served two brief jail terms this year for separate convictions: one in which he was found to have "scandalised" the judiciary, and another for organising an event deemed a public assembly without a police permit. The event featured Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who called in via Skype.

In both instances, Wham chose to serve jail terms instead of paying fines.

Singapore's police in 2017 branded Wham as "recalcitrant", saying he had "repeatedly shown blatant disregard for the law, especially with regard to organising or participating in illegal public assemblies".

They issued the strongly-worded statement after Wham was charged for organising three separate events that year which were deemed illegal assemblies - including the event featuring the Hong Kong activist Wong.

Wham in turn has questioned why peaceful assemblies are criminalised in Singapore. The PAP, in power since 1959 and led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has stoutly defended its muscular approach on public assemblies, saying certain restrictions on civil liberties are required to maintain the city state's social peace.

K. Shanmugam, the law and home affairs minister, in March said Hong Kong's unrest last year was a lesson that "there has to be a zero tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests".

"The actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society," he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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