by Teo Soh Lung
Sometimes I am asked these questions:
Why did Dr Chee Soon Juan protest “unlawfully” and get himself arrested and sent to prison?
Why did Jolovan Wham do a one-person protest knowing full well it is against the law?
Speakers’ Corner or Hong Lim Park is the venue that protests can be carried out lawfully. Why don’t activists confine themselves to that space when they have fought so hard for it?
Surely they know that the Public Order Act does not permit them to protest outside Hong Lim Park without a permit. They are wasting their time and they deserve to be jailed!
I confess that I too had asked those questions. While I did not conclude that they were wasting their time even though when hauled before the courts, conviction, jail or fine would be the natural outcome, I wondered if anything could be achieved by other means or ways.
It was the same with the endless persecution and prosecutions of the Late Mr JB Jeyaretnam. It took a long time for me to realise that there are no other ways. Some people have to sacrifice their personal freedoms in order that others may enjoy them. Had it not been for all these fellow Singaporeans, the situation in Singapore could be worse today.
In today’s high-tech age, a photograph or video can travel round the globe and cause much embarrassment to our government. Unfortunately, one of the ways that will change the backward mindset of our leaders is causing embarrassment to them!
Singapore leaders are not amused by Jolovan Wham’s one person protest. That is why prosecutors had time and again complained to our courts that taking photos and posting them on social media is the “opus operandi” of activists.
I have lost count of how many investigations and prosecutions activists face. But here are some that come to my mind:
Jolovan Wham was charged, convicted and jailed under the Public Order Act for taking a photo of himself with the smiley sign and outside the former State Court with the slogan ‘Drop the charges against Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa.
Not long ago, artist Seelan Palay did an awesome one person performance art called Interrogation of a Mirror from Speakers’ Corner to the former Supreme Court and Parliament House. He was convicted of participating in a one person unlawful procession under the POA and went to jail.
In March 2020, two young climate activists from Fridays4Future SG staged solo demonstrations calling for greater commitment to de-carbonisation and fossil fuel divestment. Both were called in for questioning and had their electronic devices seized.
Recently, several young activists were investigated for holding an “unlawful assembly” outside Changi Prison in the wee hours of the morning before a prisoner was hanged.
The Bedok Police Headquarters confiscated the Anti-Death Penalty tee-shirts worn by Kirsten Han and Rocky Howe when they submitted themselves for interrogation. Till today, their tee shirts have not been returned and investigations are still ongoing!
Why is it an offence to hold a peaceful public assembly in a public space?
The POA or Public Order Act mandates police permits for any gathering or meeting of one or more persons intending to demonstrate for or against a group or government; publicise a cause or campaign; or mark or commemorate any event.
This ridiculous law was passed in April 2009. The scope is very wide. Prior to the POA, only assemblies of 5 or more people required a police permit.
Article 14 of our Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly and association.
However, this so called supreme law is subject to other laws whether made prior or after it was enacted. Ordinary laws can therefor remove all our fundamental rights that are supposed to be guaranteed by our constitution.
When I told this to a group of Malaysian workers in the 1980s, they immediately protested. What is the point? How can you call the constitution the supreme law of the land? And yet our judges have held time and again that our constitution is subject to our ordinary laws!
It is a fact that attempts by Singaporeans to comply with such ridiculous laws have been futile. Activist Rachel Zeng applied in January 2011 to hold a one-woman march on International Women’s Day. She wanted to draw attention to the fact that single mothers below 35 years of age were not allowed to buy HDB flats. Her application was rejected without any reason. She appealed. Her appeal was rejected.
Before Rachel Zeng, Dr Chee Soon Juan had applied many times for a police permit to protest but to no avail. Similarly, in December 2018, Jolovan Wham applied for a police permit to hold a one person public assembly to commemorate World Justice Day in February 2019. The application and appeal were both rejected and he was told to go to Speakers’ Corner.
The number of applications to hold one person assemblies are numerous. They have all been rejected. What a waste of the time for the police to process these applications. They might as well set a robot to work.
The definition of ‘public assembly’ in the POA is so broad that one individual handing out flyers on the street or collecting signatures for a petition, will be deemed to have committed an offence if they did not have a permit to do so.
In 2010, an application by two migrant rights groups to distribute flyers for international migrants’ day was turned down. In 2018, The Online Citizen’s editor, Mr Terry Xu was informed by the police that his plan to collect signatures outside Raffles Place MRT station for a petition calling for parliament to be live-streamed, would not be allowed. This is despite the fact that he wasn’t planning to make a speech or hold up any signs.
The reach of this law is so wide that even a foreigner speaking to an indoor audience via Skype for a ’cause related’ event is an offence. You can read some of these ridiculous cases in the book titled “RIDICULOUS, untold tales of Singapore” published by Function 8.
Our ability to advocate for change and speak up against injustice are severely curtailed by the POA and many other laws. If we do nothing, we will one day lose everything. We must therefore attempt to resist and even recover some of these rights.
Our actions may make those in power a little uncomfortable and stretch their imagination to hellish depths such as chaos and bloodshed. But the act of protesting and not quiet and “respectful” consultation is how a democratic society functions. Citizens should not be punished for expressing their views.
To make it a law that no one is permitted to demonstrate or take a photograph with a slogan outside Parliament House or the courts and other government buildings is absolutely ridiculous.
Peaceful protests directed at law making or enforcing bodies should be encouraged. Who else matters more than these important and powerful people who manage our country?
They should be thankful that people are taking time and trouble to express their opinion for or against them. They should take it in their stride to pause and think why people are doing what they do and not send them to jail just because they have the right to abuse their power by using unjust laws.
Why was POA introduced?
When the Public Order Bill was introduced, the then Second Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that this law was important because Singapore would be hosting the 2009 APEC meetings and we could not afford to have those meetings disrupted. It was also argued that the law was necessary for the preservation of safety of individuals!
While safety concerns at large international events are valid, they can be addressed without restricting peaceful demonstrations. Surely our men in blue are capable of ensuring public safety especially when our laws make it a serious offence for the possession of weapons.
Besides, Singapore also has specific laws which punish individuals for inciting violence and disorder or hate speech. These should be enough to deter such imagined disruptive conduct of peaceful Singaporeans.
What does international law recommend?
International legal standards only require individuals to give notice of an intention to organise large peaceful public assemblies or procession.
The purpose of such a notification is to give the authorities time to facilitate the event, and are not meant to be an approval process.
No notice is required for assemblies or processions that do not require the government to take crowd control measures, or where only a small number of participants are expected and impact on the public is expected to be minimal.
A one person protest therefore does not require any notification!
Protests should be allowed
Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed citizenry. They allow us to show our grievances, share views, expose flaws in governance and publicly demand accountability.
I hope I have answered the questions which bother some people. We are used to obeying rules and regulations even if these are ridiculous. It is good to disbelieve the government’s imaginary fear that even one person can cause a riot and bloodshed. We are responsible human beings and we are born free.
While Speakers’ Corner is a nice space that belongs to all of us and we should not even be required to inform NParks of what we intend to do, our freedom should not be restricted to such a space which is located away from those who govern us. We should be free to demonstrate peacefully anywhere, including the Istana, Parliament House, Supreme Court, Changi Prison.
It is time to abolish the Public Order Act.
This opinion was first published at Function 8’s Facebook page. Ms Teo is a lawyer and an activist in Singapore. She is also a former politician who contested in Singapore’s General Election 2011.