The power of the powerless: Dissent growing in Singapore

Under the Singapore Constitution, the rights of citizens to the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are guaranteed.
Nevertheless, speaking in public requires a police permit, and five or more people gathered in public to protest is unlawful assembly and are subject to fines or imprisonment in Singapore.

Youth Park (25 Aug 07)People’s Action Figures Party (25 Aug 2007)

In protest to Japanese animation distributor Odex’s demand for Internet
Service Providers to disclose the identities of the “illegal downloaders”,
about eight young men and women set up a “People’s Action Figures Party” display at a corner at the Youth Park near Exeter Road.

The display of toy action figurines carrying anti-Odex props and placards was followed by a session of photo-shoot and video-recording of the simulated protest by their figurines.

As they arrived at the park, four riot police buses were on the standby. The police took down their identities and video-recorded the whole event.

Singapore River (11 Aug 2007)Pink Run (11 Aug 2007)

People Like Us also organised a 4-km run/jog/walk along the Singapore River on the morning of 11 Aug 07. According to the organisers, it was to be just a social event catering to the interests of gays and lesbians for sports and outdoor activities.

There were undercover cops hanging around the area as soon as participants arrived for the “Pink Run”. The police informed them that the run would be considered an offence under the Miscellaneous Offences Act. When asked to cite the specific section, the officer could only said it would be considered an illegal assembly.

When a fair number of the participants had arrived, the police started up their video camera to film the group. The police continued filming, and didn’t stop until the entire group had come back to the starting point about half an hour later.

The Pink Run was officially canceled, but individuals, most of them wearing pink, continued to run as they pleased. All 39 present elected to do so.

Botanic Garden (9 Aug 2007)Botanic Garden (9 Aug 2007)

Singapore’s gay rights group, People Like Us, planned a picnic on 9 Aug 07 at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Somehow, the National Parks Board got wind of the event and told the organisers that it could not hold a picnic there. It said it did not want the gardens “to be used as a venue for interest groups to politicise their cause”.

Organisers then called off the “In the Pink Picnic”, but by then, lots of people were incensed. On the day, around 150 of them – four or five times more than the organisers had hoped for – showed up at the park either wearing pink or carrying something pink. They set up picnic mats in small groups around Symphony Lake.

Walk for Workers (29 April - 1 May 2007)Walk for Our Workers (29 Apr – 1 May 2007)

To mark Labour Day and to highlight the plight of Singaporean workers, Dr Chee Soon Juan and Ms Chee Siok Chin carried out a “Walk for Our Workers” by walking 120 kilometres around Singapore in three days. Along the way, they gave out flyers. Some supporters also joined them.

Wearing white T-shirts with different messages such as “Increase pay for workers, not Minsiters”, “Salaries – PM: $10,000/day, Workers: $30/day” etc, they started their journey under light rain at 7 am from the Speakers’ Corner on 29 April. They completed their walk past noon on 1 May, holding an SDP flag between them, to the applause of a small crowd gathered at the Speakers’ Corner.

Changi prison (25-26 Jan 2007)Changi Prison (25-26 Jan 2007)

21-year-old Nigerian, Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, was to be hanged at 6 am on 26 Jan 07 for carrying drugs to Singapore.

A footballer, Tochi was carrying a bag containing drugs for another Nigerian who had sponsored his trip to Singapore. Court documents showed that Tochi could be innocent of the crime. However, appeals and petitions to the President were all turned down.

In protest Mr M Ravi and SDP’s Ms Chee Siok Chin staged a 24-hour hunger strike the day before Tochi was to hang. They were also joined by president of SDP’s Young Democrats, Mr Charles Tan, and some others outside the Changi Prison.

Tochi’s red soccer jersey, which was given to Mr Ravi by Tochi as a farewell present, was hung on the prison fence with many candles lit around it. As the time of the hanging approached, many people outside prison sat down quietly, bowed their heads and said their silent “good-bye” to a Nigerian young man.

