b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Although the constitution provides citizens the right to peaceful assembly, parliament imposed restrictions in the interest of security, public order, or morality. Public assemblies, including political meetings and rallies, require police permission. By law a public assembly may include events staged by a single person. Citizens do not need permits for indoor speaking events, unless they touch on “sensitive topics” such as race or religion, or for qualifying events held at Speakers’ Corner. Per 2017 amendments to the Public Order Act, the Commissioner of Police may decline to authorize any public assembly or procession that could be directed towards a political end and be organized by, or involve the participation of, a foreign entity or citizen. The amendment followed a 2016 LGBTI “Freedom to Love” rally, after which the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press statement stating “foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones.”
Police may also order a person to “move on” from a certain area and not return to the designated spot for 24 hours.
In April police denied a request by activist Terry Xu to stage a one-person, silent sit-in protest without signage for one hour. Police stated the late-night protest, which would have been held in the central business district during the weekend, carried “a risk of causing public disorder, as well as damage to property.”
In October artist Seelan Palay was convicted of breaching the Public Order Act for taking part in a public procession without a permit in October 2017. He was fined 2,500 SGD ($1,820) but served two weeks in jail in lieu of the fine. Seelan had obtained a permit to stage a performance art piece as a protest in Hong Lim Park, but he later continued his solo protest by walking from the park to parliament buildings, holding a mirror. Prosecutors alleged Seelan did not specify in his permit request that he intended to move from the park to outside parliament.
Some civil society groups and members of parliament expressed concern that the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (see section 2.a.) conflates peaceful protests and terrorist violence. The law’s illustrations of “large-scale public disorder” include a peaceful sit-down demonstration that attracts a large group of sympathizers and which after a week starts to impede the flow of traffic and interfere with local business activities.
The government closely monitored political gatherings regardless of the number of persons present.
Spontaneous public gatherings or demonstrations were virtually unknown.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
Most associations, societies, clubs, religious groups, and other organizations with more than 10 members are required to register with the government under the Societies Act. The government could deny registration to groups it believed were formed for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or public order. The majority of applications in recent years were approved. The government has absolute discretion in applying criteria to register or dissolve societies.
The government prohibits organized political activities except by groups registered as political parties or political associations. These may not receive foreign donations but may receive funds from citizens and locally controlled entities. The ruling PAP was able to use nonpolitical organizations, such as residential committees and neighborhood groups, for political purposes far more extensively than could opposition parties. Due to laws regulating the formation of publicly active organizations, there were few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) apart from nonpolitical organizations, such as religious or environmental groups.
In April the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) declined to register OSEA Pte. Ltd., a local branch of a UK-based company that provides training and other support to journalists, as well as editorial services to a website called New Naratif. New Naratif’s director PJ Thum and editor-in-chief Kirsten Han organize “democracy workshops” and are considered critical of the government. New Naratif also has subscribers not based in the country. ACRA explained that registration of OSEA would be contrary to national interests, as OSEA’s purposes were “clearly political in nature” and its parent company had received a 75,000 SGD ($54,700) grant from a foreign charitable foundation. In September Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat rejected an appeal against ACRA’s decision.