Image by Teo Soh Lung

Good laws and bad laws – To obey or disobey?

by Teo Soh Lung

What are laws and what is the purpose of having laws?

Laws evolve from the people’s desire to have order, peace and prosperity. Disorderly conduct disrupts a functioning society.

In today’s world, the task of making laws are entrusted to a group of people. In Singapore, the people entrust this duty to our parliament. Parliamentarians therefore have a heavy duty to ensure that laws are made for the benefit of the people and not for a particular person or group of persons or institutions or worse, a political party. They must scrutinise every bill before it is passed into law. They should not blindly agree with the minister presenting the bill.

In 1963, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail for organising a peaceful protest against racial segregation, he was subjected to criticisms. People including church leaders criticised him for among many things, his leadership in the protest. They also questioned him about the timing of the protest saying that he should have waited for the right time.

Having nothing to do in prison, Dr Martin Luther King answered his critics eloquently, penning his thoughts in a long letter. We are very fortunate that the prison authority released his beautifully written letter to the people.

Dr Martin Luther King explained why he disobeyed the law of the land. He wrote:

“One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

In his letter, Dr Martin Luther King went on to clarify what is a just law. He wrote:

“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God” … “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Last week, social worker Jolovan Wham was sentenced to pay a fine of $2000 or serve a 10 days’ jail term. His conviction was for organising a “public assembly” in a private venue without a police permit.

Jolovan was convicted under the Public Order Act which was enacted in 2009. The purpose of the law is explained in the Preamble which reads:

“An Act to regulate assemblies and processions in public places, to provide powers necessary for preserving public order and the safety of individuals at special event areas, to supplement other laws relating to the preservation and maintenance of public order in public places.”

The intention of the law is thus to preserve and maintain public order in public places.

The court found Jolovan guilty of allowing a foreigner to speak through skype without a police permit. It does not matter what the speaker said. All it matters is that he is not a Singaporean and the law forbids a foreigner from addressing an audience in a private space without a police permit.

I understand that there was no riot at the premises. Everything was orderly and peaceful.

Jolovan has appealed against the judgement and is on bail.

It would be interesting to know how the court of appeal decide on this law. Meantime, we can ponder over the words of Martin Luther King and enquire into the reason why our parliament enacted the Public Order Act. Is it for our benefit? Is its purpose for the “preservation and maintenance of public order in public places”. Is it a just or unjust law? Must we obey or disobey the law?

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