Below are passages I have selected from a 2005 book by Kevin Y.L. Tan (one of Singapore’s leading public law scholars and legal historians) titled An Introduction to Singapore’s Constitution. Its a bit of background about the Constitution and especially for this post about the Tak Boleh Tahan protest last Saturday with regards to Freedom of Assembly.
“Although many people have heard the words ‘constitution’, ‘constitutional’ and ‘constitutionalism’, few know what they mean….Today, we use it to refer to the most important and basic rules concerning a country’s government and legal structure. It is the supreme law of the land and is superior to all other laws. Put another way, the Constitution is the Mother of All Laws since it is the basic legal foundation of any society.”
“Peoples all over the world have struggled to place government on a more democratic footing and to hold them accountable for their actions. That is why we have constitutions.”
“In the modern state, government is large and the state possesses vast powers of coercion. As individuals, we worry that the state may become so overwhelming and powerful that we end up living under tyranny. We worry that those who govern us will succumb to Lord Acton’s axiom ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This is why we draft constitutions to break up and divide these powers between different branches of government and subject them all to the law.”
“Ideally, a constitution must organize, separate and control the arbitrary exercise of power. Given the political realities of a single-party dominant system of government in Singapore, the limiting powers of the Constitution are weak indeed. Other than the sovereignty provisions under Part III and the elected president provisions – which require a two-thirds majority in a national referendum – everything and anything in the constitution is amendable by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This special majority has been easily obtained since 1968 when the PAP secured an almost hegemonic grip on power….This allows the ruling party to change the Constitution almost at will and the ease with which the amendments are constantly made erodes its sanctity as the supreme law and its legitimacy as the nation’s legal beacon of light….if Singaporeans are looking to their Constitution to help control and limit government, they will come away disappointed for they will discover that control on government is not achieved through the haloed words of a sanctified and revered national document or the activist intervention of the courts.”
“Article 14(1)(b) guarantees that all citizens ‘have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms’. This is subject to Article 14(2)(b) which allows Parliament to restrict the right in the interest of the security of the country or public order….Restrictive legislation exists in the form of: the Penal Code (unlawful assembly); the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (empowering the Minister to make rules regulating public meetings and processions in public places); the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act (regulating the licensing for public entertainment including lectures, talks, addresses, debates and discussions in a public place); the Societies Act ( which renders a meeting of an unlawful society an offence) and the Public Order (Preservation) Act and the Preservation of Peace Act (which gives the authorities power to disperse assemblies in gazetted areas in the interest of public order).”
Here are accounts, from participants of the protest, of what happened when they were brought to the Police Cantonment Complex……
The earlier process of surrendering personal items into a transparent bag took some time.
There was also some delay due to Siok Chin and Dr. Chee’s firm exchanges with the police.
At one stage, there was also so much tension that they placed 3 guards within the lock up cell with us.
Station Inspector Tan Kok Ann was uncomfortable about us grouping in a circle to talk. He entered the lock up and insisted on standing amongst us when Dr. Chee refused his suggestion to sit down on the bench.
All that took up some time such that by the time we were settled down people were then taking turns to go to the toilet. Accompanied of course.
I also went to the toilet under guard. I had to pass through a total of 4 or so gates. Each one was locked. I was accompanied all the time by a police officer.
The toilet bowl squarely faced the door. If the policeman stood at the door, there was no way I could get out of his sight. I approached the cubicles only to find that they were bathing cubicles. I did not see any urinals. There was only one cistern and flush and one washbasin. These were in a single straight line from the door. There were no windows. No side doors. No trapdoors. Nothing.
The Policeman remained there. I passed my urine under police guard. After that i was led back to the cell. This was repeated with each and everyone of us under guard.
“I am exercising my constitutional rights.”
“I am responsible for my own actions.”
“I myself will answer for what I did.”
It came statement taking. I was amongst the first to be called. I was led to another room where I would sit down facing an officer in front of a PC.
The Officer taking my statement was polite. He revealed that he would be asking me a number of questions. He told me that I could decline to answer them.
I must say frankly that I co-operated with the police. I answered the questions the best that I could. However, any questions that turned towards pinning blame on other persons, I declined to answer.
Each time I was faced with a difficult question, I repeated my position to the Police officer. I am exercising my constitutional rights. I will take responsibility for my own actions.
There were of course attempts by the officer to allude persuasion and instigation by persons within the SDP persuading people to take part in the protest.
Honestly since I was there to support a valid course. I answered that I was there on my own accord. I will answer for my actions.
The Officer then asked why i was there. I told him that I was there to protest against price hikes. I was there to speak on behalf of Singaporeans.
I was asked whether I went to the protest because of SDP’s encouragement and instigation. I told them that i went on my own accord.
I was asked how I came to know about the protest. I named the Sammyboy forums. [Samsters can feel really proud this time!]
I was asked if I knew of SDP’s website, of course I did but I realised that I did not really know SDP’s website very well. Seriously, I did not have time to surf around. Therefore even sammyboy forum’s access was done through saved links and not by way of typing the address.
I was asked who I went there with. How I got there. All these I declined to answer.
After signing my statement, the officer questioned me on my personal belongings. He then told me that he would have to confiscate my phone and my camera. I told him of private photos in my camera which I would have to delete, of course in his presence and that I would only surrender them if I was allowed to delete them.The officer claimed that the IO would decide whether it could be done. We waited some time after he contacted the IO.
The answer was no.
I explained the need to have certain private matters kept confidential. I asked again the relevance of private matters for the offences being investigated.
The answer again was no.
I told the officer that I was resisting and picked up my bag of belongings and tucked them under my arm. I stood up and made my way to the door. The officer ordered me to sit down. He told me that this was a lock up and asked me where did I intended to go? I thought of Kastari. But I was missing a limp.
I then decided to reason it out with the senior officer when he came. A total of 4 officers came to my room. Station Inspector Tan Kok Ann and the officer taking my statement gave me their gentleman’s word that my personal data would not be messed around with. After I extracted the promise and assurance from both of them, I surrendered my Tak Boleh Tahan shirt, my phone and my camera. I was then given a yellow T-shirt in exchange with compliments from the Singapore Police Force.
I was then led to a smaller lock up. There I found Ghandi and Dr. Chee. Soon thereafter the rest followed.
I thought I was tough but I soon found out that though 4 officers were needed for me to surrender my stuff, 5 were needed to forcibly pry John’s Tak Boleh Tahan shirt off.
When we were in the smaller cell. We heard Siok Chin’s raised voice arguing with the police.
To be continued in part 5
Far from the good guys that they try to portray of themselves, police behaviour on 15 Mar 08 was despicable.
For one they treated Mr John Tan, SDP’s assistant secretary-general, without regard for his safety. As Mr Tan had difficulty getting into the police vehicle several officers, thinking that they were away from the public eye, dragged him in a very rough manner (see video).
Inside the police van, despite being told that Mr Tan was suffering from a frozen shoulder, they forced his hands behind his back to handcuff him. Mr Tan turned pale with pain.
In the meantime, one of the protesters kept shouting that Mr Tan was diabetic and asked the officers to take it easy.
When he arrived