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Something is Rotten in the State of Singapore

Breaking News: Myanmar dissident dies under questioning

By Benjamin Cheah

On the 8th of October, five members of the Singapore Democratic Party, Mr. Gandhi Ambalan, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Ms. Chee Siok Chin, Mr. Jeffrey George, and Mr. John Tan were arrested outside the Istana.

Four of the five SDP members were carrying placards reading 'No Arms', 'No Deals', and 'With the Junta', and a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's National League for Democracy.

Officially, they have been charged under Section 5 (2), Chapter 184 of the law, which means that they have held an assembly despite the relevant minister having ordered the restriction or prohibition of such assemblies at a designated location, in this case, the Istana.

More specifically, the law used was cited as the “Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) (Prohibition of Assemblies and Processions - Istana) Order”, according to this channelnewsasia report. However, I can’t find any reference under that chapter to the Istana on Singapore Statutes Online.

Article 14 of the Constitution

This is what the Singapore Constitution says about freedom of speech, assembly and association:

"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.

Article 14, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore

Freedom of speech, assembly and association...

(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) all citizens of
Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and
(c) all citizens of
Singapore have the right to form associations.

Article 14, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore" (link)

The spirit of the law

It is ironic that the Government has condemned the junta in Burma, while suppressing grassroots efforts to do the same. The Police would say that the SDP members have broken the law, specifically the above-cited clause. But the law is meant to embody the spirit of justice; interpretation of the law should be done based on the actual intent of the law, not its wording.

Chee's 'unlawful assembly' has not contravened the spirit of justice. On the contrary, he and his supporters are raising awareness for the plight of the Burmese people, and are pressuring the government to not support the junta. For the first time in a long time, Chee has implicitly supported the Government -- and has been arrested for his trouble.

It may be true that Chee and his colleagues have broken the law. What is equally true is that the only people they were disturbing were the police, by not dispersing when commanded to do so by a plainclothes police officer. Up until that point, they have acted reasonably, complying with official instructions to move when so requested, and not disturbing 'public order'.

I would argue that the above-cited law is best utilised against participants in riots, criminal activity, terrorism, and other such violent crimes -- not against four citizens standing peacefully and holding placards, and one who was recording the entire event. They were not being public nuisances or threats to public order, so they should not be considered as criminals. They were simply exercising their Constitutional right to free assembly. The police should not have arrested them.

But they did.

Violating Article 14 of the Constitution

So, whatever happened to our Constitution? It is the highest law of the land: no one may break it, or even change it arbitrarily. The Constitution is not, and should not, be little more than an arrangement of ink on paper, or a peculiar arrangement of pixels. Yet the use of the law in such a manner threatens to violate Article 14 of the Constitution.

Where the cited law is concerned, if the Minister were to have ordered such a prohibition, he should have at least the courtesy to make knowledge of such a restriction widely available, to avoid embarrassing mistakes. That the law cannot be found indicates that there is no way to officially know if assembly at the Istana is legal or not. (Perhaps Channelnewsasia has cited the wrong legislation?)

That is, of course, the legalistic view. Morally, I cannot reconcile the idea of an ‘open and inclusive society’ with the suppression of democratic assemblies at Singapore’s central nervous system.

This affair looks to me like a political action, designed to squash political dissent by targeting prominent political dissidents. The government’s strategy of using the law against the political opposition is discussed at length here. That the law has been used arbitrarily, with neither backlash nor commentary from Singapore's legal institutions, suggests that the State has little regard for the law it wrote for itself.

The people’s final recourse

I have no doubt that the SDP members would be tried, found guilty, and punished accordingly, short of a major miracle. The message this act sends is brutally clear: nobody shall hold political demonstrations of any sort, of any kind, no matter the context, unless organised by an organ of the State.

But demonstrations are the people’s final recourse to regain what power they have lost, or to publicise an issue that the State repeatedly ignores or does too little about. This has been true throughout history, most recently in Burma.

The Constitution was written to protect this fundamental right of the people. In this context, justice lies on the side of the SDP assembly, in spite of the law. That the Singapore government supported the Burmese protestors, who have done nothing more than to assert their sovereignty, in the process breaking the law in Burma, seems lost on the police with regards to their countrymen. Such a double standard is, to the cynic, not unexpected of the State.

Something is rotten in the State of Singapore. The Constitution itself is at stake. I can think of no reason how a hypocritical government that would break its own laws will be able to justify its rule for long. The trouble is, how much longer can it remain? And how much more damage can it do?

Read also: Constitutional right to peaceful assembly by Goh Meng Seng

Visit Benjamin's personal blog, Words Of The Lionheart, here.