Liberty v Public Order: What we can learn from the Hong Kong protests

This past week, the city of Hong Kong has made headlines as over 2 million people took to the streets to protest the incendiary Extradition Bill proposed by the Executive Council which many say would impact the city’s autonomy from China.

Starting on Sunday 9 June, a record-breaking number of protesters stood their ground, bringing the city to a standstill as businesses closed and streets were blocked. The largely peaceful protesters marched through central Hong Kong and parked themselves outside the Legislative Council building and surrounding areas to demand that the government withdraw the Bill entirely and demanding that the China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam resigns.

On Wednesday, things turned ugly as police engaged the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets, claiming that the protesters were the one who instigated the clash. On the other side of the fence, protesters slammed the authorities for taking such drastic measures on what was just a handful of provocateurs.

After Wednesday’s events, however, the protests regained a measure of control as protesters worked hard to maintain public order, making way for ambulances to get through the crowd and not succumbing to ill behaviours such as looting. The police as well were much calmer as they watched the crowd and gave way to marching protesters. As of today (Monday, 17 June) reports estimate the crowd to be about 2.3 million strong, that’s about 30% of Hong Kong’s population and the largest demonstration in the city’s history, well above the Umbrella Movement protest back in 2014.

For the moment, the Legislative Council has suspended the second reading of the bill while Ms Lam has come out to apologise for causing tension. She did not, however, give in to demands of her resignation.

Will this work in Singapore?

Considering the events in Hong Kong, it makes you wonder how Singapore’s police force would manage a movement of that scale. Will the police know what to do? Will they be able to control a crowd of that magnitude without resorting to violent measures?

In December 2013, Singapore was shocked by a riot in Little India involving about 300 migrant labourers. Triggered by a fatal accident in the area involving a bus, an angry mob attacked the bus and emergency vehicles that had arrived to deal with the injured party. This was the second riot in Singapore since independence and the first since the massive race riots in 1969.

After the Little India riot in 2013, a committee of inquiry (COI) was convened to look into the event. After then-DPM Teo Chee Hean presented the government’s response to the COI report, Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim raised the question of whether the police force could use more practice in handling situations involving large crowds.

Specifically, Ms Lim pointed out the COI’s recommendation that frontline officers should be trained and equipped to deal with public order disturbances. Following that, Ms Lim asked DPM Teo if training alone is a substitute for actual practice in policing such incidents.

She said, “In this light, would he consider, for example, that the Police should allow more peaceful protests in Singapore in certain designated roads, so that the Police can actually on a regular basis test their policing capabilities in terms of policing cause-based crowds. Riots, of course we do not want that, but they progress, basically, from some sort of cause-based protest. I would like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would consider that.”

Ms Lim argued, “We do not want damage in property or loss of life, but peaceful protests are arguably a freedom and civil liberty we want to project.”

In response, DPM Teo said “We can see the logic, or lack of it, in purposely allowing protests and demonstrations just in order for the SOC to practise.”

“But I should say that one of the reasons why I do want to increase the size of the SOC is because we do have more events in Singapore, large scale events, and you do not really need to deliberately allow protests to take place in order to give the SOC practice. A typical football match and other events like that already provide the SOC quite a lot of activity and action,” he added.

Elaborating further, DPM Teo said he didn’t think many Singaporeans would want to see more “chaos” or demonstrations “disrupting their daily lives” and taking up resources which can be used for other purposes.

Permits for protesting in Singapore

Enshrined in the Singapore Constitution is the freedom of expression and assembly. However, these freedoms come with caveats. Section 14 of the Singapore Constitution states that every citizen has a right to the freedom of speech, expression, and peaceful assembly. However, these freedoms are restricted by Section 14(2):

Screen shot of Singapore Constitution, Section 14.

The Public Order Act (Section 5) enacted in 2009 states that public assemblies are processions requires advanced notice and approved permits. Basically, it’s illegal to protest in Singapore without a police permit.

While that may seem easy enough to obtain, TOC editor Terry Xu experienced just how difficult it is to actually get a permit request approved. Back in 2018, he had tried several times over months to obtain a permit for various purposes including a one-man assembly on the issue of live streaming parliamentary sessions.

In a post on Facebook, Terry recalls:

I have made a few applications to the Singapore Police Force over the past months to hold an one man assembly due to the signing of parliament petition to hold live parliament streaming. Some with signage, some not.

The last one sent, was to hold a protest against the recently passed Public Order and Safety (special powers) bill was pretty much the extreme settings where one man sit-in silent protest with no signage at the middle of the night of the Central Business District during weekend is denied by the police because of “risk of causing public disorder, as well as damage to property”

The risk to public order and damage of property is the catch-all reason that the government uses to explain why assemblies and organised protests are usually not permitted in Singapore. Even a one-man silent protest is deemed too risky.

A little risk goes a long way

Back in 2016 at the “Poverty and Inequality in Singapore” conference organised by “Let’s Talk, Singapore”, former Chief Economist, GIC, Adjunct Professor, LKY School of Public Policy Mr Yeoh Lam Keong noted that Singapore’s economic system relied heavily on foreign capital and labour.

The system’s architect, Mr Goh Keng Swee had said at the time in 1972 that there would be serious implications if Singapore continued to rely on the system he came up with. Mr Yeoh noted how Mr Goh’s prediction is coming true.

He further said that this particular arrangement of relying on multi-national corporations meant that the government could use it as a point to argue upon when come to issues of organising strikes and other liberties.

“And that created its own economical and political dynamic, by the justification of continuing the dependance on foreign captial, you have said, we cannot afford strikes, we cannot afford any industrial actions, we cannot afford any democratic “noise” on the street, we can’t even afford to have an occupy movement that we saw in Hong Kong. Otherwise, we will lose all these capital,” said Mr Yeoh

Coming back to Hong Kong – the ongoing protests have, thus far, not affected the city financially or economically all that much. In fact, unlike what one might expect, the stock prices in Hong Kong did not tumble after the record-breaking protests.

In fact, it appears that the Hong Kong market rallied after a week of losses, thanks in part to the decision of the government to suspend their plans of pushing through the Extradition Bill. As you can see from the Hang Sang Index for example, there was a spike in the market from the start of transaction before gradually dropping to the level it was at the time the market closed:

If anything, the people of Hong Kong are showing the world – including Singapore – that the excuse commonly used by the Singapore government to curtail the constitutional rights of its citizens is not entirely valid.

Or perhaps the SPF has to simply acknowledge that it is less capable than that of the Hong Kong Police when it comes to managing its city’s residents, particularly that the SPF seems unable to manage a one man protest let alone one by millions of people.

But as Mr Yeoh Lam Keong said of Singapore, its founders have “created and perpetuated” a system that even they find faulty for economic reasons, but it also has “severe political negative implications that you must forever remain a muted and docile polity.”