Prosecuted for Holding a Skype Discussion: Singapore Should Respect the Right to Freedom of Assembly

Singaporean social worker and activist Jolovan Wham will be back in court on October 1, 2018. This time, he’s being tried for organising a Skype discussion with Joshua Wong, a prominent leader of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.

Police are describing the closed-door talk which took place in November 2016, as an “illegal public assembly”. Authorities say they contacted Wham prior to the event to tell him to apply for a permit. Wham did not have enough time to do so, and now faces a fine of up to S$5,000 if he is found guilty.

Whether or not Wham broke the law is a matter for the judges to decide. But commonsense says police should not have been involved and prosecutors should not have charged him to begin with. Skype conversations that take place within the confines of a private space are private matters that should logically, not require permits before they can be carried out.

Freedom of assembly is a fundamental human right. But in Singapore, attempts by citizens to come together for a shared cause are often viewed with suspicion by the government. Protests are only allowed to be held in one location. A single person can constitute an “illegal assembly”. Such restrictive rules have given authorities plenty of leeway to prosecute activists like Wham, but virtually anyone can be a target.

Citizens of a first-world nation should not have to worry about whether or not an indoor event constitutes an “illegal assembly”, or whether or not police permission is required before a Skype conversation can even proceed. Such exchanges are normal in any healthy society. Wham’s discussion with Wong ended peacefully and would not have drawn any further attention if authorities hadn’t decided to act.

Wham is also being prosecuted for refusing to sign his police statement. Wham says he declined because he was not allowed to have copies of the statement. It is puzzling why an accused person should be denied access to such an important document. The policy should be amended.

Wham faces a further two charges for organising “illegal assemblies”. He’s also been charged with “vandalism”, for using scotch-tape to stick two pieces of paper on a train, and another two charges for not signing police statements. If found guilty of these offences, he faces a fine of up to S$5,000 or a jail term of up to three years.

By prosecuting Wham for his involvement in peaceful, non-violent protests and related activities, the Singapore government has only reinforced the perception that it does not respect fundamental rights taken for granted by citizens in other first-world democracies. This is deeply regrettable. Public resources and taxpayers’ money can be put to far better use. This kind of gross over-reaction only serves to reflect the state’s paranoia and inability to trust its own people.

Endorsed by Joshua Wong, Secretary-General, Demosisto, and the following members of Community Action Network Singapore: Lynn Lee, Roy Ngerng, Shelley Thio, Vincent Wijeysingha, Rachel Zeng