This is the speech made in Parliament yesterday by Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim — a former police officer herself — in opposing the Public Order Bill.
The Workers’ Party opposes the Bill.
The policing of public order has been the subject of contentious debate in democratic countries. How far should State power be used to restrict citizens from free movement and expressing their beliefs or grievances, to the point of using lethal force?
In Singapore, an individual’s right to freedom of expression and assembly is enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution, under Part IV entitled Fundamental Liberties. However that Article also allows Parliament to place some restrictions on these for the sake of security and public order. Nevertheless, the primary assumption is that such freedoms are fundamental rights of citizens. Has this Bill crossed the line, asking Singaporeans to give up too much vis-à-vis the State?
Special Events Security
The Public Order Bill is tabled ahead of the APEC Meeting to be held here in November. Singapore is obliged to ensure that such events proceed according to schedule and without untoward incident to world leaders. To ask Singaporeans to subject themselves to stringent checks to enter the Special Events area, for only the duration of the event, is a compromise on individual rights that people can understand.
However, there are several disturbing aspects of the Bill. The 3 aspects most glaring are the changes relating to:
a) Public Assemblies and Processions
b) Move On powers
c) Prohibition of filming of law enforcement operations.
Public Assemblies and Processions
The Bill repeals S 5 of the Miscellaneous Offences Act and takes over the police permit regime under S5. Activists and political parties such as we in the Workers’ Party are very familiar with having our applications for police permits for outdoor activities rejected under that regime, due to so-called potential law and order problems. Such rejections were SOP up to as recently as 2007, when the Party’s application to hold a cycling event at East Coast Park to commemorate our 50th Anniversary was dismissed out of hand.
The Bill now suggests that outdoor assemblies and processions may be allowed, even if cause-based i.e. with political content. Does this mean that political parties in Singapore will now get approval to organize outdoor activities at venues besides Hong Lim Park and stadiums? Or is this designed to please international audience and to save the government from further embarrassment? We all remember in 2006 when Singapore hosted the IMF and World Bank meetings here. 27 foreign activists were blacklisted and 22 of them later de-listed, and a badminton court was designated as protest space, leading NGOs to go to Batam to protest, making us a laughing stock internationally.
The change in definition of “assembly” and “procession” is more disturbing. As the Explanatory Statement to the Bill says, these words are no longer restricted to gatherings of 5 persons or more. This means even ONE person alone can constitute illegal assembly, thus giving the State complete control over an individual citizen’s freedoms.
First, to say that 1 person constitutes an assembly is certainly an abuse of the word. Secondly, is the government making the change because there had been incidents involving less than 5 persons which had disrupted public life? Unless there is compelling evidence to prove to us that expanding the definition of assembly and procession is needed, this expansion does not deserve our support.
Regarding indoor political activities, MHA has said that these will continue to be exempted so long as organised by and for Singaporeans. Why is this exemption not written into the Bill, but left to regulations? Regulations can be amended as and when the government likes. The Explanatory Statement to the Bill states that “current exemptions under the MOA may retain their status” under the POA. Does this mean that the government is not prepared to commit to opening up to allow Singaporeans to discuss current issues even indoors, since it does not write this exemption into the Bill but continues to leave Singaporeans at the mercy of the government?
Move On Power
Clauses 34 to 37 give the police a new power to order people to leave a place for up to 24 hours. The rationale for this is supposed to be public safety, public order or to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
This is a convenient option for law enforcement to diffuse potential law and order problems, if not for the fact that such a Move-On direction conflicts with the right of peaceful assembly enshrined under Article 14 of the Constitution. Indeed, the government is well aware of this infringement of the rights under the constitution, as Clause 36(2) expressly recognises this.
Looking at Clause 36, the persons who are directed to Move On need not have been committing any offence, so long as the police officer believes it is reasonably necessary for them to Move On in the interests of good order. Disobeying such a direction itself becomes a criminal offence.
