Parliament

Sedition laws, introduced in 1938, repealed after 83 years

Key aspects of Sedition Act have been irrelevant in modern S'pore

A law first introduced to curb local opposition to British colonial rule has been repealed after 83 years.

Key aspects of the Sedition Act have not been relevant in modern Singapore for a long time, and the law was hardly used for prosecutions, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament as he made the case for the law to be repealed.

At the same time, Singapore has enacted other laws over the years to deal with issues covered by the Act in a more targeted and calibrated manner.

With the repeal, the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code will also be amended to cover one aspect of the Act that is currently not in other laws - conduct that promotes ill will or hostility between groups of people in Singapore.

The crime of sedition, which has its origins in English common law, was originally designed to protect the monarchy and the British government from civil unrest and dissent among its own people.

Mr Shanmugam said sedition laws were first introduced in Singapore through the Sedition Ordinance of 1938, when Singapore was a British colony.

The current Sedition Act has its roots in the Sedition Ordinance of 1948, which was introduced by the British to the Federation of Malaya that year, in part to curb local opposition to British colonial rule.

At its heart, the Act criminalises conduct with seditious tendencies, including bringing the Government into hatred and contempt and raising discontent or disaffection among the citizens or residents of Singapore, among other things.

"The excitement of disaffection against the Government shouldn't be criminalised. If it is, a lot of people, including in this House, will be considered criminal," said Mr Shanmugam.

"But it wasn't done away with sooner, because some of the other provisions were relevant."

The Act has seen six prosecutions since 1965, and was last used in 2016, in the prosecution of the people behind The Real Singapore website, which had encouraged anti-foreigner sentiment through online posts.

Over the years, other pieces of legislation have been introduced to cover certain aspects of the Act in a more targeted and calibrated manner, said Mr Shanmugam.

For instance, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act deals with conduct that impugns the integrity and impartiality of judges, and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act makes it a crime to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between the different religious groups.

But one important aspect of the Act - on ensuring social cohesion between different groups within Singapore - does not currently come under other laws, and the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code will be amended to cover it, said Mr Shanmugam.

"Beyond racial and religious harmony, we must also continue to safeguard social cohesion between other groups of the population. They could be organised along the lines of language, socio-economic status, other groups," he added.

The Bill amends Section 267C of the Penal Code, which prohibits the making, possession or dissemination of material containing any incitement of violence against others, counselling others to disobey the law, or which is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.

The section will be extended to cover other acts, such as speeches and other verbal communications.

But the threshold will be raised for something to be considered an offence, by requiring proof of a "mental fault element".

This means the person must have intended for the violence, disobedience to the law, or breach of the peace to occur, or knew or had reason to believe that these were likely to occur to fall foul of the law.

Compared with the Sedition Act, the offence threshold will now be higher, noted Mr Shanmugam.

The phrase "counselling disobedience to the law" will also be defined as "providing of instruction, advice, or information that promotes disobedience to the law" to provide greater clarity on the scope of the offence and its application, he said.

In tandem with these changes, parts of the Criminal Procedure Code will also be amended so that the deliberate wounding of a person's racial or religious feelings, and publishing of material with the intent to incite one group to commit an offence against another group, become arrestable offences, among other conduct.

Workers' Party MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) asked why the amendments to the Penal Code do not include a time limit for prosecutions, which the Sedition Act had.

Mr Shanmugam said the offences that will be covered by the Penal Code are sui generis - or unique - and of a criminal nature, and so should not be fettered by a time limit for prosecutions.

He explained that under the Sedition Act, saying something that makes people upset at the Government or raising discontent among citizens were both considered offences. "So it is a very extreme legislation, and we are doing away with it," he said.

The minister said that based on its strict wording, "Mr Perera would have committed offences several times and I am likely to have committed offences several times as well, both in my previous incarnation and now".

Mr Perera also raised concerns that Section 267C of the Penal Code may criminalise people who are merely sharing information about civil disobedience.

But Mr Shanmugam said a person must have intended for violence, actual civil disobedience or breach of the peace to occur, or have a reason to believe his actions will lead to this, to commit an offence.

"Conveying information about civil disobedience is in and of itself not an offence," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2021, with the headline 'Sedition laws, introduced in 1938, repealed after 83 years'. Subscribe