Art is Not a Crime – Joint Statement by CAN and Function 8

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Police arrest artist Seelan Palay following a peaceful performance outside Parliament House. Photo courtesy of TOC

Function 8 and Community Action Network (CAN) are deeply troubled and saddened by the arrest of artist Seelan Palay outside Parliament House on Sunday, 1 Oct 2017. He has been released on police bail since yesterday and is subjected to severe restrictions including restrictions on travels.

Seelan Palay was merely practising his profession as an artist when he demonstrated how a free mind cannot be constrained by space such as Hong Lim Park. The video at http://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen/videos/10155815921176383 illustrates his free spiritedness when he started his performance in the muddy park of Hong Lim and walked along South Bridge Road to his destinations at City Hall (now National Gallery) and Parliament House where he was arrested.

All along the way, there was no agitated crowd or violence. Artist Seelan Palay’s demeanour throughout his journey was that of a serious art practitioner. He did not indulge in words except to briefly explain his art and answer questions posed to him by police officers.

Article 14 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association. We do not see any harm or damage that can be caused to Singapore by artist Seelan Palay’s performance. Indeed his artistic performance contributes to the making of Singapore as a city of art and culture. His performance definitely does not warrant his arrest.

Further, bystanders watching artist Seelan Palay’s performance and ultimate arrest were intimidated and harassed by police officers who demanded their personal identity card particulars. This is totally illegal and should cease immediately as Singapore is not at war or under a state of emergency.

We call upon the Singapore police to cease harassment and intimidation of activists and release artist Seelan Palay from all restrictions.

Function 8 and Community Action Network

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Police should stop harassing civil society activists

On 12 July 2017, a group of Singaporeans organised a candlelight vigil to mourn the impending execution of Malaysian citizen Prabagaran, who was scheduled to hang at dawn the following morning. Prabagaran was convicted of trafficking drugs into Singapore. The family of Prabagaran was also at the vigil and supporters were there to be in solidarity with them.
The gathering that night, which was held outside Changi Prison, had about 10 participants . It was a peaceful event. Participants put up photos of Prabagaran and lighted several candles. However, 15 minutes later, a police contingent of approximately 10 interrupted the vigil and told the group to cease their activities. They complied immediately and obtained permission from the officer to stay in the area to chat. The rest of the night went by without incident.
On Sunday 3 September 2017, police visited the homes of the participants in the morning and handed notices which said that they might be “acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case” involving” taking part in a public assembly without a permit.”
We are disappointed that the police have decided to investigate a small gathering which was not a threat to public order. Singapore’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech and assembly. We have also been informed by some of the participants that they are not allowed to leave the country because of alleged offence.
While it is understandable that maintenance of public order is necessary, harassing participants of a peaceful vigil almost two months after the event is an overreaction. It is clear that the purpose of the investigation is not to ‘maintain ‘public order’  but to clamp down on civil society activism.  We urge the police to cease the investigation.

Complaint to UN Rapporteur on free speech filed on behalf of Li Shengwu

The Community Action Network has filed a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on behalf of Li Shengwu, grandson of the late Lee Kuan Yew. The complaint was made in response to the Attorney General’s Chambers applying to the High Court to begin proceedings for contempt of court against Mr Li over a Facebook post he published on July 15 in which he said that the Singapore government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”

Before beginning proceedings, the AGC asked Mr Li to delete the post, and publish an apology on his Facebook page. This is despite the fact that the comments Mr Li made on the court system was a “friends only” post which was subsequently re=published by various online media outlets without his permission.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. It also communicates complaints made by claimants to the Singapore government for a response. A summary of the complaints is then presented to the Human Rights Council where a representative of the Singapore government will be present.

In 2015 a group of activists started a campaign “Don’t Kena Contempt” on social media to raise awareness of the arbitrary and draconian aspects of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill. The campaign was concerned that the law gave the government too much powers to determine contempt, and the lack of clarity would lead people to opt for the safety of silence, rather than risk falling foul of the law.

Concerns that private conversations among friends may also run the risk of contempt were raised by the activists and members of parliament; the bill has yet to be gazetted into law, but the government’s clampdown on Li Shengwu’s private Facebook post has proven those fears to be justified. The government has initiated similar clampdowns against other individuals such as film maker Lynn Lee, activist Han Hui Hui, blogger Alex Au cartoonist Leslie Chew and lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam. 

