Oral Replies to Parliamentary Questions

Oral Reply to Parliamentary Questions on Political Activities of Student Groups at Autonomous Universities

Published: 07 October 2019


Ms Anthea Ong: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs with respect to the cancellation of the Yale-NUS 'Dissent and Dialogue' course (a) whether he agrees that the course entails 'elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law and incurring legal liabilities'; (b) what laws may be broken and what kinds of legal liabilities may be incurred by (i) students (ii) faculty and (iii) institution; (c) whether the Ministry provides guidelines to academic institutions on such legal risks; and (d) what is the Ministry's position on online sentiments that having a course on dissent is an 'unpatriotic act' and the hate speech that is directed at Yale-NUS students.


Assoc Prof Walter Theseira: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether and to what extent the Ministry regulates or monitors the political activities of student groups in our autonomous universities; (b) what are the guidelines or laws under which foreign students may participate in student activities which may have community, social, or political impact in Singapore; and (c) what can be done to assure students that they have the right to associate and act for political and social causes in Singapore responsibly and within the law.


1. The Minister for Education had answered parts a, b and c. On part d, I think the heart of your question is speech and the limits to that speech. I think your question relates to people expressing their views that there was dishonesty, unpatriotic actions, and whether they should be allowed to say those things, and you have asked for the Ministry’s views.


2. There are criminal, civil laws that govern what people can say and cannot say in public. These laws apply to the online space as well. If you defame, there can be civil action; sometimes it can be criminal defamation too. If you harass people, that can be an offence. Sometimes, civil action is also possible; several remedies are possible. If there is speech that has been directed at some students, and they believe that a criminal offence has been committed, they can file a police report – I am sure they are aware of that. 


3. If the Member is of the view that more regulation of the online space is necessary, going beyond the current laws, and that such speech should be regulated, you can let us know – precisely what you have in mind, to be regulated? I assume you are not suggesting that we prevent people from expressing their views on whether some actions are patriotic or unpatriotic? I think the member will know - online space, people say what they like. POHA – we strengthened it a few months ago to allow people to take action, give individuals more power. If it’s untrue, they can take steps, if they are harassed, they can take steps. So we are empowering the individuals, but if you feel that it’s not adequate, you can let us know.


4. As regards to Associate Professor Walter Theseira’s question - the Home Team agencies have to ensure the safety and security of Singapore. They focus on persons who engage in activities that endanger national security, like terrorist acts, acts that could lead to violence and public disorder. And they take measures, including pre-emptive actions.


5. Let me give an example. In May 2015, a 17-year old Singapore student was arrested under the Internal Security Act after being self-radicalised and planning to engage in armed violence and joining ISIS. But it does not mean that the agencies look at all 17-year olds.


6. Let me provide another couple of examples. Last month, MHA announced that three domestic helpers from Indonesia had been detained for terrorist related activities. But that does not mean that our security agencies monitor all domestic helpers – there are close to 260,000 of them. And in 2016, we picked up eight Bangladeshi work pass holders who were planning to stage terror attacks back in their own home country. There are about 1.4 million work pass holders in Singapore. We do not, we cannot, and we are unable to monitor all of them.


7. The agencies have their own ways of identifying security threats and they will take appropriate action, in context.


8. The Member also asked about the guidelines or laws under which foreign students may participate in student activities. There are laws that set out the boundaries for political activities by foreigners. These include the Public Order Act, the Public Entertainments (Speakers’ Corner) Exemption Order 2016 and other legislation.


9. Of course, in an academic setting, as part of a course, foreign students are free to engage in discussion and debate, no different from their fellow Singaporean students.


10. On the 3rd sub-question, I agree with the NMP that it is important for students to know their rights and responsibilities. I think if you put it in a broader context, it is important for our young people to know what their rights are; the different political systems around the world; how they work; what is happening in the US, Western Europe, Asia and why; our own path in the last 60 years and why we have been relatively successful; how the balance between State Power and Individual Autonomy is struck in different societies; what role and responsibilities individuals have, groups have and the roles they play, and how to identify charlatans, those who promise the world and deliver nothing, and more.


11. So we do our best, but if the NMP has ideas on how we can bring these points across better, to younger people, we will be very happy to hear from him.


12. Thank you.


Law and order