Monday, June 20, 2011

Black Sunday: A New Dawn?: A test for the post GE 2011 government

Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 2009, a public assembly shall not take place unless notice of it has been given to the Commissioner under Section 6 and a permit has been granted under Section 7.

Effectively, any public assembly without a permit would constitute an offence.

So, what constitutes a public assembly? The Public Order Act 2009 makes the assembly of a single individual an offence. Although linguistically it seems impossible to evisage the assembly of one, the law can get away with the creation of fiction for convenience.

Section 1 of the Public Order Act spells out the definition of an 'assembly':

"assembly" means a gathering or meeting (whether or not comprising any lecture, talk, address, debate or discussion) of persons the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is —
(a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government;
(b) to publicise a cause or campaign; or
(c) to mark or commemorate any event,
and includes a demonstration by a person alone for any such purpose referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c);

If a group of friends decide (let's say) to commemorate the death anniversary of JBJ by gathering at a public place, an offence would be committed. In fact, if I 'gathered' alone at a public place to commemorate an event, that would also constitute an assembly under the Act.

The definition is broad enough to cover any kind of 'protest', 'demonstration' or public display of views.

Into this restrictively drawn statutory arrangement waltzes 'Mandy Mary'.

I first came across this person via a facebook group. I was aware that 'she' was organising (or at least appeared via facebook to be a prime mover) the Black Sunday event. A successful Black Sunday event took place to register disapproval of MP Tin Pei Ling. This took place at the Starbucks outlet at Parkway Parade on 29th May 2011. I became aware of this event the day after it took place via some discussion with facebook friends. And then another Mandy Mary inspired Black Sunday event cropped up. This time it was at Wisma Atria at a Starbucks outlet on 12th June 2011.

By now, Mandy Mary had become emboldened enough to turn this into a 'movement'. There is a facebook page for 'Black Sunday Movement' now.

What do I think of these events? Do they fall foul of the law? Are the organizers and participants taking too much of a risk?

Two crucial issues:
1.Were they gathered for one of the stated purposes in the statute under the definition section of the Public Order Act as set out above?
2.Would a cafe constitute a public place for the purpose of the Public Order Act?

Under Section 1 of the Act 'public place' is defined as follows:

"public place" means —
(a) any place (open to the air or otherwise) to which members of the public have access as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission, whether or not on payment of a fee, whether or not access to the place may be restricted at particular times or for particular purposes, and whether or not it is an “approved place” within the meaning of the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (Cap. 257); or
(b) a part of a place that the occupier of the place allows members of the public to enter, but only while the place is ordinarily open to members of the public;

This definition is broad enough to cover a restaurant or cafe where the owner of the premises grants an express/implied permission to the customer to have access to the premises.

With the Black Sunday Movement promoting a cause and the event being held in arguably 'a public place', (The Public Order Act definition is arguably broader than the reference to a 'public place' in the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act), I wouldn't be surprised if the authorities decide to charge the individuals involved.

But, I am surprised. Pleasantly as well.
I am surprised because no action has been taken. Nobody has been called up for investigation. Yes, some men in blue were seen at the location of the second event but apart from a photographer who was asked for his ID, nobody appears to have been troubled.

In my heart, I quietly hope and pray that this is the new dawn. Quietly, and without fanfare, freedom awakens in our land.

If our Prime Minister had truly taken to heart the voice of the people during the election campaign this year, he would have realised that the change that needs to be instituted is not going to be merely cosmetic. It would not do for him or his party to pay lip service to change. It would not do for him or his party to merely manage public perception through information management. He would have realised that the citizens of this country have reached a level of political maturity that demands that the tight-fisted approach of years gone by cannot work any more.

Politics in this country has changed at a fundamental level this May. The more you seek to control, the more you lose electoral control.

If this has dawned on our PM and his party colleagues, we might be witnessing the beginning of a new reality. Events like Black Sunday are pretty harmless. All they do is publicise a cause. No rebel-rousing speeches. No spirited chanting. Not even any placards. A silent and nuisance-free way of expressing dissent. I am sure the individuals composing the present Cabinet can live with this and tolerate its existence. After all, they are now living with and tolerating so much of dissent online. Whilst doing that, I am sure they are beginning to realise how harmless this kind of dissent really is.

The key for the PAP government is to battle dissent with clear, cogent and rational argument. They can't get away with killing dissent with a sledgehammer. Those days are gone. People have finally felt the sense of empowerment that their vote is capable of giving them. Silencing regular dissent would translate into more votes lost for the PAP. Engaging dissent constructively may in fact win back some votes for them. For the hardcore opposition supporter this might not sound like a good thing. In fact, one might even secretly wish that the PAP would not change its ways. If they don't change their ways, they would lose more votes.

But, PM Lee might have already made the prudent calculation that some level of restraint in the use of the law and a greater level of engagement in honest debate with the public would actually be the win-win solution for the PAP as well as for the people. More easing of control might actually result in more electoral clout for the PAP. This could be his opportunity to script a future for our country truly with the people as co-authors. Public assembly could be a start. There are so many other areas where control could be eased.

I am speculating. Who knows what the future holds?

But, these are interesting times in our nation's history.

The Black Sunday Movement could be the sign of a new dawn for us all.


Anonymous said...

There's still one election to go.**EP**wink, so perhaps a little latitude like LBGT is allowed in case any backlash or proxy for anger used at PAP. So there've smarten up a little. They still "clearly" want people to vote for their choice of President, even more desperately because there's only ONE role! They can concede a few seats in parliament but NOT this one. So if you think like Harry, like me, you'll hold your breadth for now.

Anonymous said...

One of the best and most effective strategy that the Government has adopted is to treat some people and events as invisible and non-existent.
Nothing needs to be done about it and slowly they got forgotten or in some cases, the people also treat it as non-existent.

Subra said...

yes. I think the most likely reason for the non-action is the fear of unnecessarily stirring up further discontent by being heavy handed.

And I also think that there is some truth in the approach of ignoring some groups so that they eventually become non-existent. But, I think this would be a new strategy and not one that they have resorted to in the past. Most of the time in the past they have come down hard even on the mildest expression of dissent.