To illustrate, the police can order a group of persons outside a business or shop to disperse because the owner has complained that they are interfering with trade, say, by standing near the entrance to the shop or business. Could this become a pro-business Act of the government at the expense of consumers’ rights? There could be situations where these persons could have a legitimate claim against a business e.g. deaths or food poisoning from consuming contaminated food, or even bank customers who have lost their savings due to mis-selling of products. So long as the public are not committing or intending to commit any offences, why should they be told to disperse? The Explanatory Statement gives other examples such as people preventing others from leaving a place or people disrupting an event. But in such cases, we already have existing laws under which they can be charged e.g. with wrongful restraint under the Penal Code or disorderly behaviour under the Miscellaneous Offences Act.
MHA claims that our Bill is narrower than the Australian law specifically the Queensland legislation because our Bill targets behaviour rather than the mere presence of persons at a particular place. To me this is a minor difference, as a person’s mere presence could easily be classified as behaviour e.g. loitering by mere presence can be considered a kind of behaviour. There are also some Australian legislation which are much narrower. e.g. in the Australian Capital Territory, Move On powers are only to be exercised when violence is imminent.
Further, one important feature of the Queensland legislation totally absent in the Bill is how police directions to Move On will be monitored and reviewed outside the SPF. Minister referred to the requirement for a Sergeant as internal accountability. But Sergeant is an entry level rank for fresh recruits with A Levels or Diplomas. By contrast, in the Queensland Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000, S 49 provides for a Crime and Misconduct Commission (“CMC”) which reports to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly; the CMC must conduct a review of police orders to Move On and prepare a report, which must be submitted to Speaker to be tabled at the Legislative Assembly. Where is this provision for review under this Bill? Indeed, in MHA’s overview, there is mention of internal accountability but nothing on public accountability.
MHA has argued that Move On powers would give police an intermediate option and allow people to avoid being arrested. However, Australian research has shown that this was not true there – issuing Move On directions did not result in fewer arrests in public spaces. In fact, issuing Move On directions resulted in more charges for public space offences (Walsh, T. And Taylor, M.“ ‘You’re Not Welcome Here’ – Police Move On Powers and Discrimination Law” NSW Law Journal Vol 30 1(2007) 151. )
The Penal Code already allows us to charge people with criminal conspiracy for merely agreeing to commit an offence, and attempted offences, even if the act is not complete. The Criminal Procedure Code gives the police powers to prevent offences before they occur. The Miscellaneous Offences Act already criminalises a lot of anti-social behaviour such as abusive language and disorderly behaviour. Such an approach forces the police to take a strict and disciplined approach to proceed only when they have evidence of offences.
Minister referred to high ratings of Singapore by international bodies ranking us on stability. My argument would be: if we have maintained such a ranking thus far, doesn’t that show that the current regime is adequate?
Overall, I am not convinced that our existing arsenal of laws has hampered the police in law enforcement and the policing of public order. Move On powers have been very problematic in other countries due to the wide discretion given to police, to even order law abiding citizens to move on. Our regime does not even provide for any independent oversight of such actions. Move On powers are dangerous in leaving citizens in limbo over how they can move and seek legitimate redress.
Filming Of Law Enforcement Activities
Clause 38 allows police officers to stop a person from filming law enforcement activities. Minister earlier said that the provision was targeted at security operations and not ordinary law enforcement activities. But is that what the Clause says? Clause 38(5) defines “law enforcement” as activities carried on by law enforcement officers in exercise of any function, power or duty of such an officer in accordance with law. Therefore, Clause 38(1) will allow a police officer to stop someone filming any law enforcement activity if he thinks it will prejudice the conduct of an ongoing law enforcement operation or investigation. The Minister’s interpretation that it applies to security operations only does not seem to be borne out by the wording of the section. Law enforcement operation or investigation could include crowd control, crime investigation or other routine matters.
With such wide wording, what is the potential cost of this to accountability for the exercise of State powers and protecting the fundamental rights of citizens?
