Effigy burning – would Gilbert Goh be breaking the law?

By Andrew Loh

In a TODAY report in August of 2008 on the relaxation of rules for the use of Speakers’ Corner, it said that protests like the burning of effigies and holding gay pride events at the park “will have a place in Singapore”.

The government had announced the day before that the rules would be relaxed to encourage Singaporeans to speak up, and in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, to “let a hundred flowers bloom” at the park.

“Once in a while, Think Centre says they want to go to the Speakers’ Corner and they want to plant 100 flowers there, let the hundred flowers bloom.

“Well, I think go ahead. They want to water the flowers, go ahead.

In 2008, the government further liberalised the use of the park with effect from 1 September 2008.

“BURN an effigy of a Singapore political leader? Organise a gay pride event outdoors? From next week, protests like these will have a place in Singapore,” the 2008 TODAY report, titled “More open field”, said.

TODAY, 26 August 2008
TODAY, 26 August 2008

“We want to be as open as possible,” said MHA senior director (policy and operations) Tai Wei Shyon then.

Beginning 1 September 2008, “Singaporeans can organise and participate in any demonstration at Speakers’ Corner” except those that involve race and religion” without having to obtain a police permit,” TODAY said.

“Permanent residents (PRs) can also participate in these demonstrations, in recognition of the stake they have in Singapore. But they have to apply for a permit if they wish to give a speech or organise a protest themselves.

“Foreigners will have to apply for a permit to conduct or participate in any activity” to make the distinction that the political rights of citizens are different from those of non-citizens.”

“There are no limits (to the protests) subject to public safety,” said the then Singapore Police Force director (operations) Wong Hong Kuan.

However, following Saturday’s fare hike protest at Speakers’ Corner, the rules seem to have changed, in particular with regards to the burning of effigies.

Mr Gilbert Goh, the organiser of the protest, had planned to burn an effigy of the Minister of Transport, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, at the event, which was scheduled to begin at 5pm.

At 4pm, Mr Goh told The Online Citizen (TOC), several police officers in plainclothes approached him and asked about his plans, in particular about burning the effigy.

Mr Goh says he is unsure how the police came to know about the plan but he had posted about it on his Facebook page days before the event on Saturday.

He said the police told him that he is not allowed to burn the effigy as it would or might “stir up the crowd”, Mr Goh says.

The police warning was confirmed by the Sunday Times, in its report the next day:

Sunday Times, 26 January 2014
Sunday Times, 26 January 2014

The police’s warning to Mr Goh seems to contradict what the TODAY newspaper reported in 2008, and what the Ministry of Home Affairs had reportedly said.

Even an article in the Singapore Law Review in 2008 said the MHA had “indicated express permission for activities including effigy burning” at Speakers’ Corner when the rules were relaxed.

The new rules were to be administered by the National Parks Board, or NParks for short.

In the TODAY report, it said that NParks is ready to take on this new role and specifically mentioned that “effigies can be burnt.”

“Our primary motivation is to keep Speakers’ Corner for use in as well-maintained conditions as possible … If there’s a need to make good on anything, we can follow up,” said Dr Leong.

“So, don’t damage our shrubs.”

Which means effigies can be burnt but with care.

Whether one agrees with the burning of effigies or not, what is of more concern is how rules and regulations are enforced, and whether they are enforced with consistency.

As with the anti-gay sex law, Section 377a, at times our law enforcers seem not to know the government’s position on these things.

Also, should Singaporeans and members of the public believe what the mainstream media report? Was the TODAY report accurate? Why were there no corrections all these years from the authorities if TODAY’s report was erroneous?

Which law would Mr Goh have contravened if he had burned the effigy? Would he be prosecuted if he had burned the effigy, although news reports and distinguished publications like the Singapore Law Review had said the authorities had in fact allowed such a thing?

Why did the police warn Mr Goh that burning effigies was “illegal” when in 2008 the MHA seemed to have indicated that it wasn’t?

TOC has written to NParks to ask for clarification of the rules regarding the burning of effigies at Speakers’ Corner.

We will post NParks reply if or when we receive it.

After he was warned, Mr Goh then told the police that he will not be carrying out the planned burning.

“We still want to be law-abiding,” he said.