In the past six months alone, several illegal assemblies have left Singaporeans perplexed over what an “illegal assembly” means. This article takes a deeper look into the reasons to why these cases have made the term more contentious of late. In doing so, we hope to help you make a more informed decision before committing to organising or participating in a public assembly or procession.
In Singapore, events such as assemblies and processions are governed by the Public Order Act (the “Act”). The Act’s underlying philosophy is to ensure that there is adequate space for an individual’s rights of political expression without compromising the society’s need for order and stability. It was subsequently amended in 2017 with the aim to protect the public from the growing threat of terrorist actions to events that take place in Singapore, and to reflect the government’s position that non-Singaporeans and non-Singaporean entities should not be allowed to be involved in public assemblies and processions in Singapore to promote political causes or interfere in our domestic politics. For example, the police have previously rejected permit applications by non-Singaporeans to organise “Bersih”-related events at the Speakers’ Corner.
To meet these security objectives, organisers of public assemblies or processions must apply for a police permit beforehand. An assembly or procession without an approved police permit is illegal. First time offenders who participate in an illegal assembly may face a fine up to $3,000; while organisers themselves face a fine of up to $5,000.
As this article will explore later, some questions raised include:
- What makes this event an assembly?
- What makes this assembly/procession public?
- What permits are necessary?
Assembly, Procession, or Not?
As the Act sets out, an “Assembly” is defined to be a gathering or meeting of persons for the any of the following purposes:
- to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any persons/groups/government;
- to publicise a cause or campaign; or
- to make or commemorate any event.
Similarly, a “Procession” is defined in the Act to be a march, parade, or other procession gathered at a place of assembly to move from that place substantially as a body of persons for any of the abovementioned purposes. What makes a Procession different from an Assembly is the movement from the place of assembly “by a common route” by those participating in the Procession.
Furthermore, for both an Assembly or Procession, the Act further sets out that a demonstration by a single person could also constitute an Assembly or Procession. This helps to explain, in part, the charge against artist Seelan Palay (“Palay”) in October 2018:
Although, Palay had obtained a permit to perform his art piece in Hong Lim Park. His performance actually involved movement from Hong Lim Park to the National Gallery Singapore and then to Parliament House. He was eventually charged for staging a Public Procession without a permit. Palay’s case evidences how a single person can constitute an assembly or procession, and the willingness of law enforcement to enforce this rule against single participant events.
On 3 January 2019, activist Jolovan Wham (“Wham”) was charged and found guilty for illegally organising a public assembly. Wham had organised an event without a permit, titled “Civil Disobedience and Social Movements”, it included a video call from Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong amongst other speeches by Singaporean activists Kirsten Han and Seelan Palay.
Given that the event met the Act’s definition of an assembly, having been organised to articulate views on civil disobedience, Wham had failed to obtain a permit to hold his event. Furthermore, Wham had involved Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, which was sufficient grounds for a police permit to be rejected even if he had applied for one. His subsequent persistence in organising the event without a permit resulted in this being a successful charge for illegal public assembly.
Public or Not?
The Act states that a public place refers to any place to which members of the public have access to by right or virtue, regardless of payment or time restrictions; or a place that the occupier has allowed members of the public to enter. In some cases, those charged for unlawful assembly may claim that their event took place in a private space and would thus be exempt from the provisions of the Act.
With reference to the involvement of Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong for Wham’s political ends, some of Wham’s allies have argued that “Skype conversations that take place within the confines of a private space are private matters that should logically, not require permits before they can be carried out”. However, as the DPP and Judge in the case had pointed out, the event was publicised on social media platforms like Facebook, and was open to the public for participation.
Hence, whether an event is “public” is not only telling from the location itself, but also the nature of the event– e.g. how it was publicised or how participants were invited.
Additional actions that are incidental to the meeting would not be considered to be a breach. For example, at an election rally, if supporters decide to follow the speaker (or candidate) around after the rally was held, a recognisable procession would be formed, however that would not be considered to be a breach as it was an action incidental to the approved assembly (i.e. the election rally).
