By Andrew Loh
“In consultation with the Attorney-General’s Chambers on the police report made on the distribution of flyers at Aljunied Group Representation Constituency, it has been determined that there is no offence disclosed. The distribution of flyers in itself is not an offence in Singapore.”
The above is the statement by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) issued to the media on 19 March 2015.
While the statement itself does not indicate who it was referring to specifically, it is clear it was issued with regards to the distribution of anti-Workers’ Party (WP) political flyers by activists of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Aljunied GRC.
It is also unclear if there was an investigation by the SPF and whether the PAP activists were questioned, before the SPF concluded there was no offence committed.
The SPF statement says little and explains even less, leading to further criticisms and questions about the statement.
The media’s regurgitation of the vague statement doesn’t shed much light either.
Mainly, what are the reasons for the Attorney General and the SPF to conclude that the activists’ action did not constitute an offence?
What were the relevant laws or legislations the authorities considered in its determination that the PAP activists’ distribution of political flyers was legal?
These are legitimate and important questions and the authorities should answer in more details, so as to prevent any deterioration or erosion of public trust in our enforcement agencies.
This is especially imperative given past incidents where others were arrested, charged and even fined for similar actions.
It is paramount that the application of the law is unbiased, fair and seen to be so.
“[This] falls under the Sedition Act”
In April 2010, the local press reported that “poison pen letters” had “surfaced” in Sengkang. (See above photo.)
“Written on a piece of A4-size paper in both English and Mandarin, it has been stuffed into the letter boxes of residents there,” the TODAY newspaper reported then.
Apparently, the letter accused the PAP “of being responsible for the high cost of living and the 7-per-cent GST, among other complaints.”
TODAY reported that a police report was made and the police were investigating the incident then.
TODAY then said that it “understands that this case falls under the Sedition Act, where the offender could be fined up to $5,000 and/or given a maximum jail term of three years.”
So, it seems that such acts are rather serious.
Do note that the newspaper felt that the letters/flyers which criticised the PAP – instead of the Government – are deemed seditious.
Why is this so? Why would criticisms of a political party be seditious? Would this then apply to similar poison letters/flyers against the Workers’ Party as well?
But just as importantly, why did the police feel it needed to investigate the incident in Sengkang while no mention is made on whether it had also investigated the PAP activists’ distribution of “poison pen flyers” in Aljunied, even though a police report was also made about the Aljunied incident?
About 6 months after the incident in Sengkang in 2010, posters asking residents to demand the resignation of PAP MP Lee Bee Wah as president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) surfaced in Nee Soon.
A grassroots leader of the area was reported to have made a police report about it, and the police was reported to be looking into the incident.
Eventually, blogger Joseph Ong was found to be the person behind the poster.
The police then issued him a “conditional stern warning” for “the offence of intentional harassment.”
So, from the two examples above, the obvious questions are:
If the “distribution of flyers in itself is not an offence in Singapore”, as the SPF says in its statement on Friday, then why is the distribution of anti-PAP flyers in Sengkang deemed to be seditious? Does the Sedition Act apply to criticisms of a political party (PAP), in the same way it could apply to acts against the Government?
Is the police’s charge of “intentional harassment” against Dr Ong based on the content of the poster or on the act of pasting the posters around the estate?
Some answers may be found in a third incident, this time involving the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 2006.
The SDP members were charged for illegal assembly while distributing flyers “in the vicinity of Raffles City Shopping Centre, North Bridge Road” in 2006.
They were accused of participating in “an assembly intended to demonstrate opposition to the actions of the Government.”
They were found guilty and fined $1,000 each.
However, they chose to go to jail for a week, in lieu of the fine, pending their appeals against the conviction and sentence.
In that subsequent appeal judgement in 2011, Justice Woo Bih Li dismissed the appeals.
However, it is worth noting some of what the judge said.
“I concur with the District Judge’s comment… that, in the present case, it was not the act of distributing flyers that amounted to a contravention of r 5 of the MOR [Miscellaneous Offences Rule] but the fact that the appellants were gathered together to convey their support for or opposition to the views or actions of a person, viz the Government, within the meaning of r 2(1)(a) of the MOR without a permit, albeit via the medium of flyers.”
[Emphases added by this author.]
“The law extends to all demonstrations of support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, and not just the Government.”
The judge had made it quite clear that while distributing flyers is not illegal in Singapore, at the same time, he also made it known that a permit is required for such gathering of persons to express “demonstrations of support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, and not just the Government.”
This was what the SDP members were found guilty of – illegally assembling without a permit while distributing flyers at Raffles City Shopping Centre.
According to the Public Order Act:
“assembly” means a gathering or meeting (whether or not comprising any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion) of persons the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is —
(a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government;
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign; or
(c) to mark or commemorate any event,
and includes a demonstration by a person alone for any such purpose referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c);
Even one person can constitute a gathering or an assembly.
Harassment, sedition or illegal assembly – or none?
And this brings us back to the PAP activists’ distribution of flyers in Aljunied and the one question which remains unanswered by the activists, led by its branch chairman, Victor Lye, and the police statement:
Did the activists apply for a police permit to gather or assemble in order to distribute the flyers? Was one issued by the police? And if so, on what grounds were it granted or approved?
The SPF statement makes no mention of this.
Photographic evidence shows that the PAP activists had indeed gathered as a group distributing the flyers, not unlike what the SDP members did in 2006 at Raffles City.
In his judgement on the SDP case, Justice Woo made it clear that there should be no discrimination in how groups of similar people are to be treated.
Justice Woo said:
“Indeed, Dr Chee submitted that it was not possible or desirable to administer and enforce a rule which requires all groups wishing to distribute flyers to apply for a permit.
“Art 12(1) does not require that there be no discrimination at all; rather, it requires that those within a similar category or class of persons are not to be treated unalike.”
[Emphasis added by author.]
So, if the SDP members were required to obtain a permit to gather and distribute the flyers, then one would expect that the PAP activists would also be required to obtain a permit to participate in a similar act.
What is also interesting to note is the content of the flyers of the SDP and that of the PAP.
The SDP flyer was actually to promote its rally, and was not to criticise the PAP or the government per se.
This was the SDP flyer:
The PAP flyer – described by some as a “poison pen flyer” – on the other hand, was evidently a two-page attack on the WP and its elected Members of Parliament, with one page entirely dedicated to making insinuations and criticisms of the WP-run town council, and asking residents to seek answers from the WP town council to alleged or supposed shortcomings in its running of the estate.
This second flyer was also unsigned, and did not carry any indication of who it was from, with Mr Lye apparently only later attaching his namecards to the flyers in subsequent distributions after questions were raised about the anonymity online.
Not illegal but….
What we can conclude from the incidents mentioned above is this:
- The distribution of flyers in itself is not illegal in Singapore.
- It is unclear if the content of such flyers or the act of distributing them would constitute “intentional harassment”.
- The gathering or assembling of person/s to distribute such flyers requires a permit.
The third point is perhaps the one which needs further clarification.
If a permit is required to gather in order to distribute flyers (as Justice Woo’s judgement in the SDP case indicates), then did Mr Lye and his activists apply for one and was one given?
The authorities, particularly the Attorney General and the SPF, should explain in more details its conclusion that Mr Lye and the PAP activists had not committed any offence in distributing the flyers, why this is so and whether a permit was issued for the activists to gather as a group to carry out the distribution.
“Art 12(1) does not require that there be no discrimination at all; rather, it requires that those within a similar category or class of persons are not to be treated unalike.” – Justice Woo Bih Li.
*The Online Citizen [TOC] has emailed Mr Lye to ask if he or his activists had applied for a permit and the outcome of any such application. TOC will publish Mr Lye’s reply if and when we receive it.