Artist/Activist, Seelan Palay presented a performance on Sunday afternoon at Hong Lim Park, “32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror” in commemoration of the 32 years of detention without trial that former Elected Member of Parliament, Chia Thye Poh went through.
The event was published through a Facebook event page created by Seelan and held at 2pm with about twenty members of public in attendance. During the ten minute performance, Seelan who turns 32 this year, said he couldn’t fathom how a person could be locked up without trial for the same number of years that he has lived.
Prior to matching off out of Hong Lim Park where he obtained a permit to perform, to carry out the unannounced part of his art performance, he said to his artwork as if speaking to Chia himself, “I hope to ask you two questions. Can the liberated human mind be constrained by a state sanctioned space, and in that regard, can a liberated work of art be contained within a state sanctioned space? Do you know the answers to both of these questions? I will show you.”
After making his way to the Art Gallery and to the Parliament House to complete his artwork on a mirror, he stood in front of the Parliament House, holding onto his art piece. After several failed attempts by the Police to persuade Seelan to leave the area, he was arrested by the Police at 3.20pm. It is unsure what offence did the Police arrest him under, however, under Singapore law, one person can be considered as illegal assembly.
According to Straits Times, the police said it received a call for assistance at 2.53 pm regarding “a man who was allegedly holding an unlawful protest outside the Parliament House”. The call should have come from the police officers stationed at the Parliament House as officers came out of the security gantry just minutes after Seelan stood in front of the gates of Parliament House.
He was subsequently taken away in a police vehicle from the Parliament House and have not been released from custody by Sunday night. Attempts to clarify his status have been stonewalled by the Police.
Update: Seelan was released on Monday afternoon and put on a bail of $5000.
Dr Chia Thye Poh, political prisoner with the longest detention in the world
Dr Chia Thye Poh was elected as a Member of Parliament as a candidate from defunct political party, Barisan Sosialis and was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act and placed under house arrest for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the government. He was imprisoned for 23 years and house arrest for another nine years – in which he was first confined to the island of Sentosa and then subject to restrictions on his place of abode, employment, travel, and exercise of political rights. In total with 32 years of detention, Dr Chia was subjected to a longer period of detention than what former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela went through in his 27 years of prison.
Prior to his detention, he had been a teacher, a physics lecturer, a socialist political activist and a member of the Parliament of Singapore. Subsequent to it, he has been a doctoral student and an interpreter.
After being released in November 1998, Dr Chia said, “The ISA is a law that tramples on human dignity and strikes fear into the mind of the people.”
In 1989, he said, “Under the PAP rule, there is no genuine parliamentary democracy… there is always the danger of one-party rule slipping into one-man rule, and worse still, into dynastic rule. The PAP government does not like critical newspapers or publications, and is intolerant towards sharp criticisms. They seem elitist and arrogant, regarding themselves as the best and the most suitable to rule Singapore. And they rule it with iron-handed policies.” and added, “My ideal has not been dampened after [more than thirty] years under detention. In fact, prison life can only make a person more determined to fight against oppression and for a fair, just and democratic society.”
One person illegal assembly
Back in 2009, Ms Sylvia stood and oppose the Public Order Bill in 2009 which saw major changes in the legislation on public assembly, asking how far should State power be used to restrict citizens from free movement and expressing their beliefs or grievances to the point of using force, even lethal force.
She said, “In Singapore, an individual’s right to freedom of expression and assembly is enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution, under Part IV, entitled “Fundamental Liberties”. However, that Article also allows Parliament to place some restrictions on these for the sake of security and public order. Nevertheless, the primary assumption is that such freedoms are fundamental rights of citizens. Has this Bill crossed the line asking Singaporeans to give up too much vis-a-vis the State?”
Ms Lim further highlighted there are several disturbing aspects of the Bill. The three aspects most glaring are the changes relating to:
(a) Public assemblies and processions;
(b) Move-on powers; and
(c) Prohibition of filming of law enforcement operations.
She noted, “The change in definition of “assembly” and “procession” is more disturbing. As the Explanatory Statement to the Bill says, these words are no longer restricted to gatherings of five persons or more. This means even one person alone can constitute illegal assembly, thus giving the State complete control over an individual citizen’s freedoms.
First, to say that one person constitutes an assembly is certainly an abuse of the word. Secondly, is the Government making the change because there had been incidents involving less than five persons which had disrupted public life? Unless there is compelling evidence to prove to us that expanding the definition of assembly and procession.”
In response to the point of the change of wordings to allow the Police to classify one person as an illegal assembly, Minister of Law, K Shanmugam said,
Fourth, the number of persons, which is five in the Miscellaneous Offences Act, has been used as a proxy for a possible disruptive effect of the activity. But it is more logical to simply focus on the activity rather than choosing an arbitrary number, for example, a group of four intend in causing disruption could pose a far greater threat than a group of 20 who wish to promote a peaceful cause. Thus, we have decided to focus on the activities and their effects, rather than the number.
I will give two illustrations. During the Hindraf incident in Malaysia, a local activist protested alone outside the Malaysian Embassy for five days. Large groups gathered, including many Malaysians who came over. Understandably, such actions would cause concern for the Embassy officials. In such situations, it is better that the Police have the power to tell the person to stop protesting and move on, if they believed that his actions could be disruptive to public order or public interest. Second illustration. During the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in 2007, groups of four persons gathered to evade the permit requirements.
Having a threshold creates an artificial numerical criterion which can lead to a cat-and-mouse game with the Police. This distracts the Police from their responsibility to secure the safety and security of the event. We debate in this House with the often implicit assumption that people behave reasonably. But the unfortunate truth is that there is always a small minority which get up to endless farcical antics outside there and the law has to deal with that. If one is too low a number, what number should be chosen? Five? Four? Three? Different countries have different regulatory regimes for outdoor activities. There are countries which have regimes similar to ours and with a threshold of three persons but it is better for us simply to focus on the effect of the activities.