Written by Ng E-Jay
07 Jan 2009
At the opening of the legal year in the Supreme Court last week, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Attorney-General Walter Woon and Law Minister K Shanmugam launched an all-out offensive against civil rights activists campaigning for democratic change in Singapore as well as foreign media which have criticized our judiciary and the rule of law here.
In particular, CJ Chan insinuated that activists in Singapore have attempted to undermine public confidence in the courts by making “false and scandalous allegations“, and AG Woon said that “that there appears to be a campaign by certain people both here and abroad to attack the integrity and independence of the Singapore courts“, that “it is not permissible to undermine the courts and judiciary for political or ideological reasons“, that these “appear to be part of a broader campaign to force a change in our laws by extra-legal means“. (ST link)
K Shanmugam, which is also the Second Minister for Home Affairs, noted that “in the last few years, there have been people who did not like certain laws and the way they showed it was to go out there and protest“, but he countered that “the way to change the law is to get elected politically and argue in Parliament why the law should be changed“. Denouncing civil rights activists who have sought to highlight the unfairness of certain laws and how the Constitution has been violated by selective application of these laws, Shanmugam remarked that “… an aggressive small group of people think they can change those laws by going out there and protesting and the courts have repeatedly emphasized they will apply the law as it is.”
The remarks and comments made by the Chief Justice, Attorney-General, and Law Minister are consistent with the way the mainstream media has portrayed civil rights activists working for democratic change in Singapore as “radicals” who prefer to break the law and attract attention to themselves rather than work within the law and effect change by winning elections and arguing their case in Parliament — see for example this ST article by Peh Shing Huei entitled “The partitioning of the opposition”, my response to Peh’s article, and Dr Chee Soon Juan’s response to Peh’s article. This time round however, the rhetoric has been notched up to a new all-time high.
In response to the latest public statements by CJ, AG and the Law Minister, Dr Chee Soon Juan has published an extremely well-written and comprehensive piece here. It is a masterpiece of exposition which highlights the loose logic of these three gentlemen as well as the self-serving attitude of the ruling party which has repeatedly shown its willingness to subvert the Constitution and pay scant heed to the basic rights and dignity of the people in order to perpetuate its own power.
Dr Chee puts to dust CJ Chan’s accurate but woefully one-sided assertion that “the mission of the courts requires that its authority be respected by all, (and that this respect) is fundamental and critical to the rule of law” by pointing out very succinctly that what CJ Chan has failed to state is that “the rule of law is not just a system where the government passes legislation and everyone unquestioningly obeys. The concept of the rule of law necessitates the limitation of state power and the respect of human rights.”
Selective Application of Unjust Laws
Article 12 of our Constitution states categorically that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.” Yet, as Dr Chee has rightfully pointed out, this clause apparently fell flat on the authorities who arrested 12 Tak Boleh Tahan activists on 15 March 2008 for holding a peaceful demonstration near Parliament House commemorating World Consumer Rights Day and subsequently charged a total of 18 activists in Court for holding an assembly and procession without a permit, but yet allowed the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) to hold a rally on a far larger scale commemorating exactly the same occasion, with hundred of participants holding placards.
If CASE had not been granted a police permit for their event, is this not selective application of the law? And if they had been granted a permit, why was one not granted to the Tak Boleh Tahan organizers despite appeals?
More examples abound in recent memory. On 22 Jan 2007, the Worker’s Party Youth Wing organized a visit to the new Parliament House and eight members took a group photo in front of what the authorities have declared a “gazetted area”. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have been charged for participating in an illegal assembly, nor subject to police investigations. Yet, when the Tak Boleh Tahan activists gathered in front of Parliament House and took a group photo, this became part of the basis for charging them for illegal assembly.
On National Day 2008, the Worker’s Party organized an outreach campaign at one of the HDB heartlands. They were decked in party T-shirts and took a group photo together with a large banner proclaiming “Say NO to GST Profiteering” in front of a hawker centre. However, on the same day, when close to 30 Tak Boleh Tahan campaigners wore identical red T-shirts and carried out a similar grassroots campaign at Toa Payoh Central (albeit on a different theme), they were approached by plain-clothes policemen who informed them that they were participating in an illegal assembly. Each of them were subsequently subject to police investigations.
On 30 Dec 2008, over 200 China nationals gathered peacefully outside the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) building to demand that they be paid their due wages. Not only did they show that that it was possible to conduct a peaceful assembly even on such a sensitive topic that threatens their very livelihood, but they were eventually successful in pressuring MOM to take concrete action and for their respective employers to compensate them. (Read Wayang Party’s writeup here.)