Role of the Police and Move On Powers
The Act gives power to the Police Commissioner to rely on his officers to take measures to enforce the rules set out in the Act. Effectively, the Singapore Police Force plays an active role in discerning whether, and taking actions on events that they believe are contravening the Act’s rules. Under the act, police officers are also allowed to arrest participants of the event without a warrant. Alternatively, if a police officer of or above the rank of sergeant decides that a person is acting in a disorderly manner, be interfering the trade, or disrupting orderly conduct, the police officer may issue a direction to move on (a “Move On Order”). The police officer shall not give such a direction unless it is reasonably necessary in the interest of public safety or order, or necessary for the protection of rights of other persons.
It is important to cooperate with and respect the judgement of the Police Force if they were to intervene in an event, especially if event organisers do not have a permit. If a person does comply with the Move On Order, the person will be guilty of no offence.
To illustrate, in the recent Platinum Dogs Club (“PDC”) incident, where Ms Elaine Mao and a group of dog lovers confronted the owner of PDC at its premises, Ms Mao and her group were investigated for organising an illegal public assembly. No charges against the participants were reported, and it was later revealed that the group had left the premises and cooperated with the police investigations. In contrast, both Palay and Wham did not cooperate with the police when they had been told to stop their events due to the lack of a proper permit. The police subsequently charged both organisers after ascertaining that the events were public assemblies organised without a permit.
If you were to find yourself questioned by the police during an assembly/procession or issued with a Move On Order, do cooperate with the officers until you are able to seek formal legal advice.
Applying for a Permit
Organisers interested in holding their own event that meets the requirements of a public assembly or procession must apply for a Police Permit. In addition, applicants should also find out what other permits must be obtained prior to organising the event. For example, those interested in holding an event at the Speaker’s Corner or the Botanical Gardens must register a separate application with NParks.
Permits for Assemblies and Processions may not be granted if the police believe that the event may:
- cause public disorder or damage to public/private property;
- create a public nuisance;
- give rise to an obstruction in any public road;
- place the safety of any person in jeopardy;
- cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different groups in Singapore;
- induce others to commit acts of terrorism;
- be held within or enter a prohibited area; or
- be directed towards a political end with involvement from non-Singaporean persons/entities.
Exempted Assemblies and Processions
Finally, if a gathering of persons for the purposes of commemorating an event could constitute a public assembly, wouldn’t that mean that one would need to apply for a permit for a wedding or a funeral?
The short answer is no. There are a list of exempted assemblies or processions that do not require a permit and that includes a public assembly held in connection with a wedding or a funeral. The full list of exempted assemblies and processions (and their requirements) are made available on the Singapore Police Force website.
If you are unsure as to whether your event requires a permit, what information you ought to provide the authorities when applying for the permit, or of the legal risks that may come with organising your event, it would be useful to consult a lawyer before commencing publicity or other formalities for the event.
As this article lays out, once one is aware of the definitions set out in the Act, it is often simple to identify if one’s event is a public assembly or procession. If so, a police permit would be necessary for the public assembly and procession. To hold such events without a police permit is illegal.
However, organisers and participants should not underestimate the likelihood of their event being classified as an assembly or procession. Organisers should make an concerted effort to find out if a police permit is required for their event, by consulting a lawyer or asking the police themselves. Participants should also protect themselves by clarifying with organisers if the event has obtained a permit or falls in line with the requirements of the Public Order Act.
During the event, organisers and participants should also cooperate with police officers and investigations – especially if the organiser does not have a permit for the event. It will be helpful for organisers to identify the characteristics of their event, which could make it not fall within the definition of a public assembly or procession, and be able to articulate that to police officers when necessary. If unsure, organisers should approach a lawyer beforehand to confirm these facts in order to have assurance that they are complying with the Public Order Act.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.