12 August 2005

Who Says Singaporeans Aren't Creative?

Here we have a rather clever example of innovative problem-solving, right in the heart of the Central Business District. For years, public speech, protests and demonstrations in Singapore have been stifled by a host of laws, including laws about "unlawful assembly". Under the Penal Code, "unlawful assembly" has the following meaning:

An assembly of 5 or more persons is designated an “unlawful assembly”, if the common object of the persons composing that assembly is —

(a) to overawe by criminal force, or show of criminal force, the Legislative or Executive Government, or any public servant in the exercise of the lawful power of such public servant;

(b) to resist the execution of any law, or of any legal process;

(c) to commit any mischief or criminal trespass, or other offence;

(d) by means of criminal force, or show of criminal force, to any person, to take or obtain possession of any property, or to deprive any person of the enjoyment of a right of way, or of the use of water or other incorporeal right of which he is in possession or enjoyment, or to enforce any right or supposed right; or

(e) by means of criminal force, or show of criminal force, to compel any person to do what he is not legally bound to do, or to omit to do what he is legally entitled to do.
The starting point, of course, is that there must be "five or more persons" getting together. So four or fewer persons getting together cannot constitute an "unlawful assembly". This little detail provides inspiration for the following event which took place outside the CPF Building yesterday:

Aug 12, 2005
Police break up 4-person protest

A PROTEST in Robinson Road demanding greater transparency in some institutions here was broken up by police yesterday.

The protesters - two men and two women - comprised two members of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and two others who were not.

The group arrived outside the Central Provident Fund (CPF) building at around noon yesterday, wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the acronyms NKF, CPF, HDB, GIC and the phrase 'Be Transparent Now' in red.
This being Singapore, the police nevertheless went on to break up the little party. Apparently, no fewer than 12 anti-riot police officers carrying shields and batons came to put an end to the 4-man demonstration. (As a side note, if those police officers were not on official duty, they themselves would have DEFINITELY constituted an unlawful assembly. Please do not ever gather in big groups and carry weapons).

Anyway, there is an interesting point here. I am actually feeling rather doubtful that the police actually had any proper legal basis to break up this particular gathering.

According to the Straits Times, the case has been classified as an assembly without permit and/or causing public nuisance. As I mentioned, the group comprised only four persons, and therefore it seems very unlikely that any of the "unlawful assembly" offences under the Penal Code has actually been committed.

Picture by blogger Loupgarou26.

My intuitive sense of the law told me that four people standing peacefully at a public place without obstructing human traffic and with their clothes on are unlikely to fall within any legal definition of "public nuisance". Essentially, the situation is very similar to four young students standing together in a public place selling flags for charity (except that the hypothetical four young students, if over-enthusiastic, are even more likely to be a real nuisance to the public).

To verify my intuition, I decided to investigate further. I checked the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. As I suspected, the facts of our 4-man case at the CPF Building do not seem to fit into the definition of "nuisance", which is as follows:

11. —(1) Any person who commits any of the following offences shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000:

(a) without authority in the case of public property, or without the consent of the owner or occupier in the case of private property, affixes or causes to be affixed any advertisement, bill or notice, or any paper against or upon any building, wall or fence, or writes upon, defaces or marks any such building, wall or fence with chalk or paint, or in any other way;

(b) bathes or washes himself, or any other person, animal or thing on any public road, or in, upon or by the side of any public tank, reservoir, watercourse or stream;

(c) obstructs or causes trouble or inconvenience to a person bathing at any place set apart as a bathing place by wilful intrusion, or by washing any animal at or near that place, or in any other way;

(d) being the owner or person in charge of any animal does not, if the animal dies, dispose of its carcase in such a way as not to be a common nuisance;

(e) places any dead animal on or near any public road;

(f) spits in any coffee shop, market, eating house, school house, theatre or public building, or in any omnibus, railway carriage or other public conveyance, or on any wharf or jetty, or in any public road, or on any five-foot way or sidewalk of any public road, or in any other place to which the public has or may have access;

(g) suffers to be at large any unmuzzled ferocious dog or other animal, or sets on or urges any dog or other animal to attack, worry or put in fear any person or animal.

I then went on to consider the possibility that there may be some other obscure provision of the law somewhere which could perhaps justify the police decision to break up the assembly.

My first suspect was the Road Traffic Act. As I recalled, it has some provisions dealing with public gatherings (assemblies and processions). But I believe that all those provisions deal with "roads", and the proper interpretation of "road" under the RTA should be roads on which cars are permitted to travel, not pavements or walkways outside buildings like the CPF Building.

