Public Order Bill: Civil society groups call to narrow definition of 'serious incident'

The crowd watches as Dr Paul Tambyah speaks during the water price hike protest at Hong Lim Park, on March 11, 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - 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 on Tuesday (March 13).

Introduced in Parliament last month ( February), the Bill is part of the Home Affairs Ministry's plans to combat terrorism.

The six groups are: gender equality group Aware, Function 8, Project X which focuses on sex workers, human rights group Think Centre, plus Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), both of which focus on migrant workers.

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

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 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".

The six groups, however, contend that 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 argue 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," they added.

Another of their contention is the Bill's communications stop order, which 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.

The order also prevents people from communicating with their families to reassure them, the groups said, adding: "More importantly, the public would not be able to send the police information that may be useful to the police.''

"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.

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