In January this year, Gilbert Goh had planned to burn an effigy of Transport Minister, Lui Tuck Yew, at a Hong Lim Park protest event. However, the police told him that it would be illegal for him to do so. Mr Goh thus withdrew the plans to put Mr Lui to the fire, so to speak.
The incident, however, raised questions of whether burning effigies was illegal, as the police told Mr Goh.
The Online Citizen (TOC) published a report with references to various news reports, including those in 2008 when rules for Speakers’ Corner were relaxed, which indicated that burning effigies was not illegal. [Read it here: “Effigy burning – would Gilbert Goh be breaking the law?”]
TOC’s enquiries with the authorities to seek clarity were met with silence.
On 27 September, Han Hui Hui organised a protest-cum-march at Hong Lim Park to call on the Government to return Singaporeans’ Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings.
Before she could begin her protest, however, a police officer who was present at the park, told her, "Police did not approve your permit regarding the march."
He repeated it once.
When asked if a permit is needed to hold a march in Hong Lim Park, the police officer did not answer and instead referred the protesters to the NParks officer.
But the NParks officer did not address the question too.
Watch the video here, at 11:15 minutes onwards:
So, the question is: do protesters require a permit (whether from NParks or from the police) to hold a march or a procession in Hong Lim Park?
The law seems to say no.
The Public Order Act (POA), which was introduced in 2009, regulates public assemblies and processions and gives new powers to the authorities to preserve public order.
Among other things, it states that a permit is required for the conduct of any public assemblies or processions.
However, the POA also granted exemptions to certain areas and circumstances, namely:
- an assembly or a procession exempted from this section under section 46
- an assembly or a procession within any part of an unrestricted area not falling within a special event area.
Section 46 refers to the areas and people whom the minister, through the gazette, have granted exemptions from the POA.
It is the second provision which directly refers to Hong Lim Park as an exempted area.
Under the Public Order (Unrestricted Area) Order 2013, Hong Lim Park is declared as an “unrestricted area” and is thus exempt from certain provisions in the POA.
This include the stipulation that Hong Lim Park is exempt from the permit requirement for assemblies and processions, as stated in the POA:
“The area in Hong Lim Park and delineated in the Schedule is designated as an unrestricted area whereby no notice under section 6, and no permit under section 7, of the Act shall be required for the holding of all assemblies or processions or both therein.”
The law, thus, seems to be quite clear that Ms Han did not need to obtain a permit for her march at Hong Lim Park on 27 September.
It is thus puzzling why the police officer would tell her, "Police did not approve your permit regarding the march."
Which law required Ms Han to obtain a permit for her march?
As far as anyone can ascertain, permits are required for foreigners who want to participate in any event at Hong Lim Park, for permanent residents who want to organise or speak at events at the park, or if the topic of any event there is about race or religion.
To be sure, there are also conditions for events held at unrestricted areas, as spelt out in section 4 of the POA.
However, there is no condition which says a permit is required before anyone can conduct a march or a procession at Speakers’ Corner.
Perhaps police officers should explain or cite the laws which they are referring to or basing their actions on when they confront protesters or event organisers, and not choose to keep silent with vague answers which only serve to confuse.
But above all, one would also hope that the authorities know the law well before they make declarations based on it.
So, as with the question raised in the effigy burning incident involving Mr Goh, the same is asked of the authorities: which law specifically has Ms Han contravened in going ahead with the procession without a permit?
Which law says that she is required to have one?
Was AWARE required to obtain a permit when it held a similar protest march at Hong Lim Park last year?