The government’s arguments for the Public Order Bill are unconvincing

Over the objections of the opposition and not a few concerned queries from ruling party MPs, Parliament passed the Public Order Act on Monday to rationalise the existing Public Entertainments and Meetings Act and the Miscellaneous Offences Act.

In presenting the government’s case, Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam tried to square two contradictory motives.  On one hand, he presented the Act as a step forward in liberalisation, part of the government’s efforts to adjust its policies to balance the individual’s political space with the need for security and order.  To this end Mr Shanmugam cited the Act’s liberal aspects, such as a rationalisation of the permits regime that would do away with the need for permits for “50 per cent” of public activities.

On the other hand, the Act introduces potentially draconian powers, chiefly in the form of so-called “move-on” powers, which enable the police to order a person to leave an area if they think that he is about to break the law.  Mr Shanmugam argued that these are necessitated by the examples of disturbances elsewhere in the world.

Unfortunately, Mr Shanmugam’s arguments is unconvincing.  Like the new Films Act passed some weeks earlier, the Public Order Act introduces enough ambiguity and powers to – in effect – constrict civil liberties even as it retains a visage of liberalisation that allows the government to self-righteously argue that it is taking a positive step.

For example, the rationalisation of the permits regime will do away with the need for permits for commercial, recreational and sporting activities organised by statutory boards and recognised charities.  That is hardly liberalisation, since it has long been clear that activities of such nature were never a threat to public order.  Notably, political parties were excluded, which allows the government to retain discretion over the opposition’s activities – last year an application from the Worker’s Party to hold a cycling event was turned down even as the ruling party went ahead with a similar activity just some months later. 

Furthermore, the government has hazed the definition of the crowd size that would invite police action by removing a stipulation that a gathering of five or more persons would be deemed illegal.  In the face of queries from MPs, Mr Shanmugam argued that it was better to focus on the nature of the activity rather than the numbers involved.  True perhaps, but the resulting ambiguity – some MPs pointed out that a one-person assembly could be deemed illegal under the new Act – is certainly not reassuring, particularly given the government’s known proclivity for pursuing the letter rather than the spirit of the law when this suits its political purposes.

But it is with the introduction of the “move-on” powers that the government is on truly weak grounds.  First, Mr Shanmugam’s rather opportunistic mention of the turmoil in Thailand to justify the new powers does not obscure the fact that there is no precedent to show how Singapore’s existing laws are insufficient to the task of handling public disorder.  The 2006 World Bank and IMF meetings hosted by Singapore went by without a hitch and benefited more from the government’s willingness to close down large swathes of the city-centre than from any sort of crowd-control legislation.  In any case, the superseded Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, with its wide-ranging powers, was more than adequate for the purpose of keeping order. 

Second, there is reason to doubt the effectiveness of the “move-on” powers.  As this editorial previously pointed out, “move-on” powers are unlikely to discourage serious protesters from trying to make their point, which would force the police to arrest them anyway.  That will defeat Mr Shanmugam’s stated purpose for introducing “move-on” powers, which is to avoid the police having to make arrests.  In fact, one opposition MP has pointed out that the number of arrests actually went up in Australia – which is where the government is basing its Act on – after it introduced “move-on” powers.  It is also difficult to see how “move-on” powers help with combating terrorism – the government too seems to realise this and there was no mention of the spurious argument from its brief two weeks ago that the Act would help strengthen its ability to protect events from terrorists by preventing its forces from being “distracted” by “political activists, militants or mischief-makers seeking to exploit the media and political attention”.

It therefore seems that, contrary to Mr Shanmugan’s assertion that his Bill will not reduce the rights that Singaporeans currently enjoy, the new law is an unwarranted constriction of a citizen’s already restricted constitutional right to expression and assembly.  Yet it is hard to discern why the government has chosen to do so.  Perhaps it is to further curtail the ability of Dr Chee Soon Juan to embarrass it at high-profile international events to be held in Singapore; Dr Chee, an opposition figure that is a perennial thorn for the government, had some mild success at previous events.  It might even be a sign of the government’s anxiety that worsening economic conditions could spill over into the streets, particularly since Singaporeans have made enthusiastic use of their Speakers’ Corner in recent instances.

Whatever the case, one thing is quite clear: Mr Shanmugan said that the Act will allow the police to act “without people being able to argue about it”.  Worse, there will be no judicial review of a move-on order: the home minister alone can decide on an appeal. 

That leaves too much room for politicisation: for a potentially intrusive Act of this nature, the courts should have been allowed to decide the legality of a move-on order at the very least, particularly since Mr Shanmugan himself has made so much about the impartiality and non-partisan nature of the judiciary in recent months.  In winding up his arguments, Mr Shanmugam rhetorically asked the House whether the government had struck the right balance between protecting the individual’s political space and the public’s need for security – the answer is an unequivocal “no”.

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