“This section go to the right! The rest go left! No one is to come through!” barked the corporal to his men, clad in full riot gear – truncheons, shields, head gear, and shin guards.
The threat? Four (yes, 4) activists who had assembled outside the Central Provident Fund Building in downtown Singapore to protest against the non-transparent and non-accountable nature of the way the Singapore Government deals with public funds. Two of the protesters were women.
The number of police officers numbered at approximately 40.
Mr Charles Tan, Ms Chee Siok Chin, Ms Monica Kumar, and Mr Yap Keng Ho were wearing T-shirts with the words: “NKF” (National Kidney Foundation), “HDB” (Housing Development Board), “GIC” (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation), “CPF” (Central Provident Fund), “Financial Reserves” – “Be Transparent Now!”
These state-run organisations (NKF is closely associated with the Government) are run in a secretive manner. For example, the GIC (chaired by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and paramount leader of Singapore) uses the country’s financial reserves in investments all the world but refuses to give an account for its dealings.
Associate Professor Mukul Asher at the National University of Singapore noted about the funds invested by the GIC: “There is…no transparency or public accountability concerning where these funds are invested.” The Asian Wall Street Journal remarked: “Where do the CPF funds go? No one is exactly sure since the government, amazingly, won’t give the public a precise accounting of how it uses the public’s money.”
The protest started off with the four activists standing quietly outside the building wearing their T-shirts. After about 30 minutes, two police cars arrived with lights flashing, carrying a few senior officers.
This was followed by a few police vans carrying uniformed officers, including those from the riot squad. After forming up, the officers cordoned off the entrance to the building.
“Who’s in charge?” Deputy Superintendent Dominic John Baptist asked the protesters, his hands quivering.
“All of us,” replied Mr Yap Keng Ho.
“I’m ordering all of you to disperse.”
“On what grounds?” asked Ms Chee Siok Chin.
“Public nuisance. Someone called to complain,” the DSP replied.
“But as you can see , we are standing here peacefully and we have not…” Ms Chee started to explain.
“Disperse now! Are you going to be here? Leave!” ordered the officer.
“Sir, can I ask you under what law…” Ms Chee persisted.
“The offence is public nuisance under the Miscellaneous Offences Act. It is a seizable offence, which means you may be arrested.”
The protesters complied and left the area. The police continued to follow them and after a few metres, stopped them and confiscated the T-shirts they were wearing.
“Will we get the T-shirts back?” the protesters enquired. The police didn’t bother to reply.
Several questions need to be asked from this episode :
One, did the police have the right to order the protesters to leave especially when there were only four of them? The law clearly states that only five or more people gathered in a public place constitutes an illegal assembly.
Two, did the police see the protesters creating a commotion and making a nuisance of themselves? Throughout the protest all four protesters stood silently until the police started questioning them.
Three, why is the Singapore Government so afraid of four peaceful protesters that it had to send in the riot squad? Signs of insecurity perhaps?