If the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill 2014 ever becomes law, it will truly make a mockery of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. Many such laws targeting a particular group or individuals have been hurriedly passed by the PAP government in the past. They have caused great harm to Singapore and Singaporeans and this law will add to the damage already done.
In 1985, the citizenship provisions of the Constitution were amended specifically aimed at depriving Tan Wah Piow of his Singapore citizenship. Wah Piow had escaped to London fearing an accidental death in national service after serving a year in jail on a wicked and false charge for rioting while a student in the Architecture school. Having tasted the system of justice then, Wah Piow had escaped, rightly or wrongly. In 1986, Francis Seow, the president of the Law Society of Singapore was targeted for speaking out against the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill. The law sought to demolish foreign publications critical of the PAP policies. Many foreign publications, including my favourite Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek and Asian Wall Street Journal were forced to leave our shore. Francis Seow was deprived of serving as president of the Law Society after less than a year with the passing of the Legal Profession Amendment Bill. Several members who called an extraordinary general meeting to condemn the Bill were conveniently imprisoned under the Internal Security Act. And as if being detained under the Internal Security Act was insufficient punishment, I was prevented from appealing to the Privy Council when the PAP government hurriedly enacted a new law abolishing such appeals.
What the government is doing today is not new. It uses law to legitimise every destructive act, constantly eroding the rights of the people of Singapore. Well before the 1980s, the PAP government had enacted laws that destroyed independent trade unions and associations. Through enactment of many laws, we have lost much of our rights supposed to have been guaranteed by our Constitution, which itself had been subjected to countless number of amendments.
Who are the people targeted by this new Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill 2014? I can think of three groups of people. The first group comprise “alleged prospective rioters” who go to Little India especially during the weekends for relaxation. The second group comprise the civil rights campaigners. Many of them work in Little India and are courageous and innovative. They are capable of staging a one person protest that can attract publicity and embarrass the government. Hence section 11(d) and Explanatory Statement made particular reference to this group! The third group are Singaporeans in general. The government wants to prevent any “uprising” in any part of Singapore. It is a measure to ensure that it can control any area when things don’t work in the way it wants.
It is common practice for the PAP government to camouflage its intention, to make a law appear to target a particular group when the intention is not. The Legal Profession Amendment Bill for instance was camouflaged by a number of other provisions that were not crucial to the PAP. The target was the removal of Francis Seow as the president of the society. On hindsight, if Francis Seow was permitted to continue to lead the society then, it would not be in the present sorry state. There would not be the need to make it compulsory for lawyers to perform pro bono services. Members would have willingly given up their time and money to run an effective independent legal aid scheme for those in need. The present criminal legal aid scheme departs from the original intent of its founders.
Article 13 of our Constitution guarantees Singaporeans the “right to move freely throughout Singapore and to reside in any part thereof.” Article 14 guarantees freedom of speech and expression, right to assemble peaceably and to form associations. This Bill seeks to restrict all these rights by giving exceedingly wide powers to the police. Citizens can be prevented from entering Little India by searches and “banning notice” (note the word used is “notice” not “order”.) The land will be gazetted as “Special Zone.” Why “Special Zone” instead of “Black Listed Zone?” The use of such palliative terminology must be credited to the ingenuity of our political leaders who possess the skill of our colonial masters in the use of the English language.
Property owners and business people who live and work in Little India should rise up now to protest. Failing to do so may spell the drastic devaluation of their properties and businesses if they are not already affected. No one wants to live in a locality where he or she is subject to police scrutiny and searches 24 hours a day. No one wants to work in shops and offices where the police can barge in suddenly to conduct “security searches”.
Singaporeans too must rise up to protest against this dangerous Bill. If this Bill becomes law, no one can prevent other areas from being gazetted as Special Zones because there is already a precedent. Those living in prime districts should not remain silent for they too can be the subject of such laws. Like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill in 1986, the target is not just one foreign publication but all foreign publications. Here the target is not just the residents and visitors to Little India but all Singaporeans.
The Bill claims to be a temporary measure so as to “continue to maintain public order … following the violence on 8 December 2013 in that area.” Its effectiveness is stated as “12 months”. We should not be deceived by this time frame. Even though there is no renewal clause, it is easy for the PAP government or any succeeding government to enact similar laws for another 12 months and ad infinitum.
More than a month has passed by peacefully in Singapore and in Little India. Why the sudden need to “protect” Little India when the area has remained incident free since 8 December 2013? The Committee of Inquiry have yet to start its work and no one knows if the police were themselves to be blamed for the damage caused to their vehicles. The question why they failed to protect public properties have yet to be answered. Just three days ago, my friend and I had the most delicious vegetarian lunch there. We did not feel any sense of insecurity. The people in the restaurant and on the street were friendly. We drove through the area without encountering any incident. Why is there a need for such a law?
It is so disingenuous to claim that in order to continue to maintain public order, this new law is required. Surely the enforcement of law and order under our existing laws – the Penal Code, Public Order Act, Sedition Act, Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Weapons Act and the Internal Security Act just to name a few are more than sufficient to protect our police force and their vehicles and the people of Singapore. Why clutter our statute books and waste the time of our parliamentarians? If we have an efficient police force, there is no need for more laws. If this Bill is passed, it will only be an admission of the weakness and incapability of our police force to ensure law and order.
Civil rights proponents should be weary of the unfettered rights of police officers to subject them to security searches and banning orders. Those who intend to organise protests, whether it be just one person or more, may find themselves arrested or issued with banning notices! By the time they file an appeal, the police would have thwarted their intent!
Finally, it is provided in the Bill that offences can be compounded. What this means is that the police can accept money in settlement rather than leave it to the courts to pass the appropriate sentences. I don’t know the purpose of this provision. If it is intended to save the time of our courts, the most effective way is not to enact such a law. Let the police do their work diligently and charge trouble makers in court. Let justice be administered openly in our courts. If such offences are as trivial as parking offences which can also be compounded, why bother to have such a law?
I fear that if this government succeeds in getting this law through parliament (and I am afraid that will be the case), we can forget about the little so called “enshrined” rights under our Constitution. We may as well be honest. Do away with the Constitution and proclaim ourselves a police state. We don’t need the judiciary to protect us. The executive can do anything it wants until one day when the people rise up and no longer obey the laws of the land!
Ms Teo Soh Lung
*Ms Teo Soh Lung graduated from the Univ of Singapore with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB Hons) in 1973 and served her pupillage under the late David Marshall. In 1981, she set up her own law firm in Aljunied and in 1985, she co-founded the Law Society Criminal Legal Aid Scheme which offers free legal assistance for criminal cases to the poor and needy members of the public.
Ms Teo also chaired a sub-committee under the Law Society which reviewed the Legal Profession Amendment Bill. One of the amendments to the bill had sought to take away the duty of the Law Society to comment on legislation. She called an EGM of the Society which overwhelmingly passed a motion calling on the government to withdraw the bill. Shortly after, she was subpoenaed to appear before a Parliamentary Select Committee and was vigorously questioned by then PM Lee Kuan Yew. She steadfastly defended her stand and the Law Society. She was subsequently elected as a member of the Council of the Law Society.
Some months later, in May 1987, she was arrested and detained without trial under the ISA together with the others for purported involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow the Govt by force and replace it with a Marxist state. She was released after 4 months but was imprisoned again in 1988 for refuting the government’s allegations against her. She was finally released in June 1990.
Soh Lung published her memoir Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner in 2010 and was one of the editors of Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile in 2009.