Singaporean politician Louis Ng faces public order charges for his smiley face placard activism. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – Police in Singapore are investigating whether a ruling party lawmaker broke a strict law barring virtually all forms of protest when he held up a placard encouraging support for local food businesses, a case that has sparked debate over the proportionality of the city-state’s broadly-defined public order legislation.

Louis Ng, a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP), posted four pictures on Facebook last June of himself with hawkers at a food center in his constituency. He held up a piece of paper that read “support them” alongside a smiley face. That act alone could be deemed an offense if found by courts to constitute an illegal public assembly.

Though freedom of speech and assembly are enshrined in Singapore’s constitution, civil liberties are significantly circumscribed in practice by the country’s Public Order Act, under which a single person demonstrating support for or opposition to a cause without a police permit can be deemed an unlawful assembly and fined up to S$5,000 (US$3,760).

The investigation into Ng drew immediate comparisons with charges leveled last November against Jolovan Wham, a civil rights campaigner who posed in public with a smiley face drawn on a cardboard sign in a show of solidarity with young climate change activists who were questioned by police last year over similar single-person protests.

Wham’s case garnered international media attention and led to Singapore’s ambassador to the United States writing a letter to the New York Times in December defending the city-state’s zero-tolerance approach to perceived public order risks. Activists and observers are now closely watching how Ng’s case is handled by authorities.

Ng, 42, is widely seen as a maverick politician and one of the PAP’s most progressive voices, having won public plaudits for championing causes ranging from improved conditions for migrant workers and support for Rohingya Muslim refugees to arguing for additional childcare sick leave and animal welfare issues.

Police said earlier this month that they have already questioned Ng and investigations into whether an offense was committed are ongoing. In a Facebook post, Ng confirmed that he gave a statement to police and said the pictures were taken at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre last June. He added that he wanted to urge residents to support food vendors.

Singaporean MP Louis Ng with his controversial smiley face sign. Image: Facebook

“This was an especially important walkabout as we had just emerged from the circuit breaker,” said Ng, in reference to the two-month lockdown imposed last April at the height of Singapore’s Covid-19 outbreak. “I was there to make sure our hawkers were doing okay. As we all know, they suffered badly during the circuit breaker.”

According to Article 45 of Singapore’s constitution, a parliamentarian may be disqualified from holding office if convicted in court and sentenced to either a year or more in prison or a fine of S$2,000 and above, unless they are pardoned. A conviction resulting in a PAP lawmaker losing his or her seat on public order grounds would be unprecedented.

Ng was first fielded as a PAP candidate during the 2015 general election and entered politics with the encouragement of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who ironically promulgated the Public Order Bill in Parliament in April 2009, ushering in the legislation under which Ng is now being investigated.

Shanmugam, then second minister for home affairs, championed tightened restrictions on assembly ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit hosted by Singapore that year, citing the event as the “key reason” for the bill and arguing that the city-state could “not afford the luxury of having these meetings disrupted.”

Seven lawmakers, including four from the PAP, expressed concerns about the proposed bill at the time, particularly that the definition of an “assembly” and “procession” had been broadened to include a single person. Under earlier legislation, a gathering of five people would have constituted an offense.

Sin Boon Ann, a now-retired PAP lawmaker, said during a 2009 parliamentary debate on the bill that though he supported the government’s attempt to regulate public assemblies, “one wonders whether the government may not have gone for the overkill… whether we have gone to the extreme by taking such a course of action.”

“If the concern relates to security, surely there are other security-related instruments under our legislative armory that could have dealt with such issues than to go to such extent.”

Lee Bee Wah, another now-retired PAP lawmaker, called on Shanmugam in the same debate to provide “clarification and assurances that in interpreting the law, the law enforcement agencies would do so with a light touch, so that the spirit of democracy will prevail in the circumstances.”

Shanmugam, one of Singapore’s top litigators and the public face upholding its strictest laws, argued for the bill’s tighter provisions at the time by saying the government’s focus should be on acts of assembly and not on the number of people involved.