  

 

 

 

Power, politics and fear: when sorry is not the hardest word

Donald Low’s apology to Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam is another setback for freedom of expression and will reinforce self-censorship. In a facebook post last month, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public policy academic criticized the Minister’s remarks, reported in Today, that penalties for crime need to reflect public opinion. The Minister had said that if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable. In his post, Donald Low wrote that public opinion can be “ignorant”, “ill informed” and “excessively emotional” and the Minister was wrong in his view.

This provoked a rebuttal from the Law Minister and he chastised Donald Low for “seriously misconstruing” what he said. He clarified that while public opinion was important in deciding criminal penalties, it was not the only determinant. He ended his admonishment by implying that Donald Low had damaged his own credibility and brought ill repute to “an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name.”

The following day, Donald Low wrote a facebook apology to the Minister for having caused “any trouble or offence.” But it seems as if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the Minister because a few days later, another more ingratiating one was posted.

I realize my first apology was insincere. I am therefore writing now to apologize unreservedly…I have let the LKY School down…Many do not know this, but when I was out of a job in 2012, it was Minister Shanmugam who spoke with me and offered his help. He then put in a good word for me with LKYSPP, and gave me a recommendation. I decided that I should come clean about someone who had in fact helped me, and I should set out the facts in public”

This is not the first time that someone has had to apologise to the Law Minister. In 2015, activist Sangeetha Thanapal wrote a similar one after she accused him of being an “Islamaphobic bigot who thinks Malay-Muslims are a threat.” Mr Shanmugam denounced this characterisation of him and threatened to report her to the police. Faced with such pressure most people would have little choice but to acquiesce.

In Donald Low’s case, Shanmugam mentioned that he welcomes criticism and that academics have a right to comment on issues of public importance. One would expect the matter to end with a simple rebuttal. However, the apologies which followed show that it was no longer just a public exchange of views. Donald Low probably thought twice about where he stood in relation to the all-powerful Minister and it had to be written in as humiliating a way as possible.

Networks of power are so far reaching and deeply entrenched in Singapore it is easy for any politician of the PAP, especially a senior one to wield his influence. As Donald Low himself admitted, Shanmugam put in a good word to the LKY School of Public Policy. The backing of a minister can be beneficial but things can also sour pretty quickly.

Spaces for civil society resistance have either been obliterated or co-opted. There hasn’t been any public support or solidarity from fellow academics for Donald Low.  A chicken has been slaughtered and the monkeys are scared.

Crippling defamation suits which have destroyed the livelihoods of those who are critical of the regime are a hallmark of PAP politics and one of the most shameful characteristics of the regime. Petty threats of reports to the police by a powerful political figure, and remarks which result in a critic having to capitulate not once but twice in apology should not happen in a free, open and democratic society.

Public and academic discourse in Singapore already suffers from a high degree of self censorship and there are many who fear that being too critical will cost them a promotion or even their jobs. But boundaries cannot be pushed and ideas cannot flourish when there is no tolerance for transgressions. When a public exchange of views results in an obsequious apology, academics, activists and journalists can only view this latest saga as yet another cautionary tale in the politics of fear.

Stop the intimidation of Sungei Road vendors

We are deeply concerned about the ongoing police investigation into a “threatening” letter allegedly written by the Chairman of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods at Sungei Road flea market, Mr Koh Eng Khoon. According to media reports, the letter in question was sent to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and signed “Koh Eng Khoon (Friend)”. Police visited Mr Koh at his one room flat at around midnight on 28 April. They did not produce a warrant, but officers ransacked the apartment, took photos of Mr Koh, and confiscated his mobile phone as part of the investigation. The visit ended only at approximately one in the morning.

While we understand that all complaints from the public should be investigated, we question whether it was necessary to carry it out in such an intimidating, aggressive, and intrusive manner. This kind of action intensifies a climate of fear that deters frank discussion of public interest issues, and curbs citizens’ participation in matters which the government is not comfortable with.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) announced plans to close Sungei Road Market in 2014. The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods was formed for the purpose of persuading the government to allow the 80-year-old market to continue by letting the vendors operate in an alternative location. However, in February this year, government agencies announced that the market will close on 11 July. Since then, Mr Koh, the vendors and members of the public have escalated their efforts in urging the government to reconsider.

