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Why the proposed Public Order Act seems patently unnecessary

An unnatural order

Coming soon on TOC: A look at the Cabinet changes and the implications for the next General Elections.

Why the proposed Public Order Act seems patently unnecessary

On the heels of its proposed changes to the Films Act introducing fresh restrictions on the use of political films, the government will be tabling a new Public Order Act to expand its already considerable powers for crowd control.

In explaining the move the Home Ministry argued that it was necessary to tackle “gaps in the current framework” and to update police powers for protecting “mega events” hosted by Singapore, specially the upcoming APEC meetings in November.  Yet it is difficult to recall an example of such an event being disrupted – the IMF-World Bank meetings in 2006 went by without as much as a squeak – and the only “gap” in the Home Ministry’s jurisdiction that comes readily to mind is that infamous lavatory in its detention centre near Whitley Road.

At the heart of the new Act are the so-called “move-on powers”, enabling the police to order a person to leave an area and prevent him from returning if they determine that he is about to break the law.  There seems to be little precedent to justify the introduction of such powers.  Few protesters made it past security screening and into Singapore for the IMF-World Bank meetings in 2006, and even those that did made their dissent heard in exemplary lawful fashion.  An attempted march by a tiny band led by a Singaporean opposition party was stopped by heavy police guard before it even got underway.  The police presence was thick and highly visible, and several major thoroughfares were cordoned off.  It is difficult to see how the new Act would improve on that performance. 

 

Moreover, the “move-on” powers are unlikely to discourage serious protesters from trying to make their point, meaning that the police are likely to be forced into arresting them anyway.  That would defeat the Ministry’s stated purpose of introducing “move-on” powers to avoid the police having to make arrests in the first place.

The Home Ministry has tried to emphasise that the possibility of a terrorist threat necessitated these new powers.  Yet the aim of the legislation is not to address terrorism but rather to clamp down on any so-called “disruption” to public order.  The link that the Ministry tries to draw between terrorism and its proposed Act is a rather spurious one: to prevent the former, the Ministry argued that its forces “cannot afford to be distracted” by “political activists, militants or mischief-makers seeking to exploit the media and political attention”.

The only bit in the proposed Act that seems justifiable is that which prohibits events being filmed if this might jeopardise operations or the safety of security forces.  This is a change aimed squarely at addressing concerns following the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 where terrorists kept abreast of police operations by watching live media coverage of events on television.  That said, such a provision might sit more comfortably in anti-terrorism legislation than in the current Bill.

In any case, the critical consideration is whether the government can be counted on to exercise its new powers judiciously.  In this regard the Ministry’s attempt to validate the new Act by invoking the example of Australia’s “move-on” powers is specious – it neglects the fact that Australia’s strong tradition of civil liberties makes it far less likely that such powers would be abused or politicised. 

It is instructive to note that the last time Singapore had a major demonstration was in 1988 when the country's main trade union (which is practically run by the ruling party) organised one against alleged American interference in our domestic affairs; on the other hand, opposition parties have always been denied permission for similar acts.  Given this precedent, it is not surprising that many Singaporeans are understandably wary of the government’s actual motivations behind the new Public Order Act.

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