Singapore police have approved ­­­8,545 permit applications for public assemblies outside the Speakers’ Corner out of the 11,269 received since the introduction of the Public Order Act (POA) in 2009, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The Ministry said this in a written response on 5 January to Sengkang GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Raeesah Khan’s question on the number of applications for permits for public assemblies outside Speaker’s Corner since POA was introduced in 2009, and how many have been rejected and approved.

MHA said that permit applications for assemblies outside the Speakers’ Corner “may be rejected for a number of reasons, for example, events being cancelled or postponed by the organisers”.

Under Section 7(2) of the Public Order Act, said the Ministry, police may also reject an application “if the Commissioner of Police has reasonable grounds for apprehending that the proposed event may, among other reasons”.

Such reasons include:

  • Causing public disorder or damage to public or private property;
  • Creating public nuisance;
  • Placing the safety of any person in jeopardy;
  • Causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different groups in Singapore;
  • Glorifying or instigating acts of terrorism;
  • Holding the public assembly at a prohibited area; or
  • Directing the public assembly toward a political end and organised by foreign entities.

Addressing Ms Khan’s question on how many of the rejections and approvals have been for one-person assembly and procession, MHA said that the police “do not track” how many one-person assemblies or processions have been approved or rejected.

Touching on Ms Khan’s question regarding what constitutes threats to public order for one-person assembly and procession, MHA said that “assemblies which start with the intention of being peaceful, can also turn violent, through the actions of a very small group, which take advantage of such a situation”.

“We have seen this happen in other jurisdictions,” said the Ministry.

The Ministry noted that provisions of Section 7(2) POA “are capable of being breached by one person, and they are capable of being breached by more than one person”.

“Thus assemblies are not prevented per se, outside of Speakers’ Corner. But the person(s) who wish to hold such assemblies, are required to apply for a Police permit.

“That will allow the Police to better assess the situation. As can be seen from the figures above, the vast majority of such applications are approved, and many of them involved more than one person,” said MHA.

Social worker Jolovan Wham charged for holding up smiley sign, placard alone

The most prominent case of a “one-person assembly” in recent times is that of social worker and civil rights activist Jolovan Wham.

Mr Wham was charged in the District Court on 23 November last year for holding up a smiley sign and a placard on separate occasions, which has attracted attention from major international media outlets.

Mr Wham held the smiley sign at Toa Payoh Central in April in support of two youth climate activists investigated by the police. He has said that he was only there a couple of seconds, which was long enough to take the photo before moving away.

One of the youth activists was seen, in a photograph on the @fridays4futuresg Instagram page, wearing a face mask and holding up a cardboard placard that read “SG IS BETTER THAN OIL @fridays4futuresg” in front of Toa Payoh Central Community Club and Toa Payoh Neighbourhood Police Centre.

The youth activist, said the police, “did not apply for the necessary police permit” before carrying out such an activity.

The other youth activist, in a separate event the same day, had reportedly held placards with the words “PLANET OVER PROFIT”, “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE” and “ExxonMobil KILLS KITTENS&PUPPIES” against the Harbourfront Tower One building signage.

The other charge was based on a separate, unrelated instance of holding a sign outside the State Courts which urged the Government to drop the criminal defamation charges against TOC chief editor Terry Xu and TOC contributor Daniel De Costa.

Mr Wham, who answered the charges without a lawyer, said that the judge had “disagreed with all my arguments without explaining” when allowing his bail to be increased as requested by the prosecution.

The judge reasoned that the bail increase order was made as Mr Wham had reportedly committed new offences when he was out on bail.

Artist Seelan Palay served two-week jail term after being found guilty of conducting “procession” without permit following solo performance of art piece

An earlier case is that of artist Seelan Palay, in which Mr Seelan served a two-week jail term in lieu of a S$2500 fine after being found guilty of conducting a “procession” without a permit under the POA.

Mr Seelan opted to serve jail time after refusing to pay the fine.

The offence he was found guilty for pertained to an art piece he performed called “32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror” at Hong Lim Park in 2017.

Mr Seelan was charged by the Attorney-General’s Chambers for allegedly holding a “public procession […] to publicise the cause of “the illegal detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh”.

As no permit has been granted under Section 7 of the Public Order Act (POA), Mr Seelan was deemed to have committed an offence punishable under s.16(2)(a) of the POA.

Commenting on the court decision on Mr Seelan’s case, Mr Wham wrote in a Facebook post on 3 October 2018 that “the judge has rejected the constitutional argument” that suggests that Mr Seelan has “the right to freedom of expression and assembly” on the grounds that “the constitution allows Parliament to circumscribe such expression through law.”

In this particular case, Mr Wham added, the POA “criminalises a one-person procession, even if it is peaceful”.

A person found guilty of partaking in a public assembly without a permit may face a fine of up to S$5,000.

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