Our rights under siege

by Teo Soh Lung

While the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore asserts that it is the “supreme law” of the land and that we, the people are endowed with “fundamental liberties” which includes the right to life, liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, I have yet to see a judicial pronouncement that any of our laws is in breach of our Constitution. From the Internal Security Act to the Penal Code, all claims (as far as I know) of unconstitutionality of laws have failed.

I do not think there are or will be many litigants who challenge an existing law as unconstitutional. Most unconstitutional acts do not reach our courts for determination. They take place at the investigation stage and no practical person who has been spared of the trauma he experienced, will take the unjust treatment he received to the courts.

Since our independence in 1965, and especially in recent years, we have witnessed the passing of too many laws that give the police wide powers to arrest and investigate people who they think are able “to assist” in their investigations. These laws in my view, undermines our Constitution and deprive us of its protection.

It takes just one complaint to the police for the entire oppressive machinery to commence work. Sometimes, the media is used to inform and warn the public of intended investigations so as to instill even more fear into the minds of the people. The reluctance of the police to ignore complaints of trivial matters have led to the harassment and intimidation of peaceful citizens who were merely exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.

Investigation usually begins with a letter from the police under section 21(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code. It is hand delivered by a few police officers after office hours to an intended witness, requesting him to appear at the police station on an unreasonable day.

Under most existing laws, the police are not only empowered to interview the person who turns up at the police station, they are also empowered to seize properties and retain them for as long as they wish without an order from our courts. This enormous power is given to the police because parliament on our behalf (without an effective opposition for decades) had decreed that almost all offences under investigation are “arrestable offences”. There is no time frame for the police to conduct such investigation or to return seized properties. It is also not mandatory for the police to inform anyone of the outcome of an investigation.

Depending on the whims and fancies of the police, the investigation of cases can commence almost immediately upon receipt of a report to the police. The identity of the complainant is protected unless there is a trial and the complainant is called as a witness. Take the case of Mr Koh, Chairman of the Recycling Association. His home was raided at midnight following a complaint by someone from the deputy prime minister’s office. Mr Koh was intimidated and his home ransacked for no reason. The raid of more than an hour resulted in the seizure of his mobile phone. Sadly, there was little public outcry from members of the public.

Mr Koh was “lucky” in a way for the police subsequently discovered that they had harassed the wrong person. They returned his mobile phone without an apology and all was back to normal for the police. No one was dismissed or reprimanded for the high-handed manner in which the police conducted their investigation. No minister chided the police for their wrongdoing.

Why wasn’t Mr Koh compensated for the wrongful raid, seizure and harassment at midnight by the police? Clearly, the police had not respected his fundamental liberties guaranteed by our Constitution.

At the beginning of this month, a group of young people sat quietly in a tram, reading the book “1987 Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On”. One intolerant person lodged a police report. Quite immediately, the police started its investigation and called for witnesses.

What I am most disturbed about this whole affair is the speed at which the police attended to this trivial complaint. While Minister K Shanmugam keeps warning us of high level threats Singapore faces and our likelihood of being a soft target for real terrorists, his police force is wasting its time and resources investigating a matter that neither bothered the public or are of concern to the maintenance of peace and security in the country.

The young people had merely requested the police to investigate the injustices suffered by the victims in 1987. Why not investigate the case of the victims or disclose the outcome of their investigation into my complaint pertaining to ill treatment I was subjected to in 1987? For sure this group of young people are not terrorists. Neither did they cheat SMRT for their rides. They have not threatened anyone on the tram or disrupted the peace and security of Singapore. Why did the police choose to investigate them and not the complaints of the victims of 1987?

The Public Order Act, the Parliamentary Elections Act, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016 just to name a few, give too much power to our police. If we are not vigilant, we will soon be deprived of all our fundamental liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. It is time we take stock of the rights we have lost and attempt to regain them with or without the help of our parliamentarians.

For now, I call upon the police to stop investigating and harassing the young people who stood up for the victims of 1987. I salute them for their courage.

We, the people must now have the courage to stand with them against the unjust investigation. They had merely exercised their constitutional right to free speech and assembly and had done no wrong. Today it may be them under investigation. Tomorrow it may be you or me.