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Singaporean police question attendees of peaceful solidarity event

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Singaporean police question attendees of peaceful solidarity event
Individuals who attended a peaceful gathering in Singapore's Hong Lim Park to show solidarity with the Bersih5 movement in Malaysia were surprised on Sunday evening when they were approached by the police and asked to assist in an investigation.

The gathering, described as a "yellow sit-in" on Facebook, was organised by Singaporeans wanting to show solidarity with the Bersih5 movement, which is calling for institutional reform in Malaysia, particularly in the light of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

"We want to be in solidarity with the Malaysians for free and fair elections and for functioning democratic institutions," said organiser Jolovan Wham. 

"The quest for clean elections, for accountability and transparency is something which many people around the world aspire to, and we aspire to that in Singapore as well, so it’s important to support the Malaysians."

Organisers say the turn-out was small, with about 15 people in attendance. Attendees included Singapore citizens, PRs and foreigners. According to the organisers, plainclothes police were present in the park, discreetly taking photos of participants.

The event – during which the Malaysian and Singaporean flags were displayed – lasted for about an hour, and the group began to disperse. Attendees said that they were packing up and ready to head out when they were approached by the police and asked to go to the nearby neighbourhood police post to assist in investigations.

In a statement on their blog, the Community Action Network, whose members were present, said individuals were asked about their nationalities, their reasons for attending the event, how they knew about the event, whether organisers had taken precautions to prevent foreigners from participating, whether foreigners had participated in the event, and the use of the Singaporean and Malaysian flags. Police officers also took photos of their identity documents.

Arriving at the police post, I was told by a police officer that an investigation was ongoing. When asked about the specific legislation under which the investigation had been opened, the officer said that he was "not inclined" to tell me. He later said that he could not provide such information as it had to do with the details of the investigation, and suggested I contact the public affairs department of the Singapore Police Force. He assured me that those being questioned would be informed of the law under which they have been asked to give statements, but some attendees said that they had not been informed, while others said some allusion was made as to what the police were concerned about.

"They only told me what they were investigating me for, but they only told me midway through the investigation. But they didn’t cite which law or which regulation I had violated," said Wham.

"He just asked me, 'Did you know that it’s an offence to use the national flag?' And I said I didn’t know."

Another attendee said that he had been told that it had something to do with the "National Emblems Act". It likely refers to the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act, which prohibits the display of a national emblem – including the flag of any state – in public.

An excerpt from the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act.

According to this little-known piece of legislation, "[a]ny police officer may arrest without warrant any person whom he has reasonable cause to believe has committed or is committing an offence."

Police refused Wham permission to seek legal advice during questioning. 

"He refused to let me call a lawyer... he wanted to seize my property, and I said I needed to check," he said. "I asked him to refer to the necessary legislation which allows him to do that and he refused to let me know which law allows him to seize my stuff.. So I asked him, 'So under what law?' He refused to tell me which law gave him the authority to seize my things. Then I requested to call a lawyer and he refused my request, but I still called the lawyer anyway."

All attendees were eventually allowed to go after questions were asked and statements taken. The police seized a Malaysian flag, a Singaporean flag, some books that were being handed out, and a straw mat used at the event. An attendee I met was also made to purchase a new top, as the Bersih T-shirt he had been wearing was also confiscated by the police.

Another attendee who had not been rounded up by the police said that four police officers later turned up at his home to take his statement in relation to their investigations.

Hong Lim Park (also known locally as Speakers' Corner), where the event was held, is the only space in Singapore in which 'cause-related activities' can be organised without a police permit. However, this space continues to be governed by a particular set of rules and regulations: only Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) are allowed to participate in activities at Speakers' Corner. These regulations were recently extended to require foreign entities to obtain permits before being allowed to support, promote or participate in activities.

Prior to the event, organisers published a note on their Facebook event page: "Permanent Residents are allowed by law to participate. All other foreigners can attend but are supposed to observe only. We believe in freedom of assembly and speech regardless of nationality. If you participate, it is at your own risk."

UPDATE 14/11/2016: In response to my questions, the Singapore Police Force simply referred me to the rules and regulations governing Speakers' Corner, as well as an advisory issued on 11 November reminding the public that only Singaporeans and Permanent Residents "are allowed to participate in assemblies that do not have a permit, subject to the conditions in the Speakers’ Corner rules" and that "[o]rganisers of such events have a responsibility to take appropriate measures to ensure that our laws are complied with." The advisory also stated that foreigners "should not import the politics of their own countries into Singapore. Those who break the law will be dealt with firmly, and this may include termination of visas or work passes where applicable."

Follow-up questions have been sent to the police.

UPDATE 16/11/2016: I've not received any response to my follow-up questions to the police, but The Straits Times published a story confirming that the police are investigating the use of the Singaporean and Malaysian flags under the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act.

#activism, #politics, #human rights, #singapore, #police, #malaysia, #bersih5