Is the government harassing Mr Koh to intimidate others – especially the Sungei Road street vendors – from campaigning to save their livelihoods and culture? We call upon the state to ensure the immediate return of all confiscated property to Koh and to stop using intimidating investigative tactics on ordinary citizens.

Image source: http://www.ghettosingapore.com/img_0855-1/

Police question Singapore Bersih participants

Members of the Community Action Network (CAN) and participants of a solidarity event at Hong Lim Park were questioned by police officers at Kreter Ayer Police Post between 6.20pm to 7.30pm on Sunday. The event, called “The Yellow Sit-In”, was organised in solidarity with Bersih 5.0, a movement of Malaysian citizens and activists, calling for electoral reform and genuine democracy in their country. Participants were rounded up at the conclusion of the event. Prior to and during the event, CAN members had noticed plain clothes police walking around the park and taking pictures of the participants secretly.

According to the questions asked, the police were concerned about the following:

1. Our nationalities

2. The reasons for the event

3. The reasons the attendees were there

4. How the participants knew about the event

5. Whether the organisers took any precautions to prevent foreigners from participating;

6. Whether the foreign attendees were merely observers

7. The use of the Singapore and Malaysia flags during the event.

The police were not specific about why we were brought in for questioning, nor did they cite the legislation granting them powers to seize our items (a Singapore flag and a mat) when we asked them. A CAN member was prohibited from calling his lawyer for advice when he requested it. A participant also had his photo taken in the police station without prior notice from the officer.  It is our view that all persons assisting in investigations should be told of the alleged offence that had taken place and have the right to seek legal advice when necessary.

We would like to thank friends, colleagues and other members of the public who showed their concern when we were questioned by the police. We are also grateful for the support of the foreigners who observed the event.

Letter on Amos Yee not published because of concerns over sub-judice

Three months ago, Community Action Network wrote a letter to local newspaper Today, in response to the charges against Amos Yee.

Even before the Administration of Justice Bill was passed in parliament, we received this message on July 26, that our letter would not be published in their Voices section as it would constitute a contempt of court offence. The first reading for the Administration of Justice Bill was on July 12.

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for your contribution to Voices.

However, after Amos Yee had been charged on May 26, the case was sub judice, i.e. under judicial consideration, which precluded the publication of your letter because the view of the Attorney-General’s Chambers is that commenting on a case before the courts is a no-no.

Nonetheless, I appreciate that you responded to a report in TODAY by writing to Voices.

This was the letter we submitted:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I refer to the recent charges against Amos Yee (Amos Yee to face new charges related to religion) and would like to express our disappointment at what the state has done .

Those charges not only violate Yee’s right to free speech, but also the rights of Singaporeans to express themselves freely. These are rights enshrined in Article 14 of Singapore’s Constitution and affirmed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his video, Yee makes comments that some deem offensive to the Muslim and Christian communities. Yee’s Youtube rant was rude and in poor taste. However, Yee’s opinions—no matter how offensive to certain members of the Muslim and Christian faiths—should be viewed as opinions of an individual. It should not be a crime to have an opinion, even if it is an unpalatable opinion about a religion or religious figure. Yee did not preach hatred or incite violence with his words. Those who disagree can either engage with or ignore him.

Singapore is an advanced and prosperous nation. We boast a highly-educated, literate and resilient population. We should allow space for people to express diverse opinions, and, if offended, engage in robust and civilized debate, without turning to legal avenues when disagreements arise. A mature society is one in which people engage each other in rational discourse, not one which resorts to punitive action to silence those with opinions deemed disagreeable. We should not have to turn to the police every time our feelings are hurt.

The Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) which Singapore has ratified advocates alternative measures to child and youth offenders, without resorting to judicial proceedings. These measures include a variety of dispositions, such as care, guidance and supervision orders; counselling; probation; foster care; education and vocational training programmes and other alternatives to institutional care; they should also be undertaken in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate both to their circumstances and the offence.

Therefore, the eight charges against Yee are disproportionate and heavy-handed and violate the fundamental principles of our constitution and the Convention for the Rights of the Child. Instead of fostering tolerance, they encourage the policing of thought and speech. If we truly aspire to live up to the democratic ideals of our pledge, we need to find more progressive, compassionate ways of dealing with differences in opinion.