By Terry Xu
Will the new Public Order (Amendment) Bill to be raised for its Second Reading in Parliament next week violate citizens’ rights and destroy Little India as we know it?
MARUAH organized its second forum on the Little India riot issue on Wednesday, attended by close to 80 people. The first forum focused primarily on issues faced by foreign workers while the forum on Wednesday was specifically on the new Bill.
The forum featured four panelists:
- Dr Kevin Tan, a law academic and an adjunct professor at National University of Singapore,
- Dr Lai Chee Kien, an architectural historian,
- Mr T Sasitharan, a theatre educator and the co-founder and director of Intercultural Theatre Institute ,
- Mr Prahbu Silvam, an undergraduate who interviewed more than 50 people after the riot and produced a website, www.littleindiariot.net documenting the interviews.
The new Bill proposed last month will give law enforcement officers, which include police and the auxiliary police, more powers to carry out their duties. Included in the provisions are powers for the officers to conduct searches on individuals in the special zones, areas designated by the authorities.
Dr Tan said that although the Bill requires officers to have “a reasonable suspicion” before they conduct their searches, he said one would find it hard to contest any requests to be searched as one cannot refuse an immediate demand by officers on the spot.
Dr Tan added that citizens’ constitutional right to movement is not guaranteed in the enforcement of this temporary provision.
He cited the two relevant articles in the Constitution:
“Subject to any law relating to the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order, public health or the punishment of offenders, every citizen of Singapore has the right to move freely throughout Singapore and to reside in any part thereof.“
“All citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms“
Though the Constitution has provisions for one’s right of movement and the right to assemble, he notes that restrictions may be imposed if Parliament considers it necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or for public order reasons.
However, the clause which allows restrictions of one’s right of movement is opened to wide interpretation, and the new provision will supersede the right of citizens on this basis.
If one is not a Singapore citizen, one would not even be able to claim that right.
He also questioned the need for the new law given that there are other laws that can be modified.
“There are a lot of life’s problem that are really best solved not by the use of law itself. But in this particular case, they decided that it was one that they needed a new law, not just existing law, not a modification of laws that currently that are in statute books but a brand new law. Why did they decide this?”
Further, Dr Tan said that the new law has an “underlying assumption” that alcohol was the cause of the December riot.
Dr Lai spoke of the history of Little India and highlighted that Indians were not the only ethnic groups which populated the area. In fact, Little India or Tekka had a colourful history of the major ethnic groups of Singapore since the early days of British colonisation.
Mr Sasitharan spoke of his concern over the impact of the culture of Little India and what it means to the harmony of the community in the area.
Mr Prabhu said that through his interviews, he found that many shopkeepers were losing money because of the alcohol ban – even if the shops were not involved in the sale of alcohol.
In the discussion following the presentations, civil activist, Vincent Wijeysingha spoke of a briefing paper that was written by a few activist on the concerns over the new bill. The paper has been sent to the Speaker of Parliament and can be found at this link.
He also added that though the new Bill is touted as a temporary provision, he questioned how temporary this provision would be given that Acts such as the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act that was introduced in 1955 has been renewed several times and continue to exist and is enforced even today – almost 60 years after its enactment.