Assembly = One

by Teo Soh Lung

Foreigners, even human rights activists from neighbouring countries used to tell me that Singapore is a very successful, rich and democratic country. Many admire the PAP government and even wish that their governments are as efficient and intolerant as ours. At general election rallies in 2013 in Malaysia, I heard several DAP speakers sang high praises for the PAP government. I hope their eyes are now open.

For a very long time, Singapore’s human rights record was quite flawless or at least criticisms of Singapore were few. We only read the occasional articles criticising the government. Developed countries whose high officials reside in Singapore would not offend our government save to speak against the death penalty.

In the early 1980s, my Swiss friends used to chide me when I complained about the PAP government’s tight control over Singaporeans. They had good reasons to like the PAP. Having worked hard in the jungles of Kalimantan and deprived of luxuries especially European food, they were always happy to be in civilised Singapore for their vacation. I remember that the first place they would visit when they arrive was the Yaohan supermarket. They bought their favourite cheese, muesli, bacon, milk, wine and papayas. They loved Singapore because they could get everything they wanted.

My Swiss friends’ view of Singapore, however, changed when back in their beautiful Swiss village, they were informed of my arrest in 1987. They were shocked that I was accused of subversion, of wanting to topple the PAP government by using “communist united front tactics”. Overnight, they became activists – protesting and writing letters. They realised that Singapore is not exactly the Switzerland of the East as our government was fond of telling the world.

Singapore’s reputation is still good. We don’t have state sponsored kidnappings and murders. But we do have state-sanctioned death by hanging, imprisonment without trial and savage corporal punishment. Our laws are exceedingly brutal even for the young and prescribed minimum punishments deprive our judges of their discretionary powers and they become a bit robotic.

The right to freedom of assembly, speech and expression has never attracted the attention of Singaporeans. They are too overwhelmed by the need to work and bring food to the table. Singaporeans work long hours and have no time to ponder over these rights, at least not until they themselves are affected.

Falun Gong adherents, individuals and human rights defenders have been charged and sentenced for single person unlawful assembly and vandalism over very petty matters. Time and again, individuals have been sent to jail or pay heavy fines. Singaporeans don’t care and the government is let off.

In recent times, the Singapore government has come under a bit of scrutiny from the international community. The Public Order Act which was enacted in 2009 has earned some flak when individuals were hauled to court.

How did this law come about and why was it necessary for the government to enact such perverse laws to handle one person is gross. This law is worse than what we inherited from our colonial master. At least, the Brits respected freedom of speech and assembly. The present Singapore government treats Singaporeans worse than our coloniser.

More than a hundred years ago, the British gave us the Penal Code and the Minor Offences Ordinance now known as the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. Afraid of natives organising activities to overpower the government by criminal force or commit trespass, mischief or resist the execution of the law (whatever that means), they made it an offence for any gathering of five or more people pursuing such purposes. See (Section 141 of the Penal Code and the repealed section 5 of Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

When the PAP came into power in 1959, it retained these laws and recognised our right to freedom of assembly, speech and expression. But as the PAP gained power they became unreasonable. They were determined to rule forever and thus enacted laws to ensure that this will be achieved. Protection of their power was paramount. Human rights are not important. After all, only a minority are affected. The majority are oblivious to what happened to their countrymen.

Parliament has been under the PAP’s control ever since the opposition left the house in 1966. This has given the PAP a free hand to enact and amend laws and even our constitution which is supposed to guarantees our fundamental liberties easily. Every law including our constitution can be amended at any time to punish an individual. Many people have been caught in this way. It is tragic, but all these misfortunes of individuals are beyond the concern of the majority of people. And we know that victims seldom have the ability or opportunity to fight back.

In 2009, “assembly” was redefined to reduce the number of participants five to just one person. The Penal Code and Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act’s requirement that an unlawful assembly must comprise at least 5 persons whose intention is to commit a criminal act was removed.

In one fell swoop, the Public Order Act removed our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, assembly and expression. Section 2 defines “Assembly” as
“a gathering or meeting (whether or not comprising any lecture. Talk, address, debate or discussion) of persons the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is –

(a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government;
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign; or
(c) to mark or commemorate any event.

and includes a demonstration by a person alone for any such purpose referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c).

Our lawmakers have criminalised peaceful assembly, free speech and expression. They have abused our constitution. And our ministers have ensured that such oppressive laws are enforced.

Many Singaporeans have since been convicted of the offence of unlawful assembly. Many have served jail time.

I do not know of any developed country that has laws that prohibit citizens from peaceful protests and expressions in public spaces. Let me know if you can find one. Until then, Singapore is truly a unique first world country. When an assembly is defined as one person we have vandalised the English language and make it exclusively Singaporean. Will our courts ever rule that the Public Order Act is unconstitutional one day?

This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.

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