Duo arrested outside Istana for illegal assembly

From ‘Duo arrested for organising public assembly without permit’, 4 April 2015, Today

Two men between the age of 24 and 25 were arrested by the police this afternoon (Apr 4).

According to the police, the duo had turned up in front of the Istana with placards at about 4pm. Channel NewsAsia understands that duo were holding signs that read “You can’t silence the people” and “Injustice” for about half an hour. They were clad in red hoodies and dark-blue jeans.

Police also said that both of them had refused to stop the activity despite requests from the officers. As such, they were arrested for organising a public assembly without permit, under Section 16(1)(a) of the Public Order Act, Chapter 257A.

In 1986, a lone man was arrested by the police for carrying a placard outside the Istana asking Israeli President Chaim Herzog to go home.  His charge? Public obstruction. So is TWO the minimum number to organise an ‘assembly’, illegal or otherwise? One district judge debunked the general perception that you needed FIVE or more troublemakers to form an unlawful assembly, that the ‘intention’ was more important than the numbers. For example, it’s not illegal if you have at least 5 people gathering to sing Christian songs of worship without a permit, but a different matter altogether if you’re members of Falungong distributing leaflets or wearing shirts with slogans. Unless of course, the cell group gathering is causing ‘public obstruction’ by sitting on a busy MRT staircase, or singing in the void deck at midnight, thereby rightfully considered a public nuisance.

The ‘unlawful assembly’ law is more than a century old, and its original target was secret society ‘samsengs’  who got themselves into gang fights and riots killing each other. Today, in addition to any form of mob violence, the charge is extended to ‘peaceful demonstrations’, whether it’s expressing your disapproval of visiting foreign leaders, complaining about the CPF or demanding the release of people rounded up by the ISD without trial. You could go in front of the Istana gates, mouth gagged with masking tape and not utter a single word and still be escorted into a police car because of your symbolic act of defiance, whether or not you’re obstructing public property. You could even get charged in the designated protest venue Speakers’ Corner, for ‘public nuisance with common intention’, as Roy Ngerng and Han Hui Hui were when they gatecrashed a charity event last year.

It appears that the subject of your protest makes a difference. The police didn’t arrest anyone when THIRTY people turned up in brown outfits at City Hall station to protest the suspension of Mr Brown’s weekly satirical columns. Likewise, if I brought 4 friends to Bishan Park wearing pig noses to protest against the culling of wild boars, it’s likely that we’ll get off with nothing more than a stern warning. Or that once fashionable craze known as the ‘flash mob’, where you spontaneously ‘assemble’ in a public area and do goofy things like dance or propose to your girlfriend. How heartless must a cop be to handcuff you while you’re on your knees with a ring in your hand because you didn’t have a permit to conduct some mass orgy in public.

I wonder what the sign ‘You cannot silence the people’ refers to, because Singaporeans have been a god-awful noisy bunch, with the exception of any form of speech that may undermine the Supreme Court, race or religion, or dead dictators. Granted, the two hoodie guys defied police orders and asked for it, but I would imagine an entirely different outcome if the signs had read ‘Free Hugs for Everyone!’ or ‘SG50 is AWESOME!’ instead.


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