Little India Bill: What activists should have done

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The civil rights of residents in Little India won out over the civil rights of the larger Singapore society. So much for the “bad law” arguments put forth in a detailed background paper by a handful of civil rights activists, including former opposition politician Vincent Wijeysingha (see TISG, Feb 18).

Although nine opposition MPs, NCMPs and NMPs spoke out against the Public Order Additional Temporary Measures (POATM) Bill in Parliament yesterday, the PAP-dominated House passed it into law for a year.

All that its opponents were asking for was that no amendments to current laws be made until the Commission of Inquiry (COI) had submitted its findings in June. They failed. The Workers Party’s Sylvia Lim and Gerald Giam called it a “knee-jerk reaction, far too broad, without enough safeguards. The government, through S Iswaran, answered all the criticisms with an explanation that suggests it’s all for sparing it from having to invoke the Public Order (Prevention) Act on a weekly basis, as it has been doing so far. So it’s essentially a time-saving law.

Iswaran didn’t really answer this point: why can’t it be postponed till after the COI’s recommendations? He asked, rhetorically: “Who will be answerable to Singaporeans and to the residents in Little India if another incident were to occur?”

Uhmm, let’s see if his logic flows: first, POPA is too strong and it has to be invoked weekly. It has prevented a recurrence of behaviour that can lead to rioting in Little India. So let’s have more tightly-scoped temporary amendments until we can sort out the COI’s findings against our experience with POATM. Get it? Not really? That’s because he did not address Wijeysingha’s point about the explanatory clause which empowers the authorities to act if there was “…a lone demonstration of support of causes within a special zone that may heighten tensions for the community in the special zone”.

Wijeysingha asked: “By placing this incongruous sentence in the Explanatory Statement, is the government seeking to curtail ‘a lone demonstration of support of causes’ as an additional means of controlling legitimate activism and removing the right of citizens to have the courts decide what is lawful public activism?”

The civil activists’ briefing paper argued:

“Given that cause-related activity is already circumscribed in other legislation, the inclusion of this statement may lead to the suspicion that the government wishes Parliament to further circumscribe legitimate activism by the back door, so to speak. Furthermore, the inclusion of this statement in the explanatory statement, which does not form part of the Act itself, would lead to an ambiguity in law.

Ambiguous law is bad law. Could the civil activists have done more? Definitely: By thoroughly briefing the Workers’ Party MPs on it. By speaking to the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association.

What was the point of submitting their briefing paper to the Speaker of the House? As if she was going to table it for debate.

On an issue like civil rights, it is safe to generalise that Singaporeans cannot see the wood for the trees. Well, when it came to the additional temporary measures of the Public Order Bill, the government has managed to chop down a number of major trees in the wood, no thanks to the less than smart tactics of civil activists.