Recession-hit Singapore takes hard line on protests

March 25, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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AFP

Singapore is tightening its rules on outdoor protests as the city state prepares to host its largest international summit amid its worst recession yet, analysts say.

The Ministry of Home Affairs tabled a proposed law in parliament Monday to strengthen police powers against illegal protests and other acts of civil disobedience.

One of the objectives of the Public Order Act is to ensure that security at international meetings will not be compromised, it said.

Among such meetings is the summit in November of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum, when 21 leaders, including US President Barack Obama, will visit Singapore.

But analysts said that, beyond the APEC summit, the government can use the law to deal with any outbreaks of public frustration as the recession leads to more job cuts and shrinking pay cheques.

Singapore became the first Asian country to fall into recession in the current global crisis, and the government projects that the economy will contract by up to five percent this year, the worst performance since independence in 1965.

The authorities are preparing for any eventuality “in case the social friction boils over as a result of the economic crisis into demonstrations,” veteran political commentator Seah Chiang Nee told AFP.

While Singaporeans are unlikely to turn to violent protests, the large pool of low-skilled foreign labourers could be a bigger problem, he said.

“These are the types who can resort to riots,” Seah said, pointing to recent gatherings of labourers complaining about unpaid salaries.

Under current laws, political gatherings of five or more people without a police permit and outside a designated free-speech park are deemed illegal.

Protesters have sidestepped this by congregating in small numbers and using creative tactics to draw attention.

Last week, three demonstrators in red shirts unfurled a banner outside Myanmar’s embassy, in a protest against the country’s military regime during a visit to Singapore by its Prime Minister Thein Sein.

Under the proposed legislation, any political assembly outside the free-speech zone, known as Speakers’ Corner, requires a permit, regardless of the number of people involved.

The proposed law also grants police the power to intervene to prevent a political gathering from building up.

The home ministry said that as the social, political and security environment becomes more complex, Singapore needs to “squarely address gaps in the current framework.”

Sinapan Samydorai, president of the civil rights group Think Centre, noted that APEC is a temporary event — but that the law will be permanent.

While the government has provided the free-speech corner, some Singaporeans may want to hold a protest outside parliament, he said.

“They (police) need to make sure that they prevent any kind of public display of dissatisfaction with the way things are going right now,” said an opposition party leader, Chee Soon Juan.

“APEC is being used as an excuse but the law is more for the long term,” said Chee, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, which he said may challenge the new rules before the courts.

Seah, the political analyst, said public displays of anger over the recession will depend on the effectiveness of the government’s response.

The government in January announced a stimulus package of more than 20 billion Singapore dollars (13 billion US) to cope with the recession, and vowed to do more if necessary.

Seah said he did not expect Singaporeans, who enjoy Southeast Asia’s highest standard of living, to protest in large numbers.

“I cannot foresee 2,000 students carrying Armani handbags and iPods marching around Orchard Road throwing Molotov cocktails,” he said.

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