How a Skype video call can get you convicted in Singapore

It was just a Skype convo!
It was just a Skype convo!
Image: Edgar Su
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Singapore is infamous for its stringent enforcement of anti-littering laws and chewing gum ban, but another action that could land you in hot water is simply making an online video call.

That’s what happened to Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham, 39, who was found guilty on Thursday (Jan. 3) for organizing an “illegal assembly” after he had Hong Kong student democracy activist Joshua Wong speak to a conference over a Skype call in 2016. Wham was also convicted for refusing to sign his statement to the police about the event because they wouldn’t give him a copy.

Wong spoke in November 2016 to an event called “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements,” via a Skype video call that was projected on a large screen, discussing his experiences of building social movements. Police had told Wham ahead of the talk that it would require a permit, even though Wong wasn’t setting foot in Singapore. (Wong, for many the face of Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests, has previously been denied entry to Thailand and Malaysia to speak about his experiences.)

Authorities charged Wham a year later on multiple counts of organizing assemblies without a permit, including over the Wong call-in.

The Singaporean government has become more stringent about applying laws circumscribing political organization, especially around the involvement of foreigners, interpreting this so broadly that foreigners were unable in 2017 to attend the annual Pink Dot rally in support of the LGBTQ community. Attending the event as a bystander could have resulted in fines for those without a permit or a Singaporean ID. Earlier foreign firms were barred from financially supporting Pink Dot.

According to Wham’s defense attorney, requiring a permit for the video call “breaches the accused’s constitutional right of freedom of assembly,” and the event Wham held was purely a discussion posing no threat to the general public. Public prosecutors Kumaresan Gohulabalan and Nicholas Wuan argued that the event’s title showed its purpose was to publicize a cause, according to a Channel NewsAsia report.

Kirsten Han, who spoke at the event, noted the sensitivity around the remote speaker for this event contrasts with Singapore’s efforts to position itself as a global hub for international workers and businesses.

“Getting uppity about a foreigner Skyping into a forum—held indoors and not in the least bit disruptive—is pretty ridiculous considering how we also want Singaporeans to not be insular and for Singapore to be a global city, and for Singaporeans to have more regional experience and knowledge,” Han, an activist and freelance journalist, told Quartz.

Wham will be sentenced on Jan. 23 and could face a fine of up to 5,000 Singaporean dollars (US$ 3672) for organizing the event and possibly a prison sentence of up to three months and an additional fine of 2,500 Singaporean dollars (US$ 1836) for refusing to sign his police statement.