Legalise peaceful assembly

Charles Tan
12 Sep 07

It is time the Singapore Government recognises the people’s right to public assembly and to stop harassing those who exercise their basic rights to come together peacefully to advocate a cause.

A recent flurry of events have seen activists and ordinary people coming physically together to stage protests or organise public outings which have been deemed illegal.

They include:

I. a procession involving 23 Burmese nationals who were believed to be protesting against the fuel hike in their home country;

II. an anti-Odex protest in which the ISPs disclosed the identities of the “illegal downloaders”. A mock demonstration of “People’s Action Figures Party” by 8 people was harshly dealt with by the presence of the riot police squad;

III. A permit was rejected for the Worker’s Party cycling event to be held in conjunction with its 50th anniversary;

IV. Two social events on the IndigNation (Singapore’s gay pride month) events calendar were banned – a picnic at the Botanic gardens and a jogging endeavour.

These recent activities, over the period of a month, indicate that people are slowly but surely waking up to the idea that peaceful protests or public assemblies are inalienable rights that cannot be taken away in spite of the PAP’s draconian laws. Moreover, the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 20, of which Singapore is a signatory.

Despite being a signatory of the Declaration and a member of the United Nations, the Singapore Government has violated our rights by banning peaceful protests without giving any satisfactory reasons. The police often cites “maintenance of public order” to support their claim. This is a ludicrous argument and baseless considering that peaceful protests is one of the means through which people come together to express themselves.

The often used argument that public assemblies degenerate into violent scuffles or riots is one that the PAP Government advances to perpetuate this illegitimate law. Whether a protest becomes violent or otherwise depends on situational factors that is unrelated to the nature of protests itself.

In countries where protests are legal, the police often act as road marshals. They are present to facilitate the protests and to keep peace and order.

Public assemblies and protests are a vital indication of the health of a democracy and its civil society. More often than not, they reflect community and grassroots sentiments. Protests are organised because activists feel strongly or empathise with a certain cause. To ban it as a form of public expression is to deny the legitimate concerns of these people. Protests are also important, for they may highlight simmering current socio-political dilemmas and issues which the larger society and the government may have neglected.

Banning public assemblies is also a sign of governmental insecurity. Within Southeast Asia, only closed societies such as Burma have banned protests. Even in Thailand, which is still under martial law, protests are common occurrences.

It is time that the Singapore Government reacts rationally and logically to the “public assembly debate”, whether as an indication of moving towards a more open society; to encourage increasing grassroots participation; or growth of a more robust civil society.

To this end, the police should also drop all pending investigations and charges against those who have been involved in peaceful public protests or assemblies.