Crisis-hit Singapore tightens grip
13 June 2009
SINGAPORE - New legislation passed by parliament in the name of combating terrorism has raised concerns that discretionary powers could be used by authorities to further silence political opposition and suppress public dissent when the island nation is facing its worst economic crisis since achieving independence.
By Tony Sitathan
The Public Order Act (POA), which was rapidly drafted and passed without much fanfare in April, represents the latest legislation to boost the discretionary powers of the People's Action Party-led government, which has ruled the city state uninterrupted since 1959, in the name of upholding national security.
The new law will primarily extend the draconian Public Entertainment and Meeting Act, which bars gatherings of more than five people without a government-granted permit. Under the POA, now even one person with a "cause-related" intention in public will also apparently need a permit. According to opposition politicians, the new act effectively bans any outdoor activity deemed by the state as political in nature.
It also represents a blow to already limited press freedoms, as it contains a new ban on the filming of security force operations and actions. That, some say, will limit the ability of citizen journalists and bloggers, who have offered an important counterpoint in recent years to the state-controlled media, to check the government's actions. Yet another repressive provision of the POA empowers the police, under a so-called "move on" order, to force anyone to leave public areas if their actions are considered "disorderly".
This provision would appear to run contrary to Article 13 of the constitution, which states that Singaporean citizens have the right to move freely throughout Singapore subject to any law relating to security, public order, or public health. Although there have not been any demonstrations related to the island state's spectacular economic downturn, some believe the POA's passage was designed specifically to forestall possible anti-government rallies or assemblies.
The export-oriented economy contracted 10.1% year-on-year in the first quarter, shaking the PAP's traditional claim to legitimacy through its management of fast economic growth. The government has said it needs the POA's enhanced powers to create a more transparent and coherent framework for managing public order and security, including when it hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November which various world leaders are scheduled to attend.
According to a Hong Kong-based risk consultant who requested anonymity, the government was motivated by the recent destabilizing public street protests seen in Thailand and the terrorist attacks on a tourist hotel in Mumbai, India. He noted that deputy prime minister and home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng has said that the APEC summit may attract "terrorists" or "anarchists" bent on stirring violence.
The political opposition, a group of parties that won 33% of the votes at the 2006 election but through gerrymandering command only two seats in Singapore's 84-seat parliament, have strongly criticized the POA, claiming it could be used to suppress further their political activities. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), claimed in an interview that the POA's passage violates Singapore's constitution and specifically undermines Article 14, which guarantees freedom of rights, association and speech.
"The constitution states that any law that runs contrary to the constitution will be void. This is something that needs to be brought up internationally," he said. Chee is an embattled opposition figure, who has on several occasions been detained for his political activities and was recently rendered bankrupt by a court ruling after crossing swords with several ministers in the PAP government's cabinet. Chee is currently banned from traveling outside of Singapore on order of that ruling.
Chee's resistance in the name of democracy promotion has in recent years earned him significant international support, namely from Liberal International, a world federation of liberal political parties. His SDP, along with three other pro-democracy political parties, including Myanmar's National League for Democracy (Liberated Areas), was granted observer status to Liberal International at its annual general meeting in May held in Vancouver, Canada.
The SDP's nomination was championed by Dean Peroff, from the international law firm Amsterdam & Peroff. In passing the unanimous motion, Peroff maintained that Singapore's political order was authoritarian, autocratic, run by a one-man system and that SDP's new observer status to Liberal International would be an important first step towards reaching out to the broader international community for the cause of promoting basic human rights and freedom of expression in Singapore.
"SDP has signed an agreement with the Commonwealth countries, where Singapore is a party, to include respect for fundamental human rights and civil liberties," said Chee, who has also hired Amsterdam & Peroff to take up his case against the government, whose members have recently filed law suits against news publications that have run Chee's critical comments. "We are trying to pursue this and some of the international community would hopefully pay more attention and encourage Singapore to be part of the civilized world."
Robert Amsterdam, a human-rights lawyer who has represented individuals against oppressive states across the globe, including in Nigeria, Venezuela, and Russia, has recently taken up Chee's case. He sees the passage of the POA as symptomatic of the lack of basic civil liberties in Singapore and said that the new law would have wide-reaching implications beyond providing greater protection to the upcoming APEC conference.
"Democratic countries in Asia need to ask themselves if they accept the POA that further tears away whatever small rights ... that remain in Singapore," said Amsterdam. "Suppressing opposition in Singapore is a full time occupation for the pro-disciplinary regime," he added.
He said the motivation for undermining human rights by repressive regimes, whether in military run Myanmar or nominally democratic Singapore, often boils down to money. "They clamp down on human rights and distort information because it is profitable for them to do it. It is not just a thirst for power; it is to gain a financial interest," claimed Amsterdam. The PAP-led government opaquely manages two of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, which have seen their holdings badly hit by the global economic crisis.
Singapore's law and second minister for Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, stoutly defended the POA on April 16 at the fourth annual gathering of the Attorney General's Chambers of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. He said that the POA has helped to streamline current rules on public assemblies and rightly empowers police to halt the filming of security or covert operations, which could be compromised by public broadcasting.
"It's directed at and motivated by two situations: one, as a result of what happened in Mumbai when security operations are ongoing, you can see the security officers rappelling and preparing for an attack. But so could the terrorists. The second situation is where the identity of the officer has to be protected because it is a covert operation," he said.
"We need to establish a commonality of legal concepts and, more importantly, structures for co-operation and a strengthening of the relationship between our law enforcement agencies," he added. In an apparent concession to criticism, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the government is considering exempting certain social, recreational and commercial activities that don't pose a threat to security from the POA.
Sylvia Lim, an opposition member of parliament, said changes made to the definition of "assembly" and "procession" in the POA were disturbing because they were no longer restricted to gatherings of five or more people. That, she said, means that now even one person can constitute an illegal assembly, thus giving the state complete control over individual civil liberties.
She also highlighted the limitations of the "move on" powers vested in the POA, which has shown to be problematic in other countries due to the wide discretionary powers given to police and could also be in Singapore without an independent watchdog to monitor law enforcement agency actions.
The general public, according to one poll, is equally concerned by the POA's rights-eroding provisions. According to an online poll conducted by the opposition Workers Party, 91% of respondents opposed POA provisions that will allow police to order, if necessary by force, the stoppage of filming of law enforcement activities and search without a warrant any person whom the officer has reason to believe is in possession of such a film or picture.
While the poll's sample size was small, the results indicate average Singaporeans are concerned about the POA's prohibitive provisions, significantly at a time the island country faces a severe and accelerating economic downturn.
By Tony Sitathan
Tony Sitathan is a correspondent for several Asian and foreign news publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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