The new Public Order Act — more arbitrary powers, more tyranny

SEE ALSO: Changes proposed to Films Act and enhanced police powers by Ng E-Jay and Shameful piece of legislation by the Singapore Democrats.

Written by Ng E-Jay
24 March 2009

Article 14(1) of the Singapore Constitution states that every Singapore citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peaceably and without arms, and the right to form associations. Even though Article 14(2) states that those rights may be restricted by Parliament as it deems necessary in the interest of security or public order, it is understood that the spirit and meaning of this article is to enshrine in our Constitution a recognition that human beings have certain rights, and that these right should be respected.

Monday 23 March 2009 was a another sad day in our nation’s political history, as the ruling party took steps to further curtail the rights of Singapore citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly in the name of preserving national security.

As it stands, the authorities have repeatedly used the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (Chapter 257) as well as the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Chapter 184) Section 5 — Assemblies and Processions to prosecute activists and politicians who have conducted public activities or campaigns of a political nature.

For instance, in June 2006, SDP leaders Dr Chee Soon Juan and Gandhi Ambalam, as well as activist Yap Keng Ho, were charged with eight counts of speaking in public without a permit during the run-up to the 2006 General Elections. They had been canvassing support from the ground for the SDP and selling the party newsletter in places like Jurong West, Woodlands and Yishun — activities which all political parties carry out during election periods, including the PAP.

Last year, 18 Tak Boleh Tahan activists were charged for assembly and procession without a permit in connection with a peaceful rally held near Parliament House to commemorate World Consumer Rights Day. Their trial is still ongoing. (I was one of those charged; I pleaded guilty to one charge of illegal assembly in exchange for another charge of illegal procession being taken into account.)

Numerous other examples of the authorities using subsidiary legislation, which is ultra vires the Constitution, to crack down on peaceful protesters as well as Opposition politicians doing routine groundwork in the HDB heartlands can be found at the SDP website.

Recent headway made by the SDP as well as other activists like artist Seelan Palay and human rights advocate Chong Kai Xiong must have made the ruling party nervous and afraid for its own power, for it has seen fit to enact further measures, in the alleged interest of public order and security, that will enable the authorities to take more aggressive action against peaceful demonstrators who are rallying for a political or civic cause.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng on Monday tabled a Bill in Parliament that seeks to regulate all outdoor activities of a political or “cause-related” nature. Under the new Public Order Act, cause-related activities will be regulated by permit, regardless of the number of persons involved or the format they are conducted in, unlike existing regulation which defines an illegal assembly as one that involves 5 or more people.

Of course, it is entirely up to the discretion of the authorities to define what they mean by “cause-related” activities. The new Public Order Act gives the authorities the administrative discretion they need to crack down on civic participation, political activity or dissent without the need for precise definition that would invariably expose them as self-serving and bigoted.

Other provisions of the proposed Public Order Act include:

  1. enabling the Minister to declare via gazette a certain event as a “special event”, and within the special event area the police have enhanced powers like being able to perform a stop-and-search, ask a suspicious person for his reason for entry, or deny him entry;
  2. enabling the police to issue pre-emptive “move-on” orders, which will be in written form, ordering demonstrators not to congregate at the intended rally area, or give them a chance to leave without getting arrested;
  3. enabling law enforcement officers to stop people from filming, distributing or exhibiting films of law enforcement activities;
  4. requiring property owners to take “reasonable action” to prevent illegal assemblies and processions from taking place on their property when they are notified by the police.

In fact, even before this new Public Order Act was tabled in Parliament, the police have already been giving themselves the powers and administrative leeway mentioned above.

For example, in relation to point 1 above, Chee Siok Chin of the SDP was abducted by the police, bundled into an unmarked van, and unceremoniously driven away while she and John Tan were on their way to Shangrila Hotel on the evening of 20 November 2007. (See here.) The police used the excuse that Shangrila Hotel had been gazetted as a Protected Area under the Protected Areas and Protected Places Act (Chapter 256) in connection with the ongoing ASEAN Summit that was held in Singapore at that time. Other passersby could proceed without hindrance at the same location. Clearly the law applies only to some and not to all.

The requirement of “cause-related” events for a permit is also nothing new. In fact, according to the Attorney General Chambers, current subsidiary legislation states that it is an offence to promote a cause or a campaign without a police permit. (See here, here, and here, and here.)

In 2007, SDP Chairman Gandhi Ambalam was being investigated for “promoting the cause of freedom” and Dr Chee Soon Juan was told then that it was illegal to assemble to “promote the cause of democracy.” (See here and here.)

Besides formalizing existing subsidiary legislation, the new Public Order Act also attempts to dilute the effectiveness of civil disobedience activities by forbidding citizen journalists from recording the events and shaming the authorities internationally via New Media. Clearly, the authorities are aware that videos play a key part in civil disobedience by bringing moving images of shameful and unjustified arrests to the screens of millions of viewers worldwide.

The new requirement that property owners take “reasonable action” to prevent illegal assemblies and processions from occurring on their premises is also an attempt to turn citizens against activists, who ironically are fighting for their rights.

In tabling the new Bill before Parliament, the Home Affairs Minister explained that its purpose was to “give the police greater powers to maintain public order, for example during major events like the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit which Singapore will host in November”. (ST Online, “More powers to police”, 23 March 2009.)

However, my contention is that existing legislation is already adequate to deal with security issues arising from terrorist threats or other criminal activity. For example, if the police suspect that there is terrorism or gang-related activities going on, they can act to put a stop to it even without the new Public Order Act, as they have always done so in the past. The existing legal and law enforcement framework allows the authorities to investigate suspected criminal activity, especially those involving physical violence or an incitement to physical violence, and also pre-emptively take steps to prevent such activity from occurring.

The new Public Order Act does not give the authorities more leeway or discretion to deal with violent crime and terrorism than they already do. It is abundantly clear therefore that the new Act is intended by the ruling party to be an instrument of oppression rather than an instrument of protection, as an enhanced means of stifling political dissent, rather a than a means of promoting greater security.

On 27 April 1955, the then Opposition leader Lee Kuan Yew said: “But we either believe in democracy or we not. If we do, then, we must say categorically, without qualification, that no restraint from the any democratic processes, other than by the ordinary law of the land, should be allowed … … If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.”

Today, over 5 decades later, those values of democracy and freedom have been distorted and perverted by the ruling party beyond recognition in the name of security and public order. Let us all strongly condemn this tyranny.