Contrast this with the blatant arrest of four SDP activists who conducted a peaceful protest with placards outside the CPF Building in 2005 in which riot squads consisting of close to 40 police officers were sent in. The activists were protesting against the non-transparent and non-accountable nature of the way the Government deals with public funds. Two of the protesters were women. (See here.)
It is this highly selective application of unjust laws and the gross over-reaction by the authorities with respect to peaceful demonstrations organized to criticize the Government that led Dr Chee to assert that “the concept of the rule of law necessitates the limitation of state power and the respect of human rights“, and shows why CJ Chan’s statements ring but a hollow bell in a legal and political climate currently filled with smoke and mirrors, and in Dr Chee’s words, amount to “buzz phrases used to prop up a facade“.
Besides if, as AG Walter Woon has claimed, that “the essence of the rule of law is that the law applies to all“, then why has the Singapore Judiciary not initiated Contempt of Court charges against the International Bar Association (IBA) for questioning the independence of the judiciary in Singapore including allegations of Executive influence? Hasn’t the IBA, by its comments, scandalized our Judiciary by the very definitions and standards provided by AG Woon? (See here and here.)
That the selective application of unjust laws is specifically targeted at political Opposition can in fact be clearly seen by the charge brought against 6 members and supporters of the SDP for distributing flyers outside City Hall MRT Station in 2006 publicizing an up-coming rally that was to have been held at Speaker’s Corner during the WB-IMF Conference in September. The charge reads that the accused: “did participate in an assembly intended to demonstrate opposition to the actions of the Government“. Never has the underlying intent of a Court charge been made so explicitly clear. (See here.)
Subordinate Legislation banning outdoor assemblies & processions is Ultra Vires
Dr Chee questions whether the ruling party has the power to ban outdoor demonstrations (save those at Hong Lim Park) when Article 14 of the Constitution states that “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression, (and to) assemble peaceably without arms”, and Article 4, in stating that “this Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic of Singapore and any law enacted by the Legislature after the commencement of this Constitution which is inconsistent with this Constitution shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void,” prohibits Parliament from enacting subsidiary legislation that contradicts the Constitution.
It is clear that subordinate legislation enshrined in Section 5 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Assemblies and Processions) has not only been selectively applied by the authorities to suppress political dissent, but is in fact ultra vires.
The more things change, the more they remain the same
Law Minister K Shanmugam has opined that “the way to change the law is to get elected politically and argue in Parliament why the law should be changed“. This is very similar to Goh Chok Tong’s remarks to Catherine Lim that “those who comment on politics should join political parties“. Despite claiming that they are becoming more politically open and tolerant, the PAP’s attitude towards active citizenry and citizen participation in the political process can be best described as “the more things change, the more they remain the same” (“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr).
Contrary to AG Walter Woon’s beliefs, the law and politics can never be separated. They are in fact joined at the hip because Parliament, which is a body elected through a political process, has the sole authority to make broad sweeping changes to the law, and is in fact morally obliged to do so in accordance with the will of the people, rather than its own self-serving interests. Furthermore, in any normal functioning democracy, every citizen has a role to play in the political process, and it is the contribution of each citizen’s voice to the collective pool of ideas that makes for a climate of political vibrancy. Otherwise, stagnant and apathy set in, and the country degenerates into a nation of sheep vulnerable to exploitation by political wolves.
In Dr Wong Wee Nam’s article entitled “The Need for a Multi-Party System“, he argues that “society is stable only when individual citizens with conflicting interests are allowed to have their voices heard and their needs addressed.” It is only when citizens participate actively in the political process regardless of whether they are in a position of power or authority that they feel a sense of pride and community, and feel they have a stake in the country.
With the ruling party’s self-serving opinion that those who want to comment on politics should join political parties or that the only way to campaign for changes in the law is to first become elected to Parliament, is it any wonder why many Singaporeans are giving up and emigrating due to their lack of belonging to our nation?
Sometimes, civil disobedience is the only option left for activists
Is our electoral system free and fair, and does the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (Chapter 206) give citizens full leeway to establish a free and independent media? I hardly think so.
Given that the mainstream media is controlled by the ruling party, which has complete dominance of Parliament, and that the few Opposition MPs in Parliament are frequently reluctant to speak up vociferously on the pressing issues of the day or stand firm when they are challenged by the ruling elite, it should not come as a surprise that sometimes, the only way for activists to make their voices heard loud and clear is to peacefully engage in civil disobedience and non-violent action.
Non-violent action is employed when all mainstream avenues have been closed and people are left without a voice. For this however, activists are hauled to Court and charged. Until this changes, the CJ’s, AG’s and Law Minister’s talk about the rule of law will remain but as abstract nonsense.