Democracy Classroom: Protest and Public Order

Author: New Naratif
Published:

The following is a report on points, questions and concerns raised by participants in a discussion, based on their understanding and interpretation of laws and events in Singapore. Views expressed herein do not represent New Naratif’s position, or that of any organisation or group.

Rapporteur: Carol Yuen

Discussion Sheet: Download

On 13 March 2018, New Naratif held a democracy classroom on public order and protest in Singapore, where participants shared their thoughts on the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill and on the space for protests in general. Such democracy classrooms are part of New Naratif’s efforts to prompt the community to participate in discussions on social and political issues. This report aims to capture the points that were raised in the discussions.

 

Background

A number of protests—including the SMRT bus drivers’ strike, the annual Pink Dot LGBT pride rally, and the silent protest against the “Marxist Conspiracy” and detention without trial—have taken place in Singapore in recent years, but it’s public conversations on protest are rare. As the authorities often justify restrictions on protests as necessary to maintain law and order, it’s important for us to examine how a balance can be struck between law and order and the freedom to assemble in physical spaces. Are the laws too much? What should be changed? Should protests be allowed outside of Hong Lim Park?

 

The new bill

The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill—since passed in Parliament on 21 March 2018—expands the existing powers under Public Order Act. The police can stop, search, question, use force, and direct movement, among other things, in a targeted area declared by the Minister of Home Affairs, should there a serious incident.

The list of serious incidents includes acts of terrorism, but it also acts that cause large scale public disorder. For example, one of the illustrations of a serious incident is:

A sit‐down demonstration for a cause attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit‐in. For over a week, the group grows and the demonstrators start to occupy the publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the central business district. Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area.

Persons in this activated target area could then be at risk of committing a number of offences, including not answering the police’s questions or holding onto material that “advocates or is likely to lead to disobedience to any written law”.

Notably, there is a communication stop order for the target area, prohibiting the making or transmission of any audio-visual materials or text messages in the target area, even if they may be unrelated to the incident that triggered the order. Furthermore, under the new Bill, there is no provision for Parliament to annul the activation order.

 

Discussion

The participants generally raised concerns on the lack of safeguards and measures for accountability in the Bill. The government promises to exercise its wide powers responsibly, but it’s possible for the law to be used to clamp down on political speech. Also, it’s not guaranteed that Singapore will have a similarly competent government in years to come, and we cannot possible trust every future government with this power.

The participants generally raised concerns on the lack of safeguards and measures for accountability in the Bill

Accountability and public trust are important for any democracy. Oppressive laws could, unfortunately, have an opposite effect, eroding public trust and causing unhappiness. For example, in the UK, one reason behind the recommendation to abolish the law for scandalising the judiciary was that such a draconian law could create the perception among the public that the law is self-serving. As mentioned in a report by the Law Commission in the England and Wales: “[E]nforced silence is likely to create more ill-feeling than the original publication, not least the suspicion that judges are engaged in a cover-up and unfairly suppressing freedom of expression.” The lack of accountability and the overly-broad powers bestowed by the Bill could end up undermining public trust in Singapore.

The police are backed by the powers given in the Bill, but there should be some form of recourse should such powers be misused or abused. It would be beneficial for the police to have a body camera, and to have such footage made available should there be any discrepancy on the propriety of the use of powers. (Note: Josephine Teo, Second Minister for Home Affairs, said in Parliament that the police will continue to use body cameras.)

A participant shared that based on his experience in National Service, the police who are controlling the protestors may not be full-time police but could be less well-trained NSFs. There are certain guidelines on when they can shoot, and shooting is apparently encouraged in certain situations. It is possible that the authorities may defend and side with the individual even if the shooting is not appropriate, so the availability of evidence and remedies is highly important.

The inclusion of peaceful protests in the Bill was also heavily questioned

The inclusion of peaceful protests in the Bill was also heavily questioned. Given that riot police can and have stepped in to resolve protests, it is unnecessary for the Bill to include peaceful protests under the possible situations in which a target area can be declared. Moreover, peaceful protests are not on the same level of severity as acts of terrorism. If they were grouped together, the police could classify peaceful protestors as terrorists, which would lead to a Tiananmen Square-type incident.

