Jolovan Wham supports climate activists with a smiley face sign in Singapore. The state’s home affairs minister insists the country must have a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to illegal demonstrations
Jolovan Wham supports climate activists with a smiley face sign in Singapore. The state’s home affairs minister insists the country must have a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to illegal demonstrations © Jolovan Wham/Handout/Reuters

The only thing more baffling than a police force investigating someone for holding up a sign with a smiley face, is a police force doing it twice.

Singapore police in November charged an activist with participating in an illegal assembly for standing alone and holding up a sign bearing a drawing of a smiley face. Jolovan Wham, who posted photos online of himself holding the placard, has said the charge is “unacceptable”. His “protest” was in support of activists who had been summoned by authorities after standing alone holding placards calling for more action against climate change.

Then, this month, a second smiley face was targeted by the police, who said they were “looking into a possible offence of public assembly without permit” by Louis Ng, a member of parliament for the ruling People’s Action party. Last June, Ng had posted photos online of himself holding a placard in Singapore’s traditional food courts — which have been hit by Covid-19 — reading “Support Them”, followed by a smiley face.

But the investigation into Ng only began after people questioned why Wham was charged for actions they saw as similar to those of the politician. “People were questioning double standards, not calling on the police to double down on the farce,” Kirsten Han, a Singaporean activist, said on Twitter.

The alleged offence in both cases was demonstrating without a police permit. In tightly controlled Singapore, protests are only allowed without police permission in the city’s Hong Lim Park. Even so, triggering an investigation into an emoji on a placard is seen by some as absurdist humour rather than regulation.

“If Louis Ng’s and Jolovan Wham’s actions broke a law, then I can’t think of a clearer example of the Dickensian saying that the ‘law is a[n] ass’,” says Cherian George, a Hong Kong-based Singaporean academic, referring to a character in Oliver Twist describing the folly of being responsible for his wife’s behaviour under Victorian law.

“Although most Singaporeans do prize order over freedom, this is clearly a case of regulatory overkill,” adds George, who says the men’s actions did not “even cause inconvenience, let alone disruption, to people going about their daily lives”.

Singapore’s Public Order Act, which regulates “processions” in the country’s public spaces, includes demonstrations by a single person in its definition of “assembly”. Wham held up his smiley-face sign in solidarity with climate change activists but also highlighted a law that human rights organisations say is “restrictive” and “rights-abusing”.

Critics question how standing alone with smiley face signs — or in a food court to encourage patronage — could upset public order. But K Shanmugam, Singapore’s home affairs and law minister, insists the country must have a “zero-tolerance approach” to illegal demonstrations. Responding to criticism for banning protests without permits outside the permitted space, even if they only involve a single person, he told MPs: “But where do we draw the line? One, two, three, 30, 50, 100, 200, 5,000? . . . How do we tell what will be a peaceful protest and what will escalate into violence?”

This tight grip on freedom of expression is not new in Singapore. In 2018, a performance artist was jailed after he refused to pay a fine for participating in a solo “public procession” that included drawing on and then holding up a mirror to draw attention to the 32-year detention of an opponent of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father.

But the smiley face clampdown comes at a delicate time for Singaporean politics. The People’s Action party — which has been in power since 1959 — last year won the general election with just 61 per cent of the vote, only marginally above its record low of 60 per cent in 2011.

The party is also facing an uncertain leadership transition. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has indicated he would step down when he turns 70 next year. But after the 2020 poll he said he would “see this [coronavirus] crisis through” as leader, leaving analysts guessing whether — or when — he would step down.

The implications of a generational shift in politics for freedom of speech in Singapore are unclear. But for now, holding up signs with smiley faces in public is no laughing matter.

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