Singapore to Tighten Protest Laws

SINGAPORE ~ Singapore moved this week to tighten laws against outdoor protests eight months before the city-state hosts a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders including US President Barack Obama.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who is also the home affairs minister, tabled a bill in parliament seeking to enhance police powers to deal with illegal protests and other acts of civil disobedience.

The Public Order Act will impose tighter restrictions on outdoor political assemblies while liberalizing rules on gatherings for entertainment, recreation and social activities.

Under current laws, political gatherings of five or more people outside a designated free-speech park are deemed illegal without a police permit.

In the proposed legislation, any political assembly outside the zone, known as Speakers’ Corner, will require a permit, regardless of the number of people involved.

“It is necessary to update our legal framework governing public order and differentiate political and cause-related activities from recreational and social activities,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement on the proposed act.

As the social, political and security environment becomes more complex, Singapore needs to “squarely address gaps in the current framework, to enhance the ability of the police to ensure security during major events, and to maintain public order,” it said.

Local dissidents have sidestepped the current restrictions by sending fewer than five people to public protests and using attention-grabbing tactics.

Last week, three demonstrators in red shirts unfurled a banner against Myanmar’s military regime outside the country’s embassy in Singapore during a visit by Prime Minister Thein Sein.

The legislation is expected to be passed in time for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in November, which could attract local and overseas protesters, Minister Wong said in January.

APEC will gather the leaders of 21 Asia-Pacific economies, including the United States, China, Chile, Russia and Japan.

The proposed law will also grant police the power to take action before protesters can gather at specific areas such as parliament and outside the venues of major international events.

For example, the police will be given “move-on” powers, allowing them to tell protesters to disperse without resorting to arrests.

As these meetings are potential “terrorist” targets, security forces cannot be distracted from their duties “by the disruption of political activists, militants or mischief-makers,” the ministry said.

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