Parliamentary Speeches

Public Order (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Wrap Up – Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 03 April 2017

1. Madam Speaker, I thank the members who joined in the debate. I will respond to points on amendments dealing with event security first. 


2. Businesses will plan with a certain turnout in mind and they will have to notify the Police, within a prescribed period. They will have to give their best assessment of what they reasonably expect the crowd turnout to be. We recognise that this will be a subjective exercise because they would have to plan for the venue, they would have to plan for the logistics and therefore they would have an idea of what the crowd size would be. If that crowd size is exceeded, but they had exercised due diligence in their assessment, then that would not be an offence, obviously. But a deliberate under assessment, if that can be shown, of course it has got to be shown by the prosecution, that is a different matter. So this example where you expect 4,999, I think all of us had some experience in organising events and I would be surprised if the Police are not surprised that someone comes up and says I expect 4,999, and I think that person can expect a more detailed assessment from the Police. 


3. Mr Mahdev Mohan asked if different classes of events we prescribe will be sufficiently clear and distinguished. If I may refer to the specific clause, I think he was concerned about Clause 3, Section 6(c) - for the purposes of sub-section 1, where Minister may prescribe different numbers of individuals to different classes of events, I think the concern is if there would be good faith exercised. Really, I would like to say to Members, we are trying to prescribe security for different types of events. Standing here today, you and I know different events will have different types of security signature. An event relating to a concert will be very different from a public event that deals with race or religion. These are matters that can only be decided based on the nature of the event, based also on international/regional events and surroundings, and then make an assessment. Which is why it is difficult to prescribe upfront in the legislation, and why the discretion has to be given to the Commissioner and the Executive. 


4. The underlying rationale and principle for that particular clause is for the Commissioner to direct the taking of specific security steps. It is not to say "don't hold it", it is to say "I think this event is going to require barricades, this event is going to require this kind of security, I think we got to check the bags". I do not think it can be suggested the exercise is going to be handled in bad faith. The Police will give the guidelines to the event organisers on what measures to be implemented, how the framework is to be implemented and they will give examples too. What is a reasonable expectation of the size of the crowd? It is again a question of fact. You look at past events, similar events. You look at the logistical planning for the event, you look at the venue. So predicting the turnout accurately may be difficult and no one is saying that you have to be accurate, but you are required to make the best effort to estimate the crowd size. See, we are all in this situation because of international events. You do not want what happened in Berlin or Nice or Istanbul to happen here. And so everyone has got to play a part. The vast majority of events at Speakers' Corner will not attract this kind of threshold crowds. 


5. Mr Ng asked if organisers will deliberately under report, to avoid being declared a special event. I think I made it clear, deliberate under reporting will be an offence. If the investigations reveal that the organisers planned for a much larger crowd size but failed to notify the Police, then that will be an offence. 


6.    Mr Mohan asked about costs, and where event organisers do not implement the measures, and the Police step in to put in those measures. In the end, the Government is incurring the cost on behalf of the taxpayers, or in fact all citizens of Singapore. If the Commissioner of Police put in those security measures, and have to pay for it, then that, as I said, would be recovered as a civil debt. Separately, non-compliance with the Commissioner's directions would be a criminal offence. But really we do not want to get there. We want events to succeed. We want event organisers to work with the Police, to make sure that it is secure and everyone to have a great event at as reasonable a framework as possible and as reasonable a cost as possible. 


7. Mr Ng asked if grants can be given for civil society groups to pay for security measures. I have made the point. The tax payer is bearing a huge part of this cost already, in terms of what the Police have to do, in terms of providing for security. This is now time for everyone in society to step up and bear different parts of the cost. So the question is how much should the taxpayer pay, and how much should the event organiser pay? Where there is a very substantive event, I think it is only fair that the event organiser pays a part of the cost for additional security measures that have to be implemented because of the expected crowd size – bag checking, barricades and so on. I think it is unfair to expect the general, average citizen of Singapore to pay for every event, 100 per cent of the cost. The citizen of Singapore is paying for a very substantial part of the cost, anyway. 


8. Mr Melvin Yong asked about the need to ensure that security officers are well trained to carry out their duties. Licensed security officers will need to be trained before they are deployed to carry out tasks. For example, how do you do security screening for individuals, how do you use walk through metal detectors, how do you use hand held metal detectors? We will require the training to meet the standards of the security WSQ and training providers will need to be accredited. This is something that needs to be done. My Ministry is working closely with the security industry. We hope to develop an industry transformation map and what we need to achieve is for the industry to offer high quality services which offer the right quality and is sustainable from a manpower perspective. We will consider Mr Yong's suggestions on progressive wage model, promoting greater use of technology. I think greater use of technology is a no-brainer and we will obviously have to work on these things. 