Subordinate Court (22 Jan 2007)Singapore Subordinate Court (22 Jan 2007)

Six female Falungong practitioners were charged with holding an “assembly without a permit” when they were distributing flyers along Orchard in 2006. They were passing out information to call the public’s attention to the continued killing and organ harvesting of their fellow believers in China.

At the trial, members of the public who wanted to witness the trial were turned away as well as the media. Even members of the family of the six women were not allowed to enter the courtroom. The reason for this was, according to the police, because the courtroom was too small. Only eight seats are available, six of them taken up by the defendants and the remaining two occupied by court interpreters.

The defendants, in protest of the judge’s refusal to conduct the trial in a bigger courtroom, refused to participate in the proceedings and stood with their backs facing the judge.

In response, the judge sentenced them to two days in prison for contempt of court. When the case reconvened, a bigger court room was assigned.

Orchard Road (10 Dec 2006)Freedom Walk (10 Dec 2006)

To commemorate the International Human Rights Day and to show support for Dr Chee Soon Juan who was still in prison in Dec 06 for speaking in public without a permit, about 20 people, including children, participated in a “Freedom Walk”.

The “Freedom Walkers” wore bright Yellow t-shirts with words “Free to Speak”, “Free to gather”, “Free to Walk”, and “Freedom Walk” printed on them. Holding colourful balloons, they cheerfully walked from Speakers’ Corner, passed the Istana, down Orchard Road, and finally finished their journey outside of the Queenstown prison.

The police was following the group closely behind, and video-taping their movement during the entire event.

Almost all participants of the Freedom Walk are now under police investigation, including Dr Chee’s wife who was also present with their 3 children.

Queenstown prison (Nov- Dec 2006)Queenstown Prison (23 Nov- 16 Dec 2006)

Dr Chee Soon Juan and Mr Gandhi Ambalan, together with supporter, Mr Yap Keng Ho, were jailed for public speaking without a permit when they were selling the SDP newspaper, The New Democrat, prior to the General Elections in May 2006. They were sentenced to 5 weeks, 3 weeks and 10 days, respectively.

In support of the three prisoners, SDP members and supporters kept vigil outside of the Queenstown Remand Prison during by lighting candles from 7 pm to 12 am midnight every night during their imprisonment.

Despire a news blackout by the local media, many well wishers, including some total strangers, showed up outside of the Queenstown prison to show their support by ighting candles for the three.

Speakers' Corner (16 Sept 2006)Speakers’ Corner (16-19 Sep 2006)

Dr Chee Soon Juan and six others announced the “Empower Singaporeans Rally and March” at the Speakers’ Corner, a few blocks away from the Suntec City where the annual meeting of the World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Funds (IMF) was held.

Heavy police deployment surrounded the whole Speakers’ Corner and actively advised people to leave the area. They also asked for identification of those who were present at the vicinity.

No arrest was made on that day. However, the protesters were swiftly blocked by throngs of the police as they prepared to march out of the Speakers’ Corner. Thereafter, a stand-off began with the protesters surrounded by the police in a tight circle and put under round-the-clock watch by the police.

The protesters ended up spending three nights on the pavement and remaining at the spot until Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong finished his opening address at the WB-IMF meeting. The six protesters, together with some other helpers, are now under police investigation.

Chinese Embassy (20 Jul 2006)Chinese Embassy (20 Jul 2006)

The protest outside the Chinese Embassy was targeted at Mr Li Lanqing during his visit to Singapore. The protest was carried out by two Singaporeans, Ms Ng Chye Huay and Mr Erh Boon Tiong, as well as 73-year old Mdm Chen Peiyu, a Chinese national.

The three had hung a banner outside the embassy which read: “Stop Persecution of Falun Gong in China.” They were arrested by the Singapore police and later charged with “harassment by displaying insulting writing – with common intention.”

