One afternoon in March, Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham stood on a sidewalk, held up a piece of cardboard with a smiley face drawn on it, took a picture and posted it to social media.
On Thursday, Singaporean police charged Wham with violating public order, on the grounds that he had carried out a one-man protest.
The case reflected the zeal with which limitations on free speech are enforced in the city-state, where public demonstrations are heavily restricted and the ruling party insists on “zero tolerance” for unauthorized gatherings.
Wham, 40, said the smiley-face sign was intended to show solidarity with a climate campaigner who had stood in the same spot days earlier with a placard saying Singapore “is better than oil.” The climate activist, Nguyen Nhat Minh, said police questioned him for 10 hours following the incident.
Wham was also charged Thursday in a December 2018 incident in which he stood outside the main courts building and held up a piece of paper expressing support for two journalists who were being charged with criminal defamation for an article alleging government corruption.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of about $3,700.
Wham said he would appear in court Monday to contest the charges.
“I plead not guilty as I am just exercising my right to free expression,” Wham said. “It is the height of ridiculousness if an ordinary person can’t even take a photo in public.”
Singapore, a fastidious island nation of 5.8 million people, has a reputation for rule-following that often serves it well.
After initially mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and allowing an enormous outbreak among foreign migrant workers, the government imposed a sweeping quarantine and tracing program that has almost completely stopped new infections. Only 28 people have died from the disease here.
Safe distancing ambassadors help ensure Singaporeans are observing health guidelines to maintain the country’s success in curbing cases of COVID-19.
But the government generally takes a dim view of criticism. The broadly worded Public Order Act requires a police permit for virtually any public assembly. There is one park in the city where Singaporeans can demonstrate and hold events, but only after registering on a government website.
Wham has served two brief jail terms this year — one for questioning the Singaporean judiciary’s independence, the other for inviting Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong to speak via Skype at an event that did not have a police permit. In both cases Wham opted for jail time rather than paying fines.
In March, the country’s law minister, K. Shanmugam, said the unrest in Hong Kong following democracy protests showed that Singapore was right to stop public demonstrations before they began.
“The actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society,” he said.