The recent enactment of the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act or PO-ATM Act confirms that Singapore is still possessed by the “siege mentality” and a deep sense of insecurity. The authorities have always stressed how vulnerable the country is to economic, political and social threats and the leaders often remind the world of this . This insecurity forms the justification for many of the restrictive laws that the city-state has enacted to keep order.
However, even after being placed in the top 20 in the world for human development by the United National Development Programme (UNDP), consolidating its developed nation status in terms of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life, and firmly sealing it as a nation that “has arrived”, the ruling People’s Action Party still continues to stress Singapore’s vulnerability to maintain order and remain in control.
Draconian laws used in Emergency situation are still here
The Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) is only one of key legislations that provide a picture of a nation under emergency rule. It was originally put in place during the 1950’s period of turmoil and unrest. Today, in Singapore, we continue to live under its shadow alongside other draconian emergency-like laws including the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA), both of which permit detentions without trial.
In addition, the Public Order Act and the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (PEMA) ensure that any one person who wishes to demonstrate and protest is required to apply for a permit. But any individual who participates in peaceful assembly without the required license may face charges of illegal assembly. Other key laws restricting our freedom of speech and expression are the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, Broadcasting Act, Sedition Act, Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, Public Order Act, and the Films Act.
These draconian laws like the ISA make a crime of “guilt by association” and its executive detentions or preventive detentions can never be substantively challenged in court. These laws have worked to promote unnecessary fear among the people, discouraging them from freely associating with each other and foreign workers to dialogue on their concerns for their labour, civil and political rights.
Little India under Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act (PO-ATM)
The PO-ATM Act restricts any public assembly, whether indoor or outdoor in the Little India area, by requiring a police permit. In fact, from 1960 to 2009, a similarly restrictive law on public assembly (PEMA)was enforced on the whole country as any public indoor or outdoor meeting anywhere in Singapore required a police permit with the exception of Speakers’ Corner (since 2000).
Under the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA), clause 3 empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to declare a state of danger to public order within an area for one month. The Minister is required to renew this declaration of danger in order to extend it but it is limited to a month each time. However in the new Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act (PO-ATM), its declaration is enforceable for one full year.
Little India, is currently designated by PO-ATM Act as a “danger zone” for one year. Although it is known to be popularly frequented by migrant workers from South Asia, it is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. The effect of the Act regrettably targets this group of migrant workers and is most restrictive as there are few other places for them to gather and relax after a week of hard work. The enactment of this legislation has effectively threatened the survival of a number of small businesses in the area who are now facing a great blow to their earnings.
Residents’ complaints and workers complaints of discrimination not followed up
Powers from POPA and other existing laws were used to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol in the period after the riot. However, residents’ complaints of drunken workers have also existed for years and were even brought up in Parliament but the licensing of liqueur in the area which impact on many shop keepers and migrant workers was not subjected to review.
Earlier complaints of discrimination made by workers were not followed up either and no “whistle-blower protection” scheme exists. This prevents residents and migrant workers to raise issues of misconduct relating to those in positions of authority and the facilitation of accurate and timely reporting of such cases. The lack of sensitivity to pick up on these early signs and ineffectual follow up mechanisms essentially limited the scope of any remedy.
With Singapore looking to sign the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), it would reflect badly on the government’s efforts to eliminate discrimination. Think Centre urges the government to consider the welfare of both our local populace and growing concerns of migrant workers. This will help bring us closer to international standards in reducing discrimination.
Parliament rushed through the enactment of the PO-ATM Act
After the events of the night of 8th December 2013, a lot of discussions were generated on what might have led to the sudden flash of violence. A commission of inquiry (COI) is looking into answering that and other relevant issues to better understand the causes.