9. That was on event security. There is a second part which I said on the amendments which relates to foreigners using Singapore to promote political causes. Here, we have to bear in mind, the Act was first put in place several years ago in 2009. What we sought to do was to strike a balance between adequate space for political expression and society's need for order and stability. By and large, that has been achieved and we have worked the Act quite successfully all these years.


10. So the amendments today relate to foreign participation. It is not about local participation. So I sat listening to the very passionate speech by Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Kok, but I wonder if we are moving like ships in the dark in the sea. The Bill says one thing but Mr Kok's speech pretty much has nothing to do with the Bill. Now let me explain why. 


11. Mr Kok said, "we have made positive steps to engage citizens in policy making. I believe this strategy should be encouraged. Actively engaged citizenry is possible only with political discourse, involvement of the people. This in turn allows us to develop deeper understanding and our citizens trust and confidence in the political system grows and they will feel invested in the country's development in strategic direction". 


12. Mr Kok also said it should not always be top-down and bottom up but we have to trust our citizenry. All of that, I don't think I disagree with, and it would make a good political speech at some point. But what does that have to do with the amendments? 


13. If you look at the amendments, in particular Clause 4, and I don't think the Member has actually gone through Clause 4. Section 7(1) deals with the Commissioner receiving notice of the application and deciding whether to grant the permit or refusing to grant the permit. That is not being changed, that is not being amended. Clause 2 shows that the Commissioner has the discretion to refuse to grant a permit, may refuse to grant a permit, if the assembly or procession may occasion public disorder or damage public property etc, a, b, c, d, e ,f, g, all of that is not being amended. I think Mr Kok has not had any problem with any of those up to now. At least that is within the law. And then h is new. We need to focus on h and not have a broad general political speech for ideas. 


14. So if you look at h, it says, it is directed towards a political act and to be organised by or involve the participation of any of the following persons – an entity that is not a Singapore entity or an individual who is not a citizen of Singapore. Sub clause 3 then relates back to this and what directed towards a political end means. The key condition is that this event is not being organised by a Singapore entity or individuals who are not citizens of Singapore. Essentially, foreign involvement. Now what does that got to do with bottom-up, top-down, trust in citizenry, empowered citizenship? In fact, I would say, have more faith in our citizens. Don't just hope for foreign involvement in organising events. Why don't we have confidence that our own people can organise and take part in civic activities? 


15. Look at Pink Dot. Last year, my Ministry made it clear that we will not agree to foreign participation. As a Government, we do not take a position for or against Pink Dot, but we do take a position against foreign involvement in events like Pink Dot. That is not new, that has always been the law. We made that clear last year that this year we do not want to see foreign participation. If you look at the media, newspaper reports, Singapore companies have stepped up. Again, I take no position but the point is, this is a matter for Singaporeans, Singapore companies, Singapore entities to discuss without the involvement of foreign culture wars, and that is the purpose of the amendment.


16. The purpose of the amendment therefore, actually fits in with what you said. Which is why I listened with some degree of perplexity as to what the thrust of the speech was. 


17. So all these other points, your question then is for the alternative Singaporean, is the amended POA going to him or her from good solid political engagement. As you can see from the amendments, none of that is really germane. So Mr Kok, if you don't mind, I won't deal with all the other points that you made along the same lines about local citizenry and active participation because that is not what this Bill deals with. 


18. You might say some of those points may potentially be relevant for the first part where really there might be some increased costs but that I have explained is necessary from a hard security perspective. But from the perspective of foreign involvement, I think I stand on very good grounds. Let me give you some illustrations. I have said it is something that we need to bear in mind that foreign involvement may not just be, you know certain types of foreigners come in and take part to organise, but also directed by foreign state agencies. I don't think you will support that. I don't think any Singaporean will support that. I think it is a cleaner rule to say foreigners do not engage. It is not a hard rule. I have told you the Commissioner may, the Commissioner has the discretion and as to whether that makes the Commissioner political, I will come back to it in a minute. 


19. The kind of events, even with the political dimension, if it doesn't involve foreigners, then it is not affected by these particular amendments. So let's be clear about that. 


20. Why are we making this amendment? The balance between public space for political expression and social order and stability is really different when it comes to foreigners. Foreigners must not take our public space for granted to advocate a political cause whether in Singapore, relating to Singapore or outside of Singapore. 


21. You mentioned the context of animal welfare. Let me give you four examples as to how this might impact. Let's say you have an event. Malaysians finance an event in Singapore and take part in an event in Singapore and encourage Singaporeans to come take part in an event in Singapore that says Syariah Law should be imposed. Do you think we should agree to Malaysians taking part and financing the event? The answer is obvious, isn't it? 


22. Let me give you a second example. Let us say finance comes from America, to organise an event, combine with locals and they want to call it anti-LGBT rally. Do you think we should agree to that? The answer is clear. 


