Public assembly ban: Beware the con

Singapore Democrats

The Government’s explanation of why protests cannot be allowed in Singapore is meretricious. Singaporeans must beware the con.

In the first place the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, does not give the Government power to ban protests. Public assembly is the right of each and every citizen, not some privilege accorded by the Government.

The exception is made only when national security is threatened, for example, in times of war, in an outbreak of insurgency, or during natural disasters. Even then the declared period of emergency is temporary, not last for half a century.

This is where the Judiciary needs to check the powers of the PAP Executive. Unfortunately, our Courts have failed the people and failed us miserably.

The lie

The PAP pretends that the threat of violence is the reason why outdoor demonstrations are banned.

If that’s the case why did it allow the NTUC to stage a protest against the US embassy in 1998, PAP women MPs to march in 2005, CASE to stage a consumer rights demonstration in 2007, and the Central CDC to conduct a mass walk in 2007?

Why does the Government organise Swing Singapore and permit other outdoor parties where tens of thousands of people gather and where liquor, the main cause of rowdy behaviour, is allowed?

Is there no potential of violence at these public activities?

If there are disturbances at any outdoor gathering, political or otherwise, there are laws and law enforcers to deal with unruly individuals.

But to decree a blanket ban on an activity just because the Government thinks that a few individuals can’t behave themselves is incomprehensible and, to repeat, unconstitutional.

Would the authorities ban football matches just because a rowdy few cause trouble in the stands? Should driving be banned just because a few irresponsible drivers speed or drive drunk?

Similarly, should the right of the overwhelming majority of peace-loving citizens be denied of their right to peaceful assembly just because a few mischief-makers (or perchance agent provocateurs) have other ideas?

Or is the PAP suggesting that the majority of Singaporeans are a riotous lot and that a ban on public protests is the only way to keep their violent impulse in check?

When the Government cannot answer questions with logic and reason (see letter below), and resorts to intellectual and political dishonesty, its authority takes a beating.

The reality

Witness the recent massive street protests in Hong Kong, Taipei, London, etc. where workers and executives, students and teachers, and even grandmas and grandpas take part in peaceful demonstrations.

They were a sight to behold. These people showed that protests are nothing to be afraid of. If they have the maturity to conduct such events, why haven’t Singaporeans?

Such mass participation does something to society; it gives the people a sense of belongingness, a sense of patriotism that no jingle or slogan chanted during the month of August can ever hope to achieve.

A politically engaged citizenry is a motivated citizenry. Such politicization creates the “buzz” that the Singaporean society – and economy – so badly needs.

Most of all, public demonstrations empower the people. They give citizens a voice to which a government must listen.

It is this empowerment that the PAP fears, not some baloney about the potential of violence.

The ruling clique knows that its illegal hold on power is possible only because it keeps the people isolated from one another.

Political power, as demonstrated by the courageous monks in Burma, when flexed by the people is a force that despotic regimes are only too aware of – and fear.

Is it any coincidence why Singapore remains one of the very few places – together with the likes of Vietnam, Cuba. and North Korea – that prohibits public assemblies?

Even countries like China, Malaysia and Iran do not forbid their peoples from protesting in public.

The truth

There are two ways that the public can make its voice heard – through the ballot box and by conducting public protests.

The PAP knows that that while it can manipulate the former, there is little it can do to control the voice of the people in mass demonstrations.

Singaporeans must realize that the election system, in its present form and under present management, will not allow the electorate a genuine say in who it wants in parliament and, by extension, what policies it supports or rejects.

By controlling the Elections Department through the PMO, changing the election process through the GRC system, intimidating voters through HDB upgrading, buying votes through the Progress Package, and crippling the opposition through defamation suits the PAP invariably gets the total control it demands.

Think about it. Despite the discontent over the withholding of CPF savings from retirees, the proposed annuity scheme, the fat ministerial salaries, the GST and fee hikes, the incoming disparity, etc. representation in Parliament doesn’t change. It hasn’t since Independence

Until and unless Government relinquishes its arm-lock on the election system and the media, Singapore will continue to live under the tyranny of the PAP few.

But how are we going to compel it to make system open and democratic?

Imagine if Singaporeans were to conduct a sit-in outside the Elections Department at Prinsep Street until the Government agrees to an independent elections commission.

Imagine if we were to protest outside Parliament House until the Government agrees to stop its control of the local media and liberalise the industry.

Imagine if Singaporeans were to walk to the Istana demanding that the PAP stops behaving like it owned Singapore.

Now imagine the ruling clique cornered and forced to institute reforms.

And there you have the real answer as to why the Government bans public assemblies.

The Govt’s explanation on ‘peaceful’ demos

Forum, The Straits Times

25 Oct 07

A few letters in the press have argued that peaceful demonstrations should be permitted and even encouraged.

If there can be complete assurance that peaceful outdoor demonstrations cannot turn violent, the case for permitting such activities would be straightforward.

Those with violent goals typically do not declare their intentions upfront.

While most demonstrations and protest marches may not start with violence in mind, instances when they do turn violent are many. Illustrative of this are the violent clashes at WTO meetings in Seattle (1999) and Hong Kong (2005) and, more recently, the G20 meeting in Melbourne (2006).

When Singapore hosts such international events, we must account for the enhanced security threat level they attract. Our top priority must be to ensure the security and safety of the event and participants. We cannot afford to let our guard down or allow activities which undermine our security arrangements to address this threat by diverting and locking down forces for demonstration control and law-and-order functions.

The argument that such violent instances of demonstrations are occasional when compared to the total number of peaceful demonstrations is valid only if we are prepared to bear the costs of such outbreaks, however occasional.

The worst race riots in Singapore history began as peaceful processions. Hence even one such violent riot in Singapore with its attendant loss of lives, injury to persons, and damage to property is one incident too many. Deeper than the physical damage are the scarred relations between communal groups and the erosion of the sense of order and security which Singaporeans value and cherish.

The existing law on outdoor assemblies and processions therefore requires organisers to apply to the police for a permit which the police will evaluate for potential impact on law and order.

Indoor political events organised by Singaporeans for Singaporeans are exempt from having to apply for any permit. This is because the potential for disorder in an indoor setting can be more easily managed should it occur and the extent of damage more reasonably contained from the outset.

We will evolve our policies, as we have, over time but there can be no abdication of the need to always balance maintaining order and security for the larger society while adjusting the parameters to accommodate aspirations for different forms of political expression among some segments of our society.

Toh Yong Chuan

Deputy Director

International and Corporate Relations Division

Ministry of Home Affairs

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