Friday, April 27, 2012

Freedom of Assembly in Singapore

This Saturday 28 Apr 2012, BERSIH SG 3.0 will gather opposite Sultanah Aminah Hospital in JB at 1.30pm since the permit for Hong Lim Park picnic was rejected. Hong Lim park is just like any other parks in our neighbourhood with a lost purpose. The Speakers’ Corner is will soon be converted into a playground or a row of BBQ pits. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be more plausible for a bunch of Malaysians and Singaporeans to gather in a picnic setting at Hong Lim Park rather than knowingly allow them to march into JB in yellow tops? At least we know such an event is happening in designated location in Singapore which can be easily curtailed by the government if security is the main concern.

BERSIH, meaning ‘clean’ in Malay language, is a march for free and fair elections with a firm anti-corruption stance. It is a common knowledge that such events will not be celebrated and encouraged by the Singapore government no matter how ‘peaceful’ as it disturbs law and order. Despite the venue ban, thousands are expected to sit-in Dataran Merdeka Kuala Lumpur Duduk Bantah on 28 April 2012, a much anticipated event will take place concurrently worldwide including Singapore.

Many Singaporeans were alarmed and disturbed to see ‘outsiders’ conduct their peaceful assemblies and demonstrations in Singapore so as not to leave the impression Singapore supports foreign anti-government practices.  The incumbent has claimed to be a world-class government, so they must walk-the-talk and be receptive to peaceful assemblies and ‘picnics’. The society is made up of thinking generation who are not afraid to fight for their rights and freedom of expression. If you don’t play along with the game, the government will lose support from the masses just like what is happening now in UMNO, and a near-miss in the last GE2011. Malaysian government is trying to break away from rigidity as seen in their recent policy tweakings and gradual leniency in freedom of expression. Maybe Singapore should follow suit and take some lessons from BERSIH 2.0 and 3.0.

Lessons from Bersih 2.0

The enthusiasm was also felt here as Malaysians who live and work in Singapore have identified themselves as BERSIH 2.0 Singapore planned a picnic gathering at Hong Lim park on 9 Jul 2011, a mirrored event alongside other major countries worldwide. They called themselves “guests in Singapore and have no wish to do anything that is not within the confines of Singapore law”, turned up in yellow tops to show solidarity and lend their support to fellow friends in KL. There were no speeches and demonstrations. 

After a messy man-handling during BERSIH 2.0, Malaysian Home Affairs Minister, Datuk Hishammuddin recently released a statement indicating the Malaysian government is slowly embracing democracy and freedom of expression for BERSIH 3.0. Hishammuddin professed that peaceful public assemblies was not a security concern as long as demonstrators abide to the regulations. He also announced that there will be an increase  in police presence to administer the assembly. Malaysian government have learned well from their over-reaction during BERSIH 2.0 in KL. Despite many denials, the Malaysian government was directly responsible for the escalation and brought the Malaysians to this deadlock.  

Likewise, the Singapore government has taken the view that this freedom of assembly should be curtailed for the fear of disruption. The fact that we are still fearful of racial riots after 40 years clearly shows the backwardness of thinking and our inability to let go of the past. However, Singapore government has not close its door entirely to all peaceful assemblies. In the past, Free Burma Protest and have demonstrated that there is a possibility of public assembly and demonstration with strict adherence to regulations. 

More than 10,000 supporters for the Freedom to Love campaign turned up in pink tops at Pink Dot 2011 picnic and concert at Hong Lim Park on 18 June 2011.  It was a success whereby the public were invited to attend but non-Singaporeans and non-PRs are not allowed to be within the dot formation when the time comes. They were however, invited to watch the formation from a designated observation area. In another case, some 40 Burmese citizens gathered at Hong Lim Park to call for boycott of the elections in 30 Oct 2010 “No To Burma’s Sham Elections” organised by the Free Burma Campaign Singapore (FBCSG)

Why Singapore should allow peaceful assemblies? 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the general assembly in 1948 declares "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". 

An assembly should be deemed peaceful if its organizers have professed peaceful intentions and the conduct of the assembly is non-violent from a number of individuals in a public place for a common expressive purpose. The term “peaceful” should be interpreted to include conduct that may annoy or give offence, and even conduct that temporarily hinders, impedes or obstructs the activities of third parties. People can gather peacefully for a cause.  Just like how the Christians attend church mass and Muslims congregate for prayers on Fridays. All these are peace assemblies with a purpose to render support for the respective inclination. The right to assemble peacefully, together with freedom of expression and freedom of association, rests at the core of any functioning democratic system. 

Let’s take a look at the GE2011 rallies. Thousands of Singaporeans flocked the designated public spaces. Those were large-scale public gatherings with no disruptions to the law and order. Everyone were there for a same purpose and show support for the respective parties. A series of peaceful assemblies with everyone in safe and sound. 

Despite PM Lee Hsien Loong's call to promote increased political awareness, in reality it is still moving vapidly and unyielding towards new challenges. An open and mature society should have an equally open and mature government. 

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