A good illustration is the recent incident in London involving Ian Tomlinson which took place on April 1, the eve of the G-20 meeting. Tomlinson was apparently on his way home after work when he had to pass through an area where there were some protestors. Police were on duty, conducting law enforcement operations. He collapsed and died of a heart attack on the way home. As questions were being asked about why Tomlinson died, the police initially said there was no indication that he had had any altercation with the police prior to his death. However, this position became untenable when a video taken by a New Yorker in London on business showed the police violently pushing Tomlinson to the ground when he was doing nothing but walking away from the area peaceably. The revelation of this footage, together with other eye witness accounts, has now triggered an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into the circumstances of Tomlinson’s death.
The question the government must answer is: does it not agree that a wide, discretionary power to ban films of law enforcement activities will make the police less accountable to the public for its actions? If the video taken by the New Yorker in London never came to light, the circumstances of Tomlinson’s death may have been covered up.
If the above case were to happen here, how does this government expect truth and justice to prevail without the presence of footage recorded by public-spirited citizens? The government may say it does not tolerate abuses by law enforcement officers but it cannot possibly believe that such abuses will never happen in Singapore. Even talking about covert operations, if I happen to film intelligence officers beating up someone excessively, am I to be silenced simply to protect their identities? What about the victim of excessive violence – where is his justice?
As I have said before, citizen journalists have important roles to play to counterbalance the edited reports of the mainstream media. At long last, ordinary citizens can harness new technology to secure evidence against the all-powerful State, something impossible before. In Singapore, this is particularly valuable as we still do not have any Freedom of Information Act, and there are wide provisions under the Official Secrets Act and Evidence Act to prevent disclosure of information relating to government actions. We do not even have any independent watchdog body to monitor law enforcement agency actions.
The government has already banned political films which are not totally factual under the Films Act. Must it also ban non-political films which faithfully record actual events? If the concern is not to prejudice ongoing operations, why is there no provision to return the films after the operation is over, instead of providing for the films to be destroyed altogether as in Clause 38(3)?
Instead of having such a blanket provision, can’t our law enforcement agencies find other ways to ensure operational effectiveness? During any operation, it already has discretion to physically cordon off areas if this is needed for operational reasons or public safety. This will limit the proximity of the public to such areas.
If we are to claim that our law enforcement agencies are world class, we should not tarnish the image of the agencies by disregarding the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. We believe world class status should be achieved not by way of severely curtailing legitimate rights of individual citizens; public accountability must be in the equation as well.
Minister and others have referred to the current situation in Thailand.
The problem in Thailand involves constitutional issues. The legitimacy of the each subsequent government after the 2006 military coup has always been in question since. Each camp believes it has a legal claim to power. The messages from both camps are similar. They want to force the existing government to call for fresh elections to ensure its legitimacy.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from Thailand, it is about upholding democracy. It is not about the consequences of having weak public order laws because the Thai people felt cheated. The Thai police and army are not weaklings either. They are more battle-hardened than our equivalent as they have been fighting Muslim separatists for many years. Many of these security people are just sympathetic to the ‘Red shirt’ cause. Does the PAP government think that slapping a ‘move on’ order on 100,000 Thais will work?
The Singapore Government should not take advantage of the situation in Thailand to justify the implementation of draconian laws to inhibit the basic rights of citizens further. The Thais may be exercising their basic rights to the extreme. On the other hand, Singaporeans, who have done nothing remotely close to what the Thais are doing, are being penalized further for nothing. As long as this government respect and uphold democracy, the problem we are seeing in Thailand will not happen here. But if the government wants to tinker with the individual freedom and democracy to an oppressive level, it will actually become the source of public order problems.
The Bill as a whole will give the State a carte blanche to control citizen activity and further erode whatever little power Singaporeans have to pursue legitimate causes. This is in contrary to the Workers’ Party belief in Power to the People.