Activist Jolovan Wham's lawyer: No permit needed for event as it was a discussion, not public assembly

Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham had organised an event, held at an indoor venue on Nov 26, 2016, and invited all 7,600 of his followers on Facebook to attend.
Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham had organised an event, held at an indoor venue on Nov 26, 2016, and invited all 7,600 of his followers on Facebook to attend.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The lawyer for civil rights activist Jolovan Wham, appealing against his conviction for organising a public assembly without a permit, argued on Friday (Oct 4) that the event in question was simply a "discussion" and did not fall within the definition of an "assembly" under the law.

The 2016 event, called "Civil Disobedience and Social Movements", was meant for speakers, including Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, to share their knowledge and views, Mr Eugene Thuraisingam told the High Court.

He argued that the event was not carried out to publicise a cause and, hence, did not constitute a public assembly that required a permit.

Mr Thuraisingam also argued that the requirement for a permit under the Public Order Act was unconstitutional and invalid.

Making it an offence for someone to organise a public assembly without a permit was a contravention of a citizen's right of assembly under the Constitution, he said.

Justice Chua Lee Ming reserved judgment to consider these arguments and will give his decision at a later date.

Wham, 39, had organised the event, held at an indoor venue on Nov 26, 2016, and invited all 7,600 of his followers on Facebook to attend.

The event featured speeches by freelance journalist Kirsten Han, activist Seelan Palay and Mr Wong, who spoke via a video call.

Four days before the event, Wham was told by the police that a permit was required for the event, but he did not apply for one.

Police investigations started after the event, and a statement was recorded from Wham.

However, he refused to sign the statement, saying he would do so only if he was given a copy. He later signed two other statements after being told he would get copies.

He was charged with organising a public assembly without a permit and for refusing to sign his statement and, following a district court trial, was convicted of both charges in January this year.

Wham was sentenced to a $3,200 fine in February but appealed against his conviction and sentence.

Under the Act, an assembly includes any gathering or meeting held for the purpose of publicising a cause.

On Friday, Mr Thuraisingam said the speakers were merely sharing their thoughts and having academic discussions on issues relating to civil disobedience and democracy in social change.

For instance, Mr Wong gave an account of his activism activities in Hong Kong but did not go on to say that people in Singapore should do the same, said Mr Thuraisingam.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Kumaresan Gohulabalan argued that the event clearly sought to publicise the cause of civil disobedience and social movements and how to reach this goal.

He cited the speech that Wham gave at the event, in which the activist noted that the Singapore approach to activism was to "have a picnic" like the Pink Dot movement.

In the speech, Wham said: "We don't seem to like this very confrontational civil disobedience types of actions. So how do we get there, I think, this is the billion-dollar question."