On 30 Nov 06, after a three-day trial, they were found guilty and fined $1,000 and $1,500, respectively. Because they refused to pay the fines, the two practitioners were then sent to prison. Ms Ng served 15 days whereas Mr Erh served 10 days. The 73-year old lady from China was deported from Singapore.

City Hall MRT Station (7 Jul 2006)City Hall MRT Station (7 Jul 2006)

Singapore’s famous blogger “Mr Brown” (Mr Lee Kin Mun) was openly criticised by the spokeswoman of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) for his satirical piece about high living costs. His weekly newspaper column at the Today newspaper was suspended as well.

After being mobilised by SMSes to show their support for “Mr brown” and in protest of the heavy-handed treatment and the suspension of his column, a group of about 30 people dressed in brown gathered at the City Hall MRT Station to protest.

They were accosted by police immediately after, and their IC details were recorded. On 21 July 2006, police announced that they will not take action against the 30 people because there was “no breach of public order.”

Woodlands Stadium (3 May 2006)

Just a few months prior to the General Elections in May 2006, a law was hastily passed that banned bankrupts from participating in election campaigns and making speeches at election rallies, which might very well be tailored for Dr Chee Soon Juan who was bankrupted in February that year.

When the SDP announced that it’s going to raise the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) issue as its main election platform, both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew immediately sued the entire Central Executive Committee of the SDP and the party itself for defamation.

With the NKF case pending in the Court, the SDP was not able to talk about it during the elections lest it be construed as subjudice. In protest, some SDP members staged a march at one of its election rallies by taping their mouths with the red word “NKF” written on the tape.

Justice V K Rajah ruled that Singapore citizens had no right to stage protests (7 Dec 2005)Singapore High Court (7 Dec 2005)

Mr V K Rajah of the high court in Singapore ruled in December 2005 that Singaporean citizens had no right to stage protests because this would undermine the “singularly stable and upright stature Singapore has managed to uphold.”

Buangkok MRT Station (27 Aug 2005)Buangkok MRT Station (27 Aug 2005)

During Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s visit to Punggol South, a resident, displeased with the Government for not opening the Buangkok MRT station, erected a series of white cardboard cut-outs of elephants, which were drawn in a cartoon-like style, symbolically calling the unopened station a ‘white elephant’.

A month later, police closed the investigation without pressing charges but issued a stern warning to the offender, who was reported to be a member of the area’s Residents’ Committee (RC).

On 13 January 2006, during a carnival celebrating the opening of the Buangkok MRT Station, some 27 students from Raffles Girls’ School were preparing to sell T-shirts bearing “Save the White Elephants” slogan to raise fund for a charity Youth Guidance.

This prompted a warning from the police who said that the T-shirts required a permit and that “wearing of T-shirts en masse may be misconstrued by some as an offence under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public & Order & Nuisance) (Assemblies & Processions) Rules.”

CPF building (11 Aug 2005)CPF Building (11 Aug 2005)

Four activists staged a silent, peaceful protest outside of the CPF building and called on the Government to be transparent in the handling of public funds. . The four protesters held placards and wore white T–shirts with the words ‘NKF’, ‘CPF’, ‘HDB’, ‘GIC’, and ‘Transparency Now’ printed on them.

The police sent a riot squad to break-up the four protesters and threatened arrest unless they dispersed immediately.

Subsequently, the protesters took the Minister for Home Affairs and the Commissioner for Police to court for unlawfully dispersing a peaceful protest by less than five persons.

The judge dismissed their application on the grounds that the protest was “incendiary” and amounted “to a grave attack on financial integrity of key public institutions”. They were also ordered to pay costs of $23,749, and were subsequently bankrupted by the Attorney-General for not being able to pay up the remaining amount of $18,329.

U.S. Embassy (Feb 2003)US Embassy (Feb 2003)

Six Singaporeans staged a peace demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Singapore to protest against the Iraq War, and were swiftly taken away for questioning even though the activists said that they were just collecting signatures.

