Human rights organisations condemn threat against fundamental freedoms in Singapore

(Singapore/Bangkok, 19 March 2018) - Think Centre and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM – ASIA) express great concern over the proposed Bill No. 11/2018 on Public Order and Safety (Special Powers), as it puts restrictions on the people of Singapore to exercise their fundamental freedoms. We particularly condemn the inclusion of peaceful protests as a threat to public order and national security.

The proposed bill was introduced for first reading in Parliament on 27 February 2018. It categorises a peaceful protest under Part 1, Section 3 as a ‘serious incident’, making it a similar offense as terrorist acts, serious violence affecting the public, and other acts causing large-scale public disorder. It provides examples to further define what is considered a ‘serious incident’, such as sit-down demonstrations that attract large groups of protesters and consequently occupy public space. The proposed bill falsely conflates a peaceful protest, regardless of its non-violent nature, with terrorism, which would cause it to be treated the same way under the pretext of safeguarding national security.

The law opens the door to a potential abuse by government authorities and law enforcement entities to suppress the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and speech. It gives the Minister for Home Affairs, upon its own discretion, full authority to grant the Commissioner of Police special powers to address such ‘serious incidents’. These powers include the ability to prohibit the public from making or communicating audio, visual and texts messages about security operations. Anyone who would violate such an order will be subject to imprisonment for a maximum of two years or a fine not exceeding 20,000 Singapore Dollars. As the police already has much power to curb the right to freedom of assembly under the existing Public Order Act, these new restrictions raise serious concerns. They will make occurrences of maltreatment and police violence against protesters more likely to happen.

Think Centre and FORUM-ASIA recall the joint report of the former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, and the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, on the proper management of assemblies, which states when a State invokes national security and protection of public order to restrict an assembly, it must prove the precise nature of the threat and the specific risks posed. It is not sufficient for the State to refer generally to the security situation. National, political or government interest is not synonymous with national security or public order.’

Additionally, obstructions resulting from protests do not make protests themselves not ‘peaceful’, therefore it should not lose its status of a peaceful protest nor the rights entitled to it. Any restrictions imposed on peaceful assembly should satisfy requirements of necessity and proportionality according to international human rights standards. The proposed bill violates the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and speech as guaranteed under Article 14(1)(a) and (b) of the Constitution of Singapore[4] and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Articles 19 and 20.

Think Centre and FORUM-ASIA call upon the Government of Singapore to exclude peaceful protests from the proposed bill and revise it to ensure that the protection of public order will not violate fundamental rights. We also demand the Government of Singapore provides ample time for public consultation on the bill and the special powers accorded to the police in it, as well as to consider and conform to international human rights standards of peaceful assembly.

Editor's note - I have tried to apply for a police permit from the SPF to hold parliamentary petition signing a couple of times, and it was denied for the reason of potential public disturbance. I also tried to apply for a protest outside the parliament on the raise of CPF withdrawal limits but was denied without a reason. Basically, the permit to hold protests or assemblies outside of Hong Lim Park is lie, an illusion for the public that you can do it in a legal way.