As we revisit the case where two young climate activists from Fridays4Future SG got called in for questioning and had their electronics seized, a petition was created last week by the Community Action Network Singapore on Change.org.
Addressing to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the petition was meant to call for the rights to freedom of assembly in Singapore. The Community also questioned the Public Order Act (POA) which was passed in April 2009.
According to the description written in the petition, the Community explained that it is illegal under the POA when individuals participate in a public assembly without a permit.
Before the POA was introduced, only assemblies of five people or more would require a permit. However, the POA decreed police permits for any gathering or meeting of one or more persons that intend to demonstrate for or against a group or government.
The Community raised a contradicting point where Article 14 of Singapore’s constitution guarantees Singaporeans the right to freedom of assembly, adding that it was unfair of the police to investigate the aforementioned individuals.
“Article 14 of our constitution guarantees every citizen of Singapore the right to freedom of assembly, subject to public order considerations. The decision of the police to investigate the three individuals is unfair and disproportionate. Their actions were not a risk to public order, nor did they incite violence or hate.”
It was then emphasised that the applications for a permit to hold a demonstration outside of Speaker’s Corner would usually be rejected.
Several past incidents were listed out to support this statement, including Rachel Zeng’s one-woman march for International Women’s Day, Jolovan Wham’s one-person assembly to commemorate World Justice Day, as well as TOC’s chief editor Terry Xu’s signature collecting outside Raffles Place MRT to call for live-streaming of Parliament.
The petition highlighted the fact that Singaporeans are “severely restricted” to utilise their ability to advocate for change and speak up against injustice.
Hence, the Community is calling for the right to do so even when such acts are “uncomfortable to those in power”, adding that citizens in a democratic society should not be punished for “speaking their truths”.
Understanding the Public Order Bill could be meant for safety concerns at large international events, the Community believed that it is also possible to ensure the safety of the public “without imposing requirements that severely restrict the right to public assembly”.
Given that the nation has “specific laws” which punish individuals for inciting violence and disorder or hate speech, the Community expressed that it should be enough to prohibit such acts. This implies that the POA was not necessary for peaceful demonstrations.
The statement also mentioned that the process of an application for a public assembly is long-winded and when it is rejected by the Government, the authorities are not required to provide a reason for the rejection.
“Under current laws, an applicant needs to give 14 working days prior notice to the police before conducting a public assembly. If the permit is rejected, an appeal to the Minister can be made which may take another 2 to 3 weeks. Neither the government nor the minister are required to give you a reason for the rejection. These requirements are necessary even when one person is involved, which is disproportionate to the potential harm that might be caused and the existence of alternative measures to ensure public safety.”
A description of the “international legal standards” was provided in the statement, noting that individuals are only required to give notice of an intention to organise a peaceful public assembly or procession.
“The purpose of such a notification is to give the authorities time to facilitate the event, and not meant to be an approval process. No notice should be required for assemblies or processions that do not require preparation by the government, or where only a small number of participants are expected, or where the impact on the public is expected to be minimal.”
Additionally, the petition pointed out that protests are a “legitimate form of expression” to show grievances, share views, expose flaws in governance, as well as to publicly demand accountability, especially for the ones that are marginalised.
As a result of protests, the Community stated that it encourages the development of an “engaged and informed citizenry”.
Lastly, the Community urged the Government to review the POA and ensure that the laws are in compliance with international standards on the right to freedom of assembly.
At the time of writing, close to 2,000 people have signed the petition.