However, parliament has been very quick to have pushed through the enactment of the PO-ATM Act before sufficiently understanding what the underlying causes might be. Even before the COI had commenced its investigations, the government was quick to insist that there was no discrimination involved and that migrant workers were very contented in Singapore. Through the public sessions conducted by the COI, it was found that workers here have indeed felt discriminated against. The restrictive laws targeting the people who frequent the area will only worsen their sense of isolation. It would in all probability also worsen the prejudices that Singaporeans already hold against migrant workers.
Is Little India under Emergency?
An examination and comparison of the provisions in the PO-ATM Act with POPA and the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act would indicate that there is effectively a proclamation of emergency in Little India.
The PO-ATM Bill should have been placed on the agenda of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights due to the potential effects on the Constitutional Liberties (Chapter IV) of citizens living in the proclaimed area for discussion and to pronounce its position. Think Centre urges the Presidential Council for Minority Rights to look into the above implications of the Act.
Respect basic rights of all workers and stop the discrimination
Foreign workers are deprived of their basic legal rights to hold on to their passports as employers here still illegally confiscate them to ensure that the workers do not run away. At the same time discrimination of migrant workers is widespread. The earlier incident involving the SMRT drivers revealed the practice of paying different salaries for individuals from different countries doing the same job.
Many in Singapore especially the lowly paid local and foreign workers have suffered for a long time without any legislated minimum wage. Furthermore, there are no meaningful protections that can prevent companies from cutting wages in the name of profit and productivity while ministers earn millions and board of directors receive large bonuses. Think Centre argues that all these practices are incompatible with the peaceful and prosperous state of the nation.
Proposed EU-Singapore FTA calls to respect Core Labour Standards
The EU-Singapore FTA being proposed calls for a sustainable development that respects human rights and International Core Labour Standards to be monitored and reported by civil society. International Core Labour Standards seek to ensure decent work and a fair deal for all workers and prohibits discrimination at work.
The Singapore government needs to recognize such discrimination and not to just mislabel it as “comparative advantage” which only spurs on unscrupulous behaviour of companies toward workers. The International Core Labour Standards recognize these behaviours as exploitation and seek to tackle it as such.
Is Singapore still under emergency?
An EU representative to Malaysia had this to say of Malaysia in 2007, "Today, this country still lives under emergency" . The European Commission's envoy to Malaysia, Thierry Rommel, had spoken to Reuters by telephone on the last day of his mission to Malaysia.
Think Centre suggests that similarly, in light of the current Singapore reality, Singaporeans too live under emergency, albeit unknowingly. No government that continues to rule with an iron grip (à la emergency-rule) has ever truly allowed space for further democratic involvement such as checks and balances, transparency and accountability.
More “democratic space” is necessary to ensure transparency and accountability
In order to ensure more “democratic space”, “whistle-blower protection” instruments need to be invested in. This not only sends the signal but also provide the system with the means to ensure, that any problem, abuse, and corruption, will be detected early among any level of the public service. The sooner this is achieved, the better it will allow all residents to actively and constructively engage in our nation’s governance.
This is the kind of “democratic space” still lacking in our current state of nationhood, if we wish to ensure vibrancy and synergy of the Singaporean spirit and an innate resilience to weather future storms. The last three years have shown that the current system is not just cracking but moving towards buckling. Exhortations for governance by trust are no longer convincing except to a few. Singaporeans need and deserve a reformation of the current system.
Think Centre calls on the government to explain in parliament why such emergency like rules are still existent in a peaceful and wealthy Singapore
Is it true that our nation is in a peaceful and prosperous state? If so the Singapore government needs to publicly explain why such emergency like rule is necessary to govern a peaceful and wealthy nation?
Think Centre positions that within the realms of their responsibility, Singapore’s Members of Parliament need to review all these outmoded and colonial era laws and to replace them with laws reflecting the true reality of our nation. In today’s globalised world, laws including the Internal Security Act (ISA), Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA), Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (PEMA), Sedition Act and the Defamation Act, among others, are no longer appropriate and only serve to deny Singaporeans the right to participate in all aspects of society as citizens. Can Singapore progress as a nation in the next 50 years governed under emergency rule?