Monday, October 08, 2007

Constitutional Right to Peaceful Assembly

The following quote is from the Constitution of The Republic of Singapore found in Singapore Government website:

Freedom of speech, assembly and association
14. —(1) Subject to clauses (2) and (3) —
(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and
(c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.
(2) Parliament may by law impose —
(a) on the rights conferred by clause (1) (a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence;
(b) on the right conferred by clause (1) (b), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order; and
(c) on the right conferred by clause (1) (c), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, public order or morality.
(3) Restrictions on the right to form associations conferred by clause (1) (c) may also be imposed by any law relating to labour or education.
As the Constitution here clearly states that Singaporeans have the right to peaceful assembly as in 14.1.b, one would wonder why the police would normally reject any applications for peaceful public demonstrations in Singapore, regardless of whether it is from political parties, politicians or just any citizens?

To be fair, I would say that the police actually did approve permits for political parties to hold political rallies during General Elections. In fact, after approving the permits, the police has to give guidelines and instructions to the political rally organizers to ensure law and order as well as smooth conduct of these rallies.

It would mean that the clause 14.2.b is not a clause that grant the PAP government blanket power to stop people from peaceful demonstration or assembly during or off general elections time. Clause 14.2.b is actually in place to make sure that public order must be maintained during such public assembly or protests. The need of application of permit from the police is not supposed to be a means for the PAP government to prevent people or groups from organizing such peaceful assemblies which is a RIGHT granted by our Constitution. It would be unconstitutional or against the constitution if the PAP government or any state organs deliberately and consistently deprive the citizens' right to peaceful assemblies.

Then what is the purpose or rational of the law that requires police permission for organizing these peaceful assemblies? And what is the law that is used against protesters? The famous law of "illegal gathering of more than 5 persons", what is exactly the rational behind this law?

I will explain the last question, the myth of any gathering of 5 persons constitutes illegal gathering. This law is actually enacted in response to problem of secret societies back in the 1950s and 1960s. The actual law says that any gathering of 5 persons and above with the intention of committing unlawful acts, will be considered as illegal gathering. That means that not every gathering of 5 persons and above is illegal. This is only logical because if 10 friends just go to East Coast Park to have barbecue party, it could not possibly constitute illegal assembly!

Thus, it is really not right for the police to charge anybody who only has the intention to exercise their constitutional right of peaceful assembly without arms, under this law.

The other law that the state used against people that organize peaceful assembly is "assembly without permit". Now this is where the interpretation of law comes in. The police will normally use the excuse that any peaceful assembly organized by non-PAP related organizations or individuals will constitute public order problem, thus, not granting them any permits. In the end, using the "no permit" as the basis to charge these people for "illegal assembly". Is this a fair practice? Constitutional?

We have seen the Workers' Party organizing political rallies that attracted tens of thousands of attendants and not a single incident of riot happening. If this is possible for WP during GE where emotions run high sometimes, why would a seemingly, expectedly small size protest organized by anyone could pose problems of law and order?

Thus, the premise of the police rejection of application of permits is totally flawed. Singaporeans are generally law abiding citizens. Singaporeans are generally well educated and not hooligans.

As I have mentioned, the law that requires any citizens who want to exercise their constitutional right of peaceful assembly should not become a tool to deprive or even rob away citizens' right. If the main concern is the question of law and order of such events, then the only logical reason for this law to be in place is to FACILITATE the whole process to make sure public law and order is being maintained.

Yes, in any matured democracy, this is the primary function of such law. Even US, British and most European countries have such law that requires the application of permits for peaceful assemblies. However, they will never use such law as the tool to deprive their citizens of the right to peaceful assemblies as that would be unconstitutional.

The state, including the government of the day and the various state apparatus, should be upholding the Constitution of the land as well as the rights granted to the citizens by this Constitution. In Singapore, this is sadly not happening.

The right thing for the police to do is to grant the permits but come into the picture to make sure that any peaceful assemblies are conducted in a lawful manner that takes public order into great considerations. This is what happens in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong has peaceful protests and demonstrations quite frequent, often done during the weekends. The organizers will apply the permit and notify the police. Then the police will normally grant the permit but with certain conditions attached. Sometimes, there will be negotiations held between the organizers and the police on the details like duration of the protests, marching routes if any, crowd control coordinations, safety requirement like ambulances and first aid stations...etc. This basically means that both the state and the citizens are involved in the whole process of organization, making sure that the balance between public order and the rights of citizens to peaceful assemblies are met.

The PAP government self-proclaims itself of "First World" government but it seems that their practice of depriving citizens' constitutional right to peaceful assembly is anything but the acts of "First World".

The ultimate question is, WHY should we conduct or even allow peaceful demonstration? This has been touched in NSP's recent press release. As a country working towards a "First World" country, we must ensure that our citizens must be more rounded in their own development, beside the pursuit of materialism. Public spirit, social and political awareness/ consciousness must be cultivated in the people, not merely through textbooks but via a more active citizenry. Civil activism includes freedom of expression in all forms, including peaceful assemblies.

Core values of the society is normally molded via active participation of citizens in various activities. This has been demonstrated by many historical examples, including present times. Hong Kongers' identity has strengthen greatly after the legendary 7.1 protest march in 2003 which involves half a million Hong Kongers.

In fact, even in Singapore's own history, Nationalism was built up in the late 1950s and 1960s via the various protest marches against the colonial master, Britain.

Then why the PAP government, which itself has come into power via various street protests and demonstrations, decided to "ban" peaceful protests or assemblies? (Note: even using the word "ban" here, is really unconstitutional!) One could only conclude that is it is really a self-serving technical use of the power and law rather the concerns of "public order". This is based on the fact that Singaporeans at large are capable of behaving themselves in politcal rallies of massive attendance.

It is precisely the fact that PAP come into power using such means that it is afraid that any other political parties could use the same methods to win power. Even the promise by PAP of "more open society" does not include the protection (rather than the deprivation) of citizens' right of peaceful demonstrations.

I would urge the PAP to progress with time. This is a new era of a new century. Such closed and conservative mindset could only hinder Singapore's development into a true blue First World country.

Goh Meng Seng


jonkwok said...

you make sense! but too bad most singaporeans are too busy with their own lives (and making money), and/or are too scared of the PAP "taking actions" against them, to make their stands known.

you know what 90% of singaporeans will say? I have food to eat, condo to live in, car to drive. WHY CARE? WHAT IS THE RIGHT TO PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY? MY MERCEDES BENZ IS MORE IMPORTANT.

good luck, because the famous political apathy of many singaporeans will make it a tough fight. and the PAP's self-serving laws, of course, are not helping.

Anonymous said...

We already lost most of our rights when the PAP came to power. Singaporeans are lucky that they did not take away their right to vote as well, considering that they tried to change the one man one vote system some time back.

As 'jonkwok' said, Singaporean's political apathy has given rise to this situation, giving the ruling party a free hand to consolidate their power, election after election. What can Hougang and Potong Pasir residents do?