Next I thought about the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (the same Act that recently gave the organisers of the Shanmugam Murugesu concert quite a bit of trouble). Essentially, that Act says that one cannot provide any public entertainment without a licence. "Public entertainment" has a wide technical definition and encompasses a variety of events that we may not typically think of as "public entertainment". For example, “public entertainment” under the Act includes:

(a) any variety act, performance of music, singing, dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics and legerdemain, demonstration, display or parade (other than ad hoc performances);
(b) any circus or any exhibition of animals;
(c) any amusement centre, amusement park or fun fair;
(d) any computer games centre;
(e) any exhibition of film, or any peep-show;
(f) any reproduction or transmission otherwise than in association with a film, by any means other than telephony or radio telephony, of any music, song or speech;
(g) any machine or device by the manipulation of which chances are given of obtaining prizes in money or kind;
(h) any pin-table;
(i) any sporting contest of any kind between any number of persons or animals, other than that organised by any registered society, trade union, company or association;
(j) any organised competition at games of skill or chance;
(k) any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion;
(l) any arts entertainment; or
(m) any combination of any of the above forms of public entertainment,

....... and of all the above, the one we probably need to look most closely at is (k) - "any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion". If the four demonstrators had uttered some words, they may possibly be construed to have given a "talk" or an "address" or to have engaged in "debate or discussion" in a public place; this may then be construed as providing public entertainment; and since they had no licence to provide public entertainment, they would possibly be guilty of an offence.

But from what the ST article says, the four demonstrators did not seem to have SPOKEN to the public at all. In all likelihood, they did their legal research beforehand and decided to stand there silently, with their specially designed T-shirts and placards. Therefore in all likelihood they would not be guilty of an offence under the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act.

From all the above, we begin to identify the principles by which it may be possible to legally stage a public demonstration in Singapore. Firstly, there must be a maximum of four participants. Secondly, you should avoid being a nuisance - for example, do not go nude; do not spit; do not have any ferocious dog with you. Thirdly, stay strictly on the pavement and do not step onto the road. Fourthly, do not speak to the public. Instead carry a placard or wear a T-shirt printed with the message you want to convey.

The Incredibles family. Eligible for public demonstration
in Singapore ..... if they leave one kid at home.

If my legal analysis is correct, then it may even be possible to have mass demonstrations in Singapore. They will just have to be mass demonstrations of a somewhat different kind. For example, if 100 people wish to demonstrate, what they can do is break up into 25 groups of 4 people each. They simultaneously demonstrate in 25 different locations in Singapore.

Alternatively, demonstrators can demonstrate in small groups of four, and take shifts. For example, the 1st group of four can demonstrate from 9 am to 11 am outside the CPF Building. They then walk away from the building. When they are clearly some distance away, the next group of 4 demonstrators can walk in and take their place.

"Now you know why we can't be the Fantastic Five."


dfgd said...

Excellant work MrWang, move directly to the front of the class please.

lzyData said...

Excellent post!

Hmm, supposing your analysis is right and the 4 people weren't a "public nuisance" and the police had no proper legal basis to disperse them, is there any way anyone can protest the decision or future decisions? If this is truly abuse of power I'll be surprised if future 4-member gatherings and all of us can do nothing about it.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Yoyo, yes, it is crucial that Chee Soon Juan and the other chap keep a distance from the group of four - and avoid mentioning the same topics (GIC, NKF, CPF, transparency) at that time.

The group of four voluntarily dispersed when the police told them to do so.

The critical test would have happened if the group of four refused to disperse, and if the police then proceeded to arrest them. If there is no legal basis, then possibly a case can be built around the tort of wrongful arrest/confinement, and the group of four can sue the police.

This didn't happen on Thursday (the group voluntarily dispersed) but they're probably testing waters and the scenario will no doubt replay sometime in the future, with some interesting variations.

I cannot think of where the catch-all might be. There are miscellaneous other offences to deal with various kinds of "breaching the peace" situations -

for example, it is an offence to solicit in public places; to be drunk in public places (yes, really); to behave in a riotous, disorderly or indecent manner in a public place; to appear nude in public;

the 4-man demonstration at CPF Building doesn't quite fit into any of these.

The Minister IS empowered to make rules to regulate assemblies (not necessarily "unlawful assemblies", just assemblies) in public roads, public places and places of public resort;

- however, my feel is that the empowering provision is correctly interpreted to be in relation to specific places, not generally all places;

in other words, the Minister may well be able to pass the rule that no assemblies are allowed outside the CPF Building;

in which case the 4-man demonstration would probably move to the HDB Building;

whereupon the Minister might decide to pass the rule that no assemblies are allowed outside the HDB Building;

but this again is futile; the four-man group would simply move to another spot.

le radical galoisien said...

Mmmm, brilliant post, along with the hilarious interjections. I assume that SingaporeStatutes online exhaustively covers all the Parliamentary Acts?

What we might need a mix of illegal and legal protests, the first to attract controversial and the second to attract solid attention. It would be kind of like a hammer and anvil approach.

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