By Ariffin Sha
A team of activists from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) had distributed flyers urging residents of Aljunied GRC to question the Workers' Party past midnight last Friday. Enough have been said about the morals, or lack thereof, of their antics. I would now like to explore whether the actions of these activists were even legal in the first place.
To start, we should also note that PAP activists Victor Lye, who made a Facebook post thanking his team for distributing the fliers, and Muralidharan Pillai, who confirmed to media that the flyers were from PAP, have both clearly indicated the origins of the flyers. In spite of that, the flyers in question do not carry any PAP logo. The flyers were also distributed past midnight, as if done to avoid direct contact with residents.
Notwithstanding the highly mysterious and secretive air surrounding the distribution, Muralidharan had insisted to media that they had nothing to hide and that “there was no difficulty in understanding that (the flyer) was from the PAP”.
Precedence set by the SDP
In 2008, six members of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) were charged for illegal assembly while distributing flyers which were critical of the government.
Their charge sheet read:
You are charged that you, on the 10th day of September 2006 at about 12:15 pm, in the vicinity of Raffles City Shopping Centre, North Bridge Road, Singapore, which is a public place, together with 5 persons did participate in an assembly intended to demonstrate opposition to the actions of the Government, which assembly you ought reasonably to have known was held without a permit under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order & Nuisance) (Assemblies & Processions) Rules, and you have thereby committed an offence punishable under Rule 5 of the said Rules.
Senior Investigation Officer
Central Police Division
29 December 2008
The SDP members were charged under Rule 5 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order & Nuisance) (Assemblies & Processions) Rules which states: Any person who participates in any assembly or processions in any public road, public place or place of public resort shall, if he knows or ought reasonably to have known that the assembly or processions is held without a permit, or in contravention of any term or condition of a permit, be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000.
Here's what political blogger Alex Au had to say about the charge,
It is difficult to imagine that the legislative intent of this law was to curb the handing out of flyers, or similar communicative-type activity. I daresay the law was meant to prohibit gatherings that pose a threat to public peace, e.g. gangs out to intimidate or fight, or sit-ins that block traffic. The name of the law, after all, is Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.
Moreover, in actual practice, no action is taken against the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who stand at metro stations handing out flyers, or even those who interfere with traffic in some way, e.g. stopping people to sell them insurance
The point made by Mr Au definitely makes sense - the execution of laws should target the intended consequence, rather than the offending act itself. Unfortunately, the way the law was applied in the case must be taken into account in evaluating the present facts.
In the judgement passed by District Judge Chng Lye Beng, it is understood that, if a group of five or more persons distribute flyers of a political nature in a public place without a permit, they may likely be in breach of the law. Let us now compare the first three elements of the offence with the facts of the case at hand.
Five or more persons?
After the distribution of the flyers, Mr Lye posted this image on his Facebook page. According to his post, the people featured in this picture are the "(PAP) activists who worked through the night... to distribute flyers." From this picture, one can easily make out seven people, which suggests that there were more than five people who helped to distribute the flyers. There might also have been more who helped out in the distribution but were not featured in this photo.
The flyers in question were placed at the doors of HDB flats, as seen in the picture above. This means that Mr Lye and his team were operating at the common corridors of HDB flats. It is also clear from the photographs taken from Mr Lye's Facebook page that the flyers were left outside the flats - which suggests that they in no way entered into the home, or what might be considered private property.
Flyers of political nature?
To give the reader a better understanding of what would constitute 'political nature', it would be good to look at the contents of the flyers that the SDP members distributed. The flyers contained the following words:
Tired of being a voiceless, 2nd class citizen in your own country without any rights? Sick of the Ministers paying themselves millions of dollars while they tell you to keep making sacrifices for Singapore? Then join us for the
RALLY & MARCH
Saturday, 16 Sept 2006, 11 am
Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park
FOR MORE INFORMATION, GO TO
In comparison. here are the contents of the flyers that the PAP activists distributed:
Comparing the contents of the two flyers, I opine that if the former can be constituted to be of a political nature, the latter undoubtedly is of a political nature too. The later also makes explicit references to the Workers' Party and its Town Councils which should dissipate any doubts one may have about the political nature of the flyers.
Without a permit?
Prima Facie, it seems as though the actions of the PAP Aljunied team on Friday evening have satisfied the first three elements of the offence. In other words, Mr Lye and his team of five or more persons did distribute flyers which were of a political nature in a public place.
The question now would really be whether they had a permit for the distribution of the flyers. Both Mr Lye and Mr Muralidharan had not any any point in time produced any evidence to show that a permit has been obtained. If they do not have such a permit, they would technically be in breach of the law.
Alternative charge of Sedition
However, the SDP is not the only precedence we have of people distributing flyers without a permit and getting into trouble for doing so.
In what was popularly referred to as the "poison letters", a flyer that was critical of the PAP was distributed to residents in the heartlands via letter boxes. The Strait Times described the flyer as “an A4-sized sheet with the criticisms in English and Chinese, made allegations about corruption and exploitation and complained about cost of living issues, among other things.”
It was reported that Police investigations were ongoing although we didn't get to hear the end of the matter. TODAY reported that the flier was in breach of the Sedition Act which states, among other things, that a seditious tendency is one which seek:
(a) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government;
(b) to excite the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure in Singapore, the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter as by law established;
(c) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Singapore;
(d) to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore
The "poison letter" incident raises another bag of issues for the PAP flyer distribution in Aljunied GRC. While the target of the flyers - the Workers Party - do not form the government, its members are rightfully elected Members of Parliament, who are part legislative arm of the government. The contents of the flyers might possibly be also be construed instigate dissatisfaction among the residents of Aljunied against WP. Might it have the consequence of causing political unrest? The potential is unthinkable. However, to a certain extent, it may be possible to interpret the contents of the flyers to amount to a "seditious tendency" under subsections (b) and (d).
Ultimately, if this case ever goes before the courts, the issue of the legality of the flyer distribution lies with the Judiciary. Personally, I do hope that it never will, just as I wished the case of SDP and the "poison letter" never did. Even though I believe the actions of Mr Lye and team are akin to a political lowblow, I am of the firm opinion that, as far as the law is concerned, they should be free to do what they do - just like how all political parties distribute flyers during their house visits. I an no fan of laws that can be interpreted and applied in a manner that is over-reaching and discretionary.
However, should a police report be made by a recipient of the flyers against the PAP activists, might it be an uphill task for PAP activists to justify the legality of this flyer distribution?