The Singapore Government then asked the US Ambassador whether he wanted to press charges against the six to which the Ambassador replied: “Why?” and said that people should have the right to express themselves when they disagreed with policies.

Istana (1 May 2002)Istana (1 May 2002)

Dr Chee Soon Juan was to stage a PAP (People Against Poverty) rally in front of the Istana on Labour Day. Before he proceeded to the Istana and while he was answering to reporters’ queries at the pedestrian pavement, he was given a brief warning by the police and then pushed into a waiting police van.

Dr Chee was later charged for “trespassing” and for “attempting to hold rally without a license”. He was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of $4,500 (or 5-week jail). He chose to serve a 5-week prison sentence rather than pay the fine.

During the commotion, one SDP member, Mr Gandhi Ambalam, appealed to the public in general: “We are peaceful and non-violent. The PAP government has unleashed the police force to handle the leader of the opposition party. We don’t believe in violence. The police are armed to the teeth, we are unarmed. We are defenseless. We are law abiding, we believe in the rule of law.”

Mr Gandhi Ambalam was also arrested and charged for “disorderly behaviour” and “obstructing the police in their duties”.

Mr Ambalam was fined $3,000 which effectively disqualified him from standing for elections for the next 5 years. When he appealed to the High Court, Chief Justice Yong Pung How dismissed the appeal saying “I did not have a good breakfast this morning.”

Speakers' Corner (10 Dec 2000)Speakers’ Corner (10 Dec 2000)

In 2000, the PAP government launched the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park. Members from Open Singapore Centre and Think Centre organised an “Abolish ISA” event to commemorate International Human Rights Day at the Speakers’ Corner.

After the polilce refused to grant a permit for a marathon, Director of Open Singapore Centre, Dr Chee Soon Juan, ran a 42-km marathon from Whitley Road to Hong Lim Park, accompanied by his sister Chee Siok Chin. His route took him past the Istana, where he handed to security guards a letter, addressed to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, protesting against the Internal Security Act. “It’s to show our resolve. A demonstration doesn’t have to be one where we hurl rocks and bottles.”

Waiting at the Speakers’ Corner were about 50 people wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Abolish ISA’ and holding up a large banner bearing the same words. The then Non-Constituency MP J.B. Jeyaretnam and the late neurosurgeon and writer Gopal Baratham, took turns to speak up on issues ranging from the abolition of the ISA, to impressing the audience that “human rights are your birth right”.

The speakers were all wearing “Abolish ISA” tee shirts and spoke about Chia Thye Poh, the former former opposition MP, who was arrested in 1966 and later was told that he would be released unconditionally if he renounced communism. But Chia was never a communist but instead an elected MP.

Subsequently, James Gomez from Think Centre and Kevin Liew from Open Singapore Centre were called up by the police for questioning. Both were let off with a stern warning.

Raffles Place (29 Dec 98 & 5 Jan 1999)Raffles Place (5 Jan 1999)

Dr Chee went ahead with his 2nd speech at Raffles place on 5 January 1999. He was again found guilty and fined S$2500 (or 12 days jail) for the offence. Another SDP official Wong Hong Toy was also found guilty and fined S$2400 of assisting Dr Chee by adjusting the volume of his microphone.

Both men chose jail over fines. After spending times in jail for breaking the public speaking law, Dr Chee pledged to continue his campaign for greater public freedoms in tightly controlled Singapore: “This is the beginning, only the beginning of the long road in my struggle to bring democracy to you.”

Raffles Place (29 Dec 1998)

Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Part (SDP), gave a public speech to the lunch time crowd at Raffles Place on 29 Dec 1998. He was found guilty of violating The Public Entertainment Acts against giving public speeches without a permit.

The Singapore court slapped a fine of $1400 (or 7 days jail) on him who argued that the law violated his constitutional right to free speech. Dr Chee went to jail instead of pay the fines because to protest against an unjust law

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