We must enforce the law, says S'pore's US envoy, responding to NYT report on protester Jolovan Wham's arrest

Jolovan Wham could have exercised his right to political expressions legally. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Singapore's ambassador to the US has responded to a critical New York Times article about the arrest of civil rights activist Jolovan Wham over an illegal one-man protest, saying it would have had vastly different consequences had a few thousand people turned up.

Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri added that Singapore's laws are designed to balance the right to protest against the right of others not to be inconvenienced.

"We make no apologies for holding to our own values," he said in a letter published in the newspaper's opinion pages on Tuesday (Dec 8).

"We do not try to impose them on other countries, and others should likewise respect our sovereign right. In any case, we do not think 'free speech' as it is now playing out in the United States commends itself to us."

The New York Times article, published on Nov 23, was headlined "Protest of one leads to arrest of an activist in Singapore".

Wham's first illegal protest took place in December 2018 outside the State Courts building and the second happened in March this year near Toa Payoh Central Community Club and Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre.

Wham was charged in November under the Public Order Act for both incidents.

In the article, he is quoted as saying that the charges against him show Singapore's laws "have the potential to be applied in ridiculous and overbearing ways".

Another commentator had described the court action as a "ridiculous case that will make (Singaporean authorities) a laughingstock around the world".

In his letter, Mr Mirpuri noted that Wham had staged a protest in a prohibited area, and another without a permit, when he could have exercised his right to political expressions legally, such as by holding a protest at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park, applying for a permit or by publishing his views.

"If he chooses to break the law, then we must enforce the law," said the ambassador.

He added that given how densely populated Singapore is, the approach is to allow public protests only at Speakers' Corner or with a permit, so that the authorities can assess the public-order risks. He noted that protest rallies numbering in the thousands have been held at Speakers' Corner.

"Mr Wham protested alone. If instead a few thousand had gathered without a permit, the consequences would have been different," he said.

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