Singapore: Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Posted by Sinapan Samydorai under Human Rights Watch on 5 August 2005

There are still many restrictive laws which limit the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

On 22 August 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, made his first National Day Rally speech, calling for a more open and inclusive society. In Singapore, there are still many restrictive laws which limit the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Constitutional Rights to Freedom of Speech, Assembly & Association includes freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble peacefully and without arms, and freedom to form association. At the Speakers Corner, citizens are free to speak. But the Speech must not be inflammatory towards any race, religion, and/or against the interest of national security and public order.

Various restrictions are enforced by legislations and rules such as:
Sedition Act
Undesirable Publications Act
Newspaper and Printing Presses Act
Penal Code
Internal Security Act
Public entertainment Act
Trade Unions Act
Societies Act
Mutual Benefit Organization Act
Rules and regulations on Speakers Corner

The laws state any gathering of 5 persons in a "public place", could be considered by the authorities as an illegal assembly. Even indoors meetings face the same restrictions. The Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, section 5 (1): "The Minister may make rules: (a) regulating assemblies and processions in public roads, public places and places of public resort..."

29 July 2005: The minister made following rule "Under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) (Assemblies and Procession) Rules 1989, a permit is required for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort intended: (a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person;
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign;or
(c) to mark or commemorate any event."

The Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act defines "public place" as: "Any place or premises to which at the material time the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission."

The Public Entertainments and Meetings Act: "No public entertainment shall be provided except:
(a) in an approved place; and
(b) in accordance with a licence issued by the Licensing Officer."

The Schedule appended to the Act, defines "public entertainment," inter alia, "(m) any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion;"

To speak one needs a Public Entertainment Licence. To invite more than 4 persons, Police Permit is required, issued pursuant to the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act.

In Think Centre's experience, when the Public Entertainment Licence Unit issues the license the gathering is considered a legal assembly.

The Prime Minister at the 2004 National Day Rally Speech said: "... for indoor talks, we are going to do away with licensing. Right now, if you are going outdoors or indoors, if you want to do a talk you need a public entertainment licence. Usually it's approved. It's not a problem. But once in a while... you are slow or the police have reservations, they say 'no'. But it's very rare. So now we've decided we are going to exempt indoor talks from licensing requirements unless they touch on sensitive issues like race and religion."

28 August 2004, the Straits Times reported the police "refinements to licensing requirements", for a lecture, discussion or debate to qualify for exemption from licensing as:
* Only Singaporeans can speak, no foreigners;
* Must steer clear of issues related to race or religion;
* Must be in the four official languages or related dialects;
* Must be in an enclosed space "and which is not within the hearing or view of any person who is not attending or participating".

Think Centre had organized a number of indoor forums without any need for licences. But in May 2005, Think Centre had to obtain a licences for a "vigil" against the death penalty held at the Furama Hotel [indoor gathering].

At present laws require permit for any assembly or procession of 5 or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort.This is too restrictive. Think Centre hopes that the government will allow gatherings of 20 or less persons without the need for permits.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Think Centre Singapore: Constitutional Rights

Sg_Review Indoor Forums - A Mysterious Silence

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