Amendments to the law barring foreign nationals from assemblies entered force in 2017.

Singapore Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Last March, Shanmugam cited protest-related unrest in Hong Kong throughout 2019 to suggest that Singapore’s approach to public order is justified and fair. “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 was reported as saying.

Though activists and human rights groups routinely criticize laws limiting critical speech and peaceful assembly as overly broad, many in Singapore see such limits as a necessary compromise to manage societal fault lines around race and religion, and to shore up stability needed to attract foreign investment and remain prosperous.

“Singapore’s ruling PAP and, indeed, many people in Singapore believe that public assembly constitutes a major threat to society that appears to lead to unrest and violence,” said Ja-Ian Chong, a political scientist from Singapore. “What I have seen are questions about the proportionality of such laws [regulating assembly].”

Public protest without a police permit is allowed in just one spot in the city-state, an area in a small city park known as the Speakers’ Corner, but only after completing a registration process on a government website. Authorities have suspended the holding of events at the park since last year due to Covid-19 restrictions that remain in effect.

Some in Singapore see the police investigations and charges into smiley face-related cases like those of Ng and Wham as a bridge too far and proof of the overbearing nature of the city-state’s public order law. “It’s safe to say that cases like [these] make us look pretty ridiculous,” said Lynn Lee, a Singaporean journalist and documentary filmmaker.

“The government likes to cultivate this image of Singapore being a well-managed country full of satisfied citizens. Protests and public assemblies are visible signs of dissatisfaction. There’s also something very empowering about standing together with like-minded people in support of a cause,” she said.

“It’s a question of control. I suspect the Singapore government would rather citizens be a little bit more timid, a little less empowered.”

Wham, 41, has yet to be tried in court for posing with a smiley face. He was released from jail, his third stint in prison since the start of 2020, earlier this month over a demonstration he led on public transit in 2017 to commemorate a 1987 security operation in which police detained 22 activists accused of a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the government.

Activist Jolovan Wham arrives at the State Court in Singapore on February 15, 2021, for sentencing over a protest aboard a metro train against the 1980s arrest of alleged communists. Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP

Courts charged him with holding an illegal assembly and vandalism for sticking two pieces of A4-sized paper to the window of a train using blue tack, which he removed afterward. Wham was supposed to serve 22 days in prison in lieu of paying an S$8,000 ($5,955) fine but was released earlier than expected after two weeks for good behavior.

After he was charged, a social media campaign using the hashtag #SmileInSolidarity saw hundreds of people share photos of themselves brandishing smiley faces in support of Wham, the former executive director of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a group advocating for foreign worker rights in Singapore.

Wham stepped down from his position in 2017 in part to pursue broader activism in Singapore and has in the past described himself as a “professional troublemaker.” He has argued that pursuing advocacy within the circumscribed boundaries set by authorities serves to reinforce “authoritarian rule” rather than restrain it.  

Ng’s approach to political advocacy differs significantly from Wham’s. Prior to entering politics, Ng was a defiant animal rights activist who founded in 2001 the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), a non-governmental organization, and regularly staged protests.  

Ng, who stepped down as ACRES’ chief executive officer earlier this year to allow younger leaders to take over, told Asia Times in a 2019 interview that while his organization’s advocacy had succeeded in building publicity, it had failed to achieve legislative change, leading him to rethink his strategy and ultimately enter politics.

“We were there to try to effect changes, and I chose the most effective way to effect these changes. Instead of being combative, we’ll try more collaborative efforts,” said Ng, who relayed how he faced questions over whether an activist could succeed in politics in Singapore, echoing skepticism voiced by some right-leaning PAP supporters about his entry into politics.

“I always argue that as an MP, my role is to be an activist. I’m there to speak up for changes. Somehow, we’ve got to that mindset that a MP cannot be an activist. I found it very strange when I first entered [politics] because it is precisely the job of an MP. My role is to mobilize people to step forward, to fight for changes in Parliament,” he said.