Published: 05 October 2021
1. I thank Members for their overwhelming support for this Bill to repeal the Sedition Act. The fact that only Mr Perera wanted to speak, I think that suggests overwhelming support, and he supports it as well. I thank him for that.
2. I will address the clarifications that Mr Perera has raised.
3. I think the first questions that he asked is a time limit for prosecution. Under the Sedition Act, actions have to be brought within six months, and there is no time limit under the amended provisions.
4. To understand this, I think we need to look at the Sedition Act a little carefully. We are talking about very different offences. Let me make that clear.
5. The six months time limit is in Section 5 of the Sedition Act. Section 5 then must relate back to Section 4. For example, Section 4(1)(a), any person who does, or attempts to do, or makes preparation to do, anything which would have a seditious tendency. So what’s important is seditious tendency. That in turn brings you back to Section 3(1), which defines what seditious tendency is.
6. A seditious tendency is a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or excite disaffection against the Government. If you look at (d), to raise discontent or disaffection among the citizens of Singapore, the residents of Singapore; (e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of a population of Singapore.
7. If you went out there and you said something that makes people upset with the Government of Singapore, under Section 3(1)(a), that is an offence. If you raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens, doesn’t matter whether it is against the Government or not, then that’s also an offence. So it is a very extreme legislation, and we are doing away with it. You can understand why a time limit of six months has been put.
8. As I said earlier, I think on the strict wordings of Section 3, Mr Perera would have committed offences several times and I am likely to have committed offences several times as well, both in my previous incarnation and now. Because you know, it talks about raising discontent, disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore, and exciting disaffection against the Government. And these all really, they haven’t been relevant for a very long time.
9. Now, over a period of time, different provisions have come up as I explained in my opening speech, Second Reading speech. For example, the Administration of Justice Act on contempt of court, on interfering with proceedings in court, on bringing disrepute to the judiciary. So there is legislation that deals with that. Section 267C takes some parts of Section 4, that’s really on violence, getting people to violently do something contrary to the law. So, there is no sui generis, taking of the Sedition Act and putting it in. What you now have in the other pieces of legislation are completely different animals. The essence or the heart of the Sedition Act is actually being done away with.
10. So, the rationale for the six months has got to be seen in the context of what the Sedition Act provides. In the other legislation, the normal criminal cases, you will take the normal criminal approach, which is that there is no time limit on prosecuting offences. So, for example, if you look at Section 267C, which is the amendment that is coming along, 267C of the Penal Code is an existing provision with no time limits. And it originally dealt with usage, making, printing, reproducing, distributing, communicating any incitement to violence. So, you can see that it is a very different type of offence: counselling disobedience to the law, or to lawful order of a public servant, which is likely to lead to a breach of the peace. So, it’s that sort of offence. It’s got nothing to do with exciting disaffection against the Government or making people unhappy. It is a very direct, focused offence, and we are making some changes there, including to the mental elements. So, specifically, we are covering statements made, words uttered, and reproduction sale offer for sale and importation of documents.
11. So that’s the reason why the six months requirement under the Sedition Act is not being ported over, because basically most of the key elements of the Sedition Act which kept the colonial rule in place are being done away with. Bits and pieces which are relevant for modern Singapore have already been moved out into other legislation. Now, one last bit is being moved out.
12. The second point that Mr Perera makes, on the counselling of civil disobedience and the mental element, again we look at Section 267C. Conveying information about civil disobedience is, in and of itself, not an offence under 267C.
13. Because if you look at 267C, it has got (1)(a), (b), (c), (d), then it says in the proposed amendments, the person does any of these things intending for violence, disobedience to the law, or such lawful order, or breach of the peace to occur. So the person must have intended for the violence, or the disobedience, or the breach of the peace to occur, or knowing or having reason to believe that such consequences will occur. And likewise under 267 subsection 2(d), there is also a requirement for knowing or having reason to believe, and intention.
14. So the mental elements are set out in the proposed amendments, which are at a higher level than what the Sedition Act requires.
15. The third point Mr Perera makes is why is it being made arrestable? Again, I think you need to compare Section 298, 298A, which are already in our statute books with Section 3(1). I just took the house through Section 3(1). And as I mentioned, a large number of us, probably have run afoul of Section 3(1), at one point of time.
16. The reason for low thresholds in Section 3(1) is due to its own history of maintaining colonial rule, and you have got to look at Section 3(1), and you got to see what is important is that 3(1)(a) is “a seditious tendency is a tendency to bring into hatred, or contempt or excite disaffection against the Government”. And then of course, you’ve got (b), (c), (d), (e), some of which have been moved over in the past. One aspect is being moved over now.
17. And then Section 3(2) says it shall not be deemed to be seditious by reason only that you are trying to show that the Government has been misled or mistaken. Or you’re pointing out errors or defects in the Government as by law established. Or you’re trying to persuade the citizens of Singapore or the residents of Singapore to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Singapore. Or to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes. So, you see, this has got really nothing to do with the offences that are now found in other legislation including the slight amendments to Section 267C, which is on counselling disobedience to the law, or with a view to breaking the law.
18. The Sedition Act Section 3 subsection 2(d) has some reference to producing feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes, but you must look at it in the light also of Section 3 subsection 3, which says that the intention of the person charged at the time he did some of these things, seditious words, are irrelevant. So, your intention is irrelevant. If you did what you did and it has these tendencies, then you are liable under the law. Your intention, your knowledge, is completely irrelevant. So, it is a very different animal, very different kind of offence, and one could almost say very sui generis. We are not going down that route.
19. If you look at Section 298 and 298A, which by the way is not an issue today, it’s if you by words, spoken or written, or by signs or visible representation, promote or attempt to promote on the grounds of religion or race, ill-will, and commits any act which he knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious groups, that’s 298A. So, the element of intention is incorporated in 298A(b). 298 refers to deliberate intention. It’s relevant today insofar as offences are being made arrestable.
20. So, one can ask, does it have to be made arrestable? What is the prejudice? And those are fair questions. The answer is I don’t think the question can be asked by reference to the Sedition Act which, as I said, deals with quite different subjects and the exceptions don’t extend to the context of these provisions. But I think it is legitimate to ask, do you need to make it arrestable and I think the counter question is what is the prejudice if it is made arrestable? It allows the Police to move faster, it allows the Police to intervene and these are serious matters and that is a matter of judgement.
21. I think Mr Perera’s fourth and final point, is whether the MRHA amendments are already in force. No, they are not yet in force. I think we answered a PQ in September. The amendments were passed in 2019. But normally with many such legislation, which affects a large group of people on the ground – here it is all the religious organisations. They have to make disclosures. They have compliance requirements. You cannot just bring the Act into force without making sure and religious organisations are differently resourced. Some are well resourced. Some are less well-resourced, and some are essentially a very small operation. So, you need to give time to all of them to resource themselves and being able to comply with the requirements of the legislation. In fact, you need to take time to educate them, talk to them about the requirements. We also have to make sure that our own systems are set up which are able to receive the information that comes through.
22. Another subject which I have spoken about quite frequently in this House is that we are short of officers and we now have to find officers who can be trained to deal with these specific returns that the religious groups will be giving. So, there are a number of different factors here. So, we will do this as quickly as we can. As I have said, the training of the Investigation Officers on the thresholds for the amended offences, is ongoing and that will take a little bit of time. But also, the ground, as in the religious organisations, will also need a little bit of time. Our systems need a little bit of time. So, we will bring it into force as soon as these things are in sync.
23. Madam, once again, I thank Members for their support of the Bill.