K Shanmugam uses Hong Kong protests as case study to justify the curtailing of Singaporeans’ freedom to assemble

Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam said that media portrayed a one-sided situation of the Hong Kong protests in 2019, in particular the international media, which often focused on criticising only the police force and went on to use the protests as an example why Singapore is right for being strict about where one can protest in the island.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament on Monday (2 March), where he used the events in Hong Kong as an example to talk about public security.

Reflecting on some of the points made by Members of Parliament, who questioned about the street protests that have taken place around the world, Mr Shanmugam said, “You can have the best Police Force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well.”

“You’ve had riots across the world – in Chile, Europe, Hong Kong, of course, and other places. Street protests have escalated to violence, they have disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens, and destroyed public and private infrastructure. You have had Lebanon where several months of protests have caused a lot of damage. In Santiago, as I mentioned, demonstrators were enraged by hikes in public transport fares. They looted stores, and set fires to vehicles and properties.”

He then used Hong Kong’s seven months of protest against the extradition law and the Carrie Lam administration which saw hundred of thousands if not million, going on the streets in 2019.

“Some of them have engaged in extremely violent, disruptive behaviour, with the whole purpose of crippling the government, and inflicted severe damage to the economy, and to the reputation of the city.” said Mr Shanmugam on the protests, adding that the protests obviously caused very severe challenges for the Hong Kong Police Force.

He then praised the Hong Kong Police Force as one of the finest in Asia, being highly regarded in Asia along with the Singapore Police Force.

Mr Shanmugam in his speech, claimed that Hong Kong Police were caught between the need to uphold public order when the protests broke out, and “protestors who resorted to increasingly violent tactics just to attack the police and instigate them”.

“That has, I would say, severely damaged the relationship between the police and the public.”

Govt is correct in being strict about where you can protest, says Minister

He went on to attack the media, saying:

This is not helped by the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the media, in particular the international media, which often focused on criticising only the police force. The demonstrators were always titled pro-democracy protestors, while the police always were mentioned with reference to their brutality, and their brutal response. The first time a police officer fired a live round, the media depicted the incident as an example of police brutality, and the picture went around the world. But, all the events leading up to that point were ignored. Protestors, as I said, were often portrayed in a positive light. That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed — all that was ignored.

He noted that morale was affected when Hong Kong police had to fend off protestors targeting their family, and their loved ones Even when they were off-duty.

Citing the happenings of the Hong Kong protests, the Law Minister said that “one key lesson is, the actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society.” and “there has to be a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests”.

Under the Public Order Act, it is an offence to organise or participate in a public assembly in Singapore, without a Police permit. The Law Minister said that where Singaporeans want to protest or demonstrate about issues that concern them, there is the Speakers’ Corner — without the need of permit.

Under the Singapore Constitution, Article 14(1), Singapore citizens are guaranteed the rights to freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly without arms, and association. However, such rights are restricted by laws imposed by the Parliament of Singapore on the grounds stated in Article 14(2) of the Constitution.

He went on to say, “We have been criticised for disallowing protests outside of Speakers’ Corner, even if it was just one person. But where do we draw the line? One, two, three, 30, 50, 100, 200, 5,000? How many protesters are acceptable? How do we tell what will be a peaceful protest and what will escalate into violence?”

Coming back to the point on Hong Kong protests, he claims that the issue faced by Hong Kong is due to the fact that protests are allowed and while the police are allowed to intervene when it turns violent, he questioned how the police will be able to handle the situation when 500 out of 50,000 people on streets deliberately create violence.

“This sets up the police for failure and sets up the police to be the fall guys” opined the Minster and argues that “It is far better to say, only allow protest in specific places and no protests in other places, because you really want to strike a balance between competing interests.”

“I think our approach, the approach we took, was the correct one, of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best Police Force in the world would still not be able to handle it.”

Law and order, not possible without good governance

The Minister went on to say that the approach to dealing with protests cannot be simply to have tough laws and enforce them.

He said that only if the majority of people feel that it is a fair system and “that the government and the system are set up to help the largest majority possible”, then people have faith in the system.

“But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair, that the social economic system and the benefits are fundamentally unfair, and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws, are going to keep people off the streets.”

Mr K Shanmugam asked, “Why should they support a system that is fundamentally unfair?”

He stated that the socio-economic, political structure is first-order point of importance for any government where it must deliver good governance to the majority. Only then can the Police Force can go and deal with the minorities who break the law with the support from the rest of the population.

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