ASEAN parliamentarians concerned by Singapore’s new public order bill

Thursday 22 March 2018 13:07
Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia today criticized the passage of a new bill by the Parliament of Singapore, which could be used to further curtail freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country.

Echoing previously voiced concerns from Singaporean civil society, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) called for the immediate revision of a series of concerning provisions in the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, passed yesterday, warning that the bill mirrors worrying legislative moves around the region curbing civic space.

"This bill suppresses fundamental freedoms and threatens the safety and important work of activists and human rights defenders. Singapore already heavily restricts the rights to peaceful assembly and free speech. More broad restrictions in the name of national security are a recipe for abuse," said Philippine Congressman Teddy Baguilat, an APHR Board Member.

The bill, which purportedly aims to better combat terrorist attacks, allows police to exercise a wide range of "special powers" in the case of so-called "serious incidents." However, APHR noted that the definition of a "serious incident" in the bill is overly broad, and includes "sit-down demonstrations" that occupy publicly accessible spaces and "interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area."

"This is a deeply worrying definition. It is preposterous that peaceful demonstrators would essentially be treated as terrorists and be subjected to unreasonable restrictions and punishments under the pretext of national security," Baguilat said.

Parliamentarians also expressed concerns about a provision of the bill that grants new powers to police to block various forms of communication, including recording and sending photos and video, during so-called "serious incidents." MPs said that such restrictions could impact the ability of individuals to undertake critical human rights documentation work.

"The documentation of human rights abuses is indispensable for ensuring accountability for violations, as well as preventing the repeat of abuses. If individuals are not allowed to record alleged violations as they happen, it would only encourage a culture of impunity," Baguilat stressed.

Additional provisions allow police to use lethal weapons against non-violent protestors, providing an unacceptable opening for security forces to employ excessive and disproportionate force to disperse assemblies, APHR said.

MPs said the bill is one of an increasing number of new and revised laws around the region, which undercut fundamental freedoms and civic space.

"We are increasingly seeing the law and institutions weaponized against the promotion and protection of human rights in the ASEAN region. This year alone, we have seen governments in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Indonesia introduce amendments that seriously undermine the rule of law and democratic norms," Baguilat said.

"Now Singapore is sadly following in their footsteps, where it should have been leading. A country, which prides itself on upholding the rule of law, should have worked to demonstrate that combatting threats to public security does not require sacrificing rights," he added.