Public assembly: How will High Court decide?

Singapore Democrats

The High Court will hear arguments tomorrow on whether the questions on the right of Singaporeans to peaceful assembly may be canvassed before the Court of Appeals, the highest court in Singapore.$CUT$

Mr Louis Joseph, counsel for Ms Chee Siok Chin, Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr Seelan Palay and Mr John Tan, will present arguments before High Court Judge Quentin Loh on the question of whether the Executive has the right to ban outright political public gatherings in Singapore.

The matter arose from the convictions of the appellants over gathering on National Day in 2008 where a group of SDP members and supporters distributed pamphlets and sold Tak Boleh Tahan (cannot take it) T-shirts at Toa Payoh Central.

The group was convicted for assembly without a permit. The above-mentioned members appealed the conviction which was dismissed by Judge Quentin Loh. Citing the issue of public interest, the appellants applied to the Judge for leave to take the matter to the Court of Appeals.

The issue at hand is whether the Executive has the constitutional authority to ban outright outdoor political activities. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the police have repeatedly stated that political activities conducted in public would not be given permits.

The Singapore constitution does not provide for the Government to do this except in situations where national security is threatened. The right of Singaporeans to gather peacefully is guaranteed under Article 14.

The second question that the appellants are seeking to address is whether the Government can discriminate against political activity. Licensing officers from the police have testified in the various trials of illegal assembly that, unlike political activity, gatherings of five or more persons for a commercial activity do not require a permit.

Again, there is no provision in the constitution that allows the Executive to make such a distinction. In fact, it explicitly forbids such a practice in Article 12 to prevent ruling parties from conducting public activity while preventing opposition groups from doing the same. In other words, everyone must be treated equally under the law – PAP or not. 

Unfortunately, the PAP has relied on such an unconstitutional practice to advance its agenda. It allows organisations and groups affiliated to it to openly conduct public protests while it enforces a strict ban on those it opposes.

A good case in point is the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) which conducts regular protests and processions outside Parliament House while the Tak Boleh Tahan protest was stopped (see photos below).

Singapore is in the state that it is – high influx of foreigners, unaffordable HDB prices, wide income gap, etc – because the people have been shorn of the rights to peaceful public assembly. This has allowed the PAP to control the media and the electoral process leading to the skewed representation in Parliament.

Singaporeans must realise that without political rights, there can be no economic rights. The longer our rights are deprived, the more dangerous our economic state becomes.

Authorities in other countries realise that in this era it is foolish to deny their peoples of the basic freedoms of speech and assembly. Burma has reformed its outdated political system by freeing political prisoners and allowing public assembly.

The High Court in Malaysia has, in recent years, repeatedly ruled against the undemocratic practices of the Barisan Nasional government, returning to the Malaysian people what has been theirs all along – their freedom.

A similar problem is before the High Court in Singapore. How will it decide?

If Mr Quentin Loh allows the application, the matter will go to the Court of Appeal where the Chief Justice and two other Justices will rule on whether the PAP Government has been acting unconstitutionally in banning public assembly. 

The hearing will take place in High Court 3D tomorrow, 10 October 2012, at 10am.

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