Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham issued stern warning for use of national flag at Bersih event

Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham was issued a stern warning for his actions during a rally in 2016 in support of the Bersih 5 demonstration. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

SINGAPORE - Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham has been issued a stern warning for the use of the Singapore and Malaysian flags at an event at Hong Lim Park that he had organised last year.

During the event on Nov 13, 2016, which was held in support of the Bersih 5 rally in Malaysia, 15 or so participants laid a Singapore flag and a Malaysian flag on mats. They also held the flags up and took photos with them.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday (Dec 5), Mr Wham, the former executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), uploaded photos of a warning letter that he had received from the police, dated Nov 28 this year.

It said that investigations into three offences against him - allowing the national flag to touch the ground, displaying national emblems in public, and refusing to sign a statement - had been completed. While the police had made an assessment that he had committed the three offences, a decision had not been taken to prosecute him in court for the offence. "If you commit any offence in future, the same leniency may not be shown towards you," the letter added.

Under the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act, the public display of the national emblem of any country, including flags, is prohibited except by certain people, such as diplomats, and when an order is published in the Government Gazette to allow it.

Offenders can be fined up to $500 and jailed up to six months.

Under the Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Act, a person in possession of the national flag is prohibited from allowing or causing the flag to touch the floor or ground, even when lowering the flag from a staff or flagpole. Offenders can be fined up to $1,000.

For refusing to sign a statement, offenders can be fined up to $2,500 and jailed up to three months.

On Nov 29, Mr Wham was charged in court for other alleged offences of organising public assemblies without permit, vandalism, as well as refusing to sign police statements. He faces seven charges in total.

In his post, Mr Wham also noted a new element in warning letters - they now come with a clarification on the back page stating, among other things, that the warning does not result in a criminal record, and does not affect the legal rights, interests or liabilities of the person being warned.

It is not clear when such clarifications were introduced to warning letters. When asked, police confirmed that changes have been made to the letter of warning but did not elaborate.

Mr Wham believes the clarifications were added as a result of a High Court case he mounted in late 2015 to quash a warning he received in March 2015. He was concerned that the stern warning would cause severe prejudice against him as it remained on record.

The High Court dismissed his bid, saying that such warnings have no legal effect on the recipient so there is nothing for it to quash.

Justice Woo Bih Li had ruled that such warnings are no more than an opinion of the relevant authority that the recipient has committed an offence.

"It does not bind the recipient," he added. "It does not and cannot amount to a legally binding pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact. Only a court of law has the power to make such a pronouncement or finding."

Said lawyer Chia Boon Teck, co-managing partner of Chia Wong LLP: "A warning spells the conclusion of investigations and the matter will not be re-opened if the individual commits another offence thereafter. The additional footnote (in warning letters) is a reassurance of this position."

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