Peaceful protests are not the target of a new law to deal with serious incidents like a terror attack, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said yesterday.
The issue had emerged as a sticking point during the debate on the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill in Parliament, with MPs zeroing in on an example of a sit-down demonstration in the legislation.
The example was one of a few used to illustrate what constitutes a "serious incident", which would lead to the invoking of the law and possible use of lethal weapons to disperse an assembly or procession. Specifically, it illustrates an act that could cause large-scale public disorder.
Some MPs such as Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) had asked why acts causing large-scale public disorder are considered serious incidents on the same scale as violent acts of terrorism.
To this, Mrs Teo said "not every protest will meet the high threshold to be considered a serious incident".
The illustration in the Act is of a protracted sit-down demonstration that lasts over a week. It also involves a large and growing group occupying public spaces in the Central Business District, and interfering with daily activities such as the flow of traffic.
TO BE USED ONLY WHEN NEEDED
Not every protest will meet the high threshold to be considered a serious incident.
MRS JOSEPHINE TEO, Second Minister for Home Affairs, on whether the new law would be used against protests.
Mrs Teo said such significant disruption to the lives of ordinary Singaporeans could lead to agitation and cause tensions to rise, and "if it is not diffused, things could quickly turn chaotic".
But she added that the law will be invoked only if the situation deteriorates and the threat of large-scale public disorder or violence becomes imminent.
Contrary to assertions of some civil society groups, said Mrs Teo, the law will not be applied to peaceful demonstrations that do not cross this threshold. She warned, though, that peaceful demonstrations can quickly spiral into violence and threaten public safety.
The London Riots in 2011, for example, started as a peaceful demonstration against a court ruling but degenerated into rioting, looting, and setting buildings and vehicles on fire, leading to death and injuries, she said.
"The point is this: Peaceful intent does not guarantee peaceful outcomes," she added.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked if such incidents can be dealt with under existing legislation, such as the Penal Code, instead.
But Mrs Teo said some powers of the new law are not found in any existing laws.
For instance, in the case of a growing demonstration that could get chaotic, the police may need to order nearby premises to close, impose a cordon and direct people to stay out of the area. This is to reduce the risk of property damage, or prevent the crowd from building up further.
Powers under the new Act are "necessary to do this", she said.
She added: "Where possible, we will indeed use existing laws to deal with such situations."
In fact, said Mrs Teo, the police have had the powers to deal with large-scale public disorder under the Public Order (Preservation) Act, which was enacted in 1958 and will be repealed by the new law.
But they have only invoked the powers once since independence, in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot, to control alcohol consumption, calm the situation and prevent further violence, she added.
Even then, this was "tightly scoped", she said.
Citing the illegal protests on the Malaysian elections that took place in the Merlion Park in 2013, Mrs Teo said the police had issued 74 conditional warnings under the Public Order Act then, instead of invoking the Public Order (Preservation) Act.
"Our record is clear and consistent. We have never used the Public Order (Preservation) Act against political dissent," she added.