23. Let me give a third example because this cuts across all religions and races. Let us take the Myanmar Buddhists, they want to organise an event in Singapore and combine with our Buddhists to protest against the Rohingyas. Do you think we should agree? Our Singaporeans organising protests is one thing. Foreign financed, foreign participated protests are a completely different ballgame. We have been successful by being very firm about that. Let us not change the rules, the current amendments keep to that philosophy and that rule. 


24. Let me give you a specific example of animals and animal welfare. You would have read in the newspapers, in India there are states which now ban the slaughter of cows. Hindus, particularly targeted at Muslim sellers of meat. Supposing, under the rubric of animal welfare, Indians from India want to finance, Hindus from India want to finance an animal welfare event in Singapore protesting against the selling of beef in Singapore and they want to involve Singapore Hindus. It has targeted groups along the lines of people who sell such meat and they say this whole thing is animal welfare. Do you think we should allow? So you see, this has shades of complexity. And any attempt to define upfront political event and non-political event, will run into these shades of complexity. All you will end up doing is creating many alley ways, in which your definition would be made useless and you would be made a laughing-stock.


25. So, I can understand the desire for clarity. But in this field, to define this with absolute clarity, in the way that you want, first, your reasons for wanting them, I assure you, is not quite what the Bill seeks to do. It doesn't seek to cut back on Singaporeans' rights in the context of these amendments. But the absolute clarity that you seek, if we try to define it, is not going to achieve what we want to achieve. So really, then it becomes a question of philosophy which then touches on a little bit on what Mr Mohan talked about as well. What you would have to do, is then to give that discretion to the Executive, in this case, the Commissioner of Police. That is why, the word is "may" and that word has been there since 2009, and you have to trust the Commissioner of Police. 90% of Singaporeans trust the Police, as I read from another survey to this House a few weeks ago. The alternative is then to run to Court each time somebody is not happy. That is not the way you can run a proper Government. The way we have run the Government, successfully and cleanly with the right outcomes, has been to vest the discretion in many areas in the Executive, with the knowledge that a highly educated population will call the Executive to account if there is abuse of that power. In the context here, we are specifically dealing with the Commissioner looking at an event and saying that it is political, political ends, involving foreigners. I don't think Singaporeans will argue with this, of giving the Commissioner the discretion to make that assessment. One that deals with the welfare of dogs and kittens, may pass muster. One that deals with the welfare of cows, specifically in terms of slaughter, or eating as meat, may not pass master. It depends, may or may not pass muster. Depends on who is involved, depends on what's the purpose, and depends on who is financing it – which foreigner, which foreign group. 


26. So, basic question, in the absence of the possibility of being able to define it without becoming ridiculous, then you'll have to vest that discretion. You vest that discretion, you give that framework, and it works. That's the way we've worked. For the rest of that section, that is the way that section is now re-worked in respect of foreign participation.


27. If the Commissioner declares an event to be a political event, that does not make him political. He is not deciding in favour of one conclusion or another. He has to make an assessment based on the provisions as to whether it is directed towards political ends, regardless of how that question is to be answered. It may go in favour of this political end or that political end. That's not his question. His is a threshold question. Does it involve politics/political ends? Also, Mr Kok was concerned that the amendments somehow restricts civil societies' access to foreign expertise and knowledge. Most of the avenues for civil societies to tap on foreign expertise and knowledge is untouched. We are now only dealing with public assemblies and processions. What may amount to public assemblies. So there continues to be plenty of avenues for civil societies to learn from others. We are talking about people marching, public assemblies, advocating specific causes, change. I agree that the way the definition is, is broad and it can cover many aspects. So you can have the Commissioner looking at it and say "is this something that will cause public disorder, is that a threat, what sort of foreign involvement is this, how does it impact on us?" Those are assessments that he's got to make. 


28. There were also questions on what might be a measure of public controversy. It's not a new definition, it's contained and also considered in Films Act as to what is a political matter.


29. Mr Mohan made the specific point as to whether this will stifle free speech but by reference to Clause 3, which gives a discretion for different numbers and different events, I have dealt with that. On the Commissioner's discretion on clause 4 and his powers to modify, I will explain how it works. People have to make an assessment as to what numbers they expect and they come to the Commissioner within the prescribed period. And then the Commissioner makes an assessment and tells them that these are the measures I want you to put in place. What we don't want is a long bargaining session with the Commissioner where they say "I'll put up barricades, but I don't want to put Auxiliary Police Officers" and that sort of arguments. A simple, clean, neat, effective way, giving power to the Commissioner to decide what security measures, I think is the best way to go.


30. As to whether there is a recourse from the Commissioner's decision, the existing Section 11 allows a person who is aggrieved with the Commissioner's decision to appeal to the Minister. So there is that appeal process and the Minister can allow the appeal either in full or in part.


31. Madam Speaker, I think I have covered all the points, and if I have not, I am sure Members will let me know.


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