Singapore's apex court upholds law requiring police permits for public assemblies

The Apex court noted that the rights to peaceful assembly conferred by Singapore's Constitution are subject to certain restrictions and are not unlimited. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Court of Appeal has dismissed a challenge to the constitutional validity of a law requiring organisers of public assemblies to obtain police permits.

Social worker and activist Jolovan Wham had contended that the permit requirement under the Public Order Act (POA) violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which protects the right to peaceful assembly.

He had made the argument in his appeal against his conviction and sentencing in a case involving a 2016 event he had organised, which featured a speech by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong delivered live over video conferencing.

The "Civil Disobedience and Social Movements" event was organised by Wham for, in his words, the purpose of discussing "the role of civil disobedience and democracy" in effecting social change.

In its grounds of decision released on Friday (Nov 6), the apex court noted that the rights conferred by Article 14 are subject to certain restrictions and are not unlimited.

The court - consisting of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang, Judith Prakash, Tay Yong Kwang and Steven Chong - also noted that the POA regulates which assemblies require a permit and the grounds for refusing to grant such a permit.

The law sets out some exceptions for certain events, including indoor public assemblies organised by and only involving Singapore citizens.

But the court said a permit was clearly required for the event organised by Wham as it involved a non-Singaporean political activist.

Under Section 7(2) of the POA, the Commissioner of Police may refuse to grant a permit for a public assembly if there are reasonable grounds to believe that one or more undesirable results pertaining to public order may occur.

This includes public assemblies that may be directed towards a political end and be organised by or involve the participation of non-citizens of Singapore.

"It is, unfortunately, an inescapable fact of modern life that national politics anywhere are often the target of interference by foreign entities or individuals who are promoting their own agendas," said the Court of Appeal.

"And with the wonderful technology now available, such entities or individuals can carry out their activities from anywhere else in the world."

In its judgment, the court said Section 7(2) of the POA "achieves a careful balance between the constitutional right to peaceably assemble and the delineation of the restriction imposed on that right".

Although the law does not exempt events involving foreigners, and the Constitution does not extend rights to foreigners, the court noted that the Commissioner can still exercise discretion to allow such events if he believes that the nature of the assembly, the speaker or the topic will not pose any sort of a threat to public order.

"It is worth reiterating that in the present case, (Wham) could have organised the very same event on the very same topic at the very same public venue without having to apply for a permit had all the speakers at the event been Singaporeans," the court said.

"In regard to setting up a permit scheme and the delegation of the permit granting power to the Commissioner, this is a wholly reasonable and well-trodden approach by Parliament."

The court further said that Wham was wrong to suggest that he had "no real or effective remedy against any decision which had been made by the Commissioner in bad faith or otherwise to deny him the necessary permit to carry out the public assembly".

Wham had argued through his lawyers that the permit requirement subjects a citizen's constitutional rights entirely to the Commissioner's act of granting a permit even if the decision not to grant the permit is made unconstitutionally.

He was represented by Mr Eugene Thuraisingam, Mr Suang Wijaya and Mr Johannes Hadi of the Eugene Thuraisingam law firm.

Wham also argued that citizens who have their permit applications denied have no real remedy to challenge such decisions made in bad faith.

These arguments had earlier been dismissed by judges in the State Courts and the High Court.

The Court of Appeal said that if Wham had applied for a permit and the Commissioner had refused to grant one, he could have appealed the decision to the minister or made an application for a judicial review.

He could then have contended that the actual exercise of the Commissioner's or Minister's discretion not to grant the permit was tainted by bad faith, or by improper considerations, or was otherwise unconstitutional.

But Wham had never applied for a permit in the first place, the court noted.

"No application having been made, there was no decision that could be impugned on any basis. No question of remedies arose at all in (Wham's) situation."

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