Public order Bill

Call to narrow definition of 'serious incident'

Six civil society groups say Bill treats peaceful protests in the same way as terrorist violence

Six civil society groups have jointly urged the Government to narrow the definition of "serious incident" in a proposed law that gives the police special powers on such an occasion.

Peaceful protests should not come under the ambit of the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, they said yesterday.

The six groups are: Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), Function 8, Project X, Think Centre, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, and Transient Workers Count Too.

Introduced in Parliament last month, the Bill seeks to arm the police with powers to deal with serious public order and safety incidents, including terrorist attacks. This is, however, only for situations authorised by the Home Affairs Ministry.

The proposed law's definition of what constitutes a "serious incident" includes a terrorist act, serious violence affecting the public, and acts causing large-scale public disorder.

An example of an act with such potential disorder is a sit-down demonstration for a cause that attracts plenty of sympathisers who join in voluntarily, and their growing "presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area".

Another example cited in the Bill is a group protesting in the street that grows in size and protesters start to destroy nearby vehicles and throw projectiles.

The six groups said the Bill "treats peaceful protests in the same way as terrorist violence, but they are fundamentally different, as they are non-violent and do not threaten public safety".

They contend that with existing strict laws against assembly, the police are "already empowered to respond to them as they would any prohibited activity, and have done so". "Special powers are not needed," their statement added.

In voicing their "serious concerns" about the Bill, the groups also said a communications blackout and ban on independent documentation of such incidents would "heighten public distrust and undermine social cohesion".

The Bill's communications stop order requires people to stop making or communicating films or pictures of the incident area, and stop communicating text or audio messages about the security operations.

They find the ban on making films and pictures particularly puzzling as it "gives rise to fears of undocumented abuse of police powers", arguing that should there be disputes later about police actions, "the police would benefit from independent documentation".

"We cannot always assume all future governments will act with as much restraint as today's Government," they said. "Civil society is an important check and balance to ensure good governance, and we should be careful not to enact laws that have the effect of undermining this mechanism."

The Bill will be debated next week when Parliament sits, and the groups hope MPs will debate it robustly and the Government will allow time for public consultation on the scope of the Bill and the special powers for the police.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Call to narrow definition of 'serious incident''. Print Edition | Subscribe