It is also worrying that the restrictions are unfairly applied between pro- and anti-government speech, as the Public Order Act applies against people protesting against the government, while the People’s Association organises many public events that touch on political issues freely. The participants wondered if the restrictions were politically-motivated or simply an effect of regulations, as protestors are affected by the restrictions on public assemblies and find it difficult to obtain permits, but similar activities such as handing out flyers or organising well-attended gatherings often take place for commercial reasons.

Given the heavy restrictions on people in the target area, only life-threatening instances justify activating a target area. Whether such protests are conducted with or without a permit, the presence of such restrictive laws mean that protests will necessarily be nipped in the bud by the authorities.

A group of participants shared that the new law could deter kaypohs from documenting events and the extensive laws make people police themselves. In response, a participant commented that one could run into trouble due to ignorance or different lived experience, by thinking that the happenings are normal or merely a performance. This is especially so since the activation does not become invalid even if it fails to be published in the Gazette, which means it could be possible for individuals to be unaware that special authoritisation has been given.

Another group recognised that the Singapore government is very controlling of political discourse in public spaces and prefers change to happen gradually in the form of “planned evolution”.

Freedom of speech is definitely not absolute and should be exercised responsibly

Freedom of speech is definitely not absolute and should be exercised responsibly. A case in point was how Amos Yee lost his audience, even though he had some good ideas, because of the way he expressed himself. It is thus important to have more avenues for constructive discussion that will not lead to protests, such as this democracy classroom, since such avenues are currently insufficient. Discussions should involve different groups of Singaporeans, and there are growing instances of discussion as the government is becoming more consultative and respectful of the people. A protest is a drastic move that should be considered after moves have been taken, though it is important to protest if there is no result.

Protests are important and they are about overt pressure for change. As a part of our anti-colonial battle Singapore had several protests, some of which degenerated into riots. Freedom of speech was needed for our fight against colonialism, and revolution has a place in most societies. It is nevertheless important to recognize that no revolution is an overnight switch, given that it takes years of activities to build up to a revolution or protest. The #metoo movement is a result of decades of work including Take Back the Night marches and Slutwalk. In Singapore, the foundation for Pink Dot was laid from the 1980s. Even after protests happen, there is still loads of work to be done. If we were to nip things in the bud, then it will be very difficult for civil society efforts to grow.

A third group had older participants who had taken part in protests overseas and in Singapore. There were protests on the Vietnam War and in response to the demolition of a squatters’ site opposite the University of Singapore in the early 1970s. The student protestors sat outside the building Hong Leong Finance to protest the company’s removal of the squatters. Interestingly, during the clearance of the squatters, some squatters were charged for causing hurt because they had hit the police. However, they were acquitted after the court rules that it was self defense as the authorities were there to clear their homes.

This prompted sharing about when the “saturation of fear” began and when protests were discontinued. After 1974, Tan Wah Piow went into political exile because he was charged for rioting (a trumped-up charge). Two co-accused persons were also sent to jail and the student movement was suppressed.

Someone added that after Chinese middle school students’ clampdown, the government introduced a security certificate required for enrolling into university. Because of that, many were denied tertiary education. Around 1976, a law stated that students cannot take part in political activities, making it a direct clamp down.

Even though permits are also required for protests in Jakarta, it is not as heavily regulated as in Singapore

Two participants from Jakarta shared their perspective of protests in Indonesia. Even though permits are also required for protests in Jakarta, it is not as heavily regulated as in Singapore. Many protests happen in the country, diluting the impact of protests. The media outlets also do not cover smaller protests. Among the protests with reduced impact are the ones organised by lower-income groups in villages; these protests tend to be spontaneous with little preparation. Frighteningly, those involved in political issues have been kidnapped, and the government is suspected to be behind such incidents.

While the revised powers may be useful to counter terrorism, it has wide-reaching implications for everyone in Singapore and for freedom of expression. Although the Bill has since been passed, it is important that we have ongoing discussions about how the laws in Singapore could affect our everyday lives and how the balance between our civil liberties and law and order should be struck. The democracy classroom is a format for discussion that is meant to be replicated, and the participants were encouraged to discuss further with their friends.

 

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