by Teo Soh Lung
The Public Order Act is anything but what the minister for law proclaimed was his intention during the second reading of the bill. He said in 2009:
“This Bill represents a major step in the continuous review of our public order management framework which seeks to balance the interests of national security, public safety, community rights to law and order and the legitimate interests of individuals seeking to pursue political activities to express their views through lawful and legitimate means. The Act will provide a framework that can then be evolved over time as our society evolves, even as we preserve the key principles that have brought us safety, security and communal peace so far.”
But his words managed to hoodwink even seasoned opposition leader Mr Chiam See Tong and constitutional law expert Professor Thio Li-Ann into agreeing to the passage of the bill.
There were only three noes from the floor – Siew Kum Hong (NMP), Sylvia Lim (NMP) and Low Thia Khiang (MP).
Balancing “the interests of national security, public safety, community rights to law and order and the legitimate interests of individuals seeking to pursue political activities to express their views through lawful and legitimate means” is I think too far from his mind. We see the effect of this obnoxious law now.
During the debates, the minister brought up two incidents in 2007. A few individuals had attempted to highlight the 2007 ASEAN Summit that was held at the Shangri-la Hotel where the ASEAN Charter was to be signed. There were a couple of activists who attempted to enter the vicinity of the hotel and a gathering of Myanmar students who put up a banner along Orchard Road for a few minutes before police officers told them to leave. They left peacefully.
A more troublesome incident involved the hunger strike of 23-year-old artist Seelan Palay outside the Malaysian Embassy from 31 December 2007 for five days. He was protesting against the detention of five Hindraf organisers who were arrested under the ISA in Malaysia. Seelan survived those five days on water alone. He was probably not a pretty sight outside the embassy which is located in the posh district of Tanglin near Orchard Road. But the police didn’t have the power to pick him as he did not commit any offence.
Seelan’s protest is the main reason for the unique definition of “Assembly” in the Public Order Act. When one person constitutes an assembly, our lawmakers, especially the law minister, deserve to be laughed at for distorting the English language in such an abominable manner. But I think they were prepared to lose their reputation as educated parliamentarians because they knew that even one person can raise the consciousness of Singaporeans and they are afraid. So on the pretext that a solo protester may drive away billion dollar businesses such as the hosting of international conferences and events, the Public Order bill was tabled.
Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong urged that the bill be put before a select committee. It was brushed aside. To me, a select committee would not be able to prevent the passage of the bill. It would only further damage the reputation of legislators and taxpayers would have to incur more costs.
We are now seeing the real and intended consequences of the Public Order Act. Yan Jun who repeatedly carried out solo, peaceful protests at Raffles Place and human rights defenders like Seelan Palay and Jolovan Wham have all been hauled before the courts. The convictions of Yan Jun and Seelan Palay should convince us that Singaporeans no longer have freedom of expression. Our government has achieved ultimate control of our rights to free speech, expression and assembly that were once guaranteed by our constitution.
It saddens me to watch these videos – one unhappy man who probably needs help and an artist who was merely performing his art. Both spent time in jail. Neither of them protested when arrested and no onlookers caused any disturbance.
Can we as Singaporeans live peacefully and do nothing? Do we wait till we lose everything?
This was first published on Function 8’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.