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The freedom to assemble peacefully in Singapore:  An illusory right?

speakers corner

By Priscilla Chia

Many of you might be familiar with the Speaker’s Corner. It is the only public venue in Singapore where citizens and permanent residents may give public speeches, debate or performances without a license and hold public demonstrations without a police permit.

But what you might not be aware of is the fact that the Minister for Home Affairs may, under section 14 of the Public Order Act, revoke the Public Order (Unrestricted Area) Order, which designates Speaker’s Corner as an unrestricted area under the Public Order Act at any moment in time.

The impact of such a revocation order is that during its operation and until the Minister removes the revocation order, anyone who wishes to use Speaker’s Corner must obtain the necessary license and permit.

Such revocations have taken place previously, for instance during the general elections and presidential election in 2011, and most recently where the Speaker’s Corner was designated as a community site to remember the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

While the past revocations may have been exercised in good faith, and were accompanied by a prompt reinstatement of Speaker’s Corner as an unrestricted area, it is a sharp reminder that our right to exercise this fundamental can be overridden by administrative expediency and efficiency.  Little regard appears to be given to the importance of the right of the citizen to exercise his right of peaceful assembly or consideration that the public should be first consulted upon.

chained to root
Singaporean eco-artist, Teresa Teo Guttensohn, and her friends were tied to a tree for 24 hours at Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park, Singapore in 2013. The event was to call for urgent action on the issue of the plan for a cross-island MRT line to run underneath Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). Image - Terry Xu

 

To begin with, to say that the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right but that the Speaker’s Corner remains the only place where public demonstration may take place (attempts to apply for permits to hold public protest elsewhere have largely been denied) is already problematic. That the Minister retains a wide discretion to revoke Speaker’s Corner as an unrestricted area, and has done so in circumstances where no immediate threat to public order exists further weakens the right to peaceful assembly.

The problem is that the Speaker’s Corner is the only public venue where peaceful assembly can be carried out. Thus, the revocation orders by the Minister effectively result in an almost total abrogation of the right during its operation.

Precisely because the right of peaceful assembly is a constitutionally protected right, we should require a standard higher than mere administrative expediency before it may be overridden, albeit even if the suspension is temporary.

Given this present set of realities, is the right to peaceful assembly in Singapore merely illusory?

Why should it matter you may ask?

It should matter because when the right is exercised responsibly, it is a means not only for citizens to participate meaningfully in the daily affairs of their nation but equally to highlight perceived injustices or failures of governmental policies and bring to bear peaceful pressures upon the government to reconsider such policies.

pink dot 2013
Pink Dot 2013, image - Terry Xu

The inevitable reality of any democratic process is its tendency to exclude the interest of minorities. Moreover, the cut and thrust of politics is such that those elected into power are not always interested in issues that are only of immediate concerns to particular individuals and groups. Neither does the electoral process always provide an effective avenue to seek redress for affected groups and individuals.

In any case, it is unrealistic to expect any political system to achieve perfect and complete protection of the interest of every individual. When democratic systems and electoral processes fail to do so, the right to assemble may provide a platform for affected individuals and groups to highlight and communicate this perceived failure both to the public and to the government. The collective act of individuals standing in solidarity to advocate for their cause is a particularly powerful means of communication and increases the chance of their concerns to be heard with greater intensity. The annual Pink Dot event is one such example.

Equally, citizens should not have to wait until the ballot box to come around before they may make their views heard. They should be able to critique and express dissatisfaction and discontent pertaining to governmental policies on a daily basis – and no less through peaceful public demonstrations.

Protest to have SMRT's the CEO  Saw Phaik Hwa to step down for the breakdowns of trains.
Protest to have SMRT's the CEO Saw Phaik Hwa to step down for the breakdowns of trains. Image - Terry Xu

Take previous demonstrations such as Free My Internet, the White Paper Protest and the Return our CPF protest for example. While you may not agree with these protests, the impact of these protests cannot be discounted. Not only have such protests led to important conversations taking place in the public domain, but more importantly, they have make visible the issues and problems regarding current policies such as the CPF scheme, and in turn placed pressure on the government to reconsider and re-deliberate the blind spots of their policies.

Arguably also, the right to assembly is a form of democratic interaction – a medium by which the asymmetry of powers that exists as between the citizen and the state, and the majority and the minority may be rebalanced in the process of such interaction.

Although the past revocations may have been exercised in good faith, it ought to be questioned as to whether a blanket ban was necessary?

For instance, if the concern during the 2011 revocations was to prevent election rally permits from being bypassed, would not the more appropriate manner of addressing such concern be to deny applications of political parties or candidates who attempt to use Speaker’s Corner as part of their election rally?  It might be a rather excessive measure to subject all citizens to a blanket ban when a less intrusive method is available. What should happen if urgent matters have to be communicated during the period where the revocation order of Speaker’s Corner is in place?

Perhaps it might be more accurate to characterize the right of peaceful assembly in Singapore as a matter of privilege, than it is a fundamental right. For anyone who takes the right to assemble peacefully seriously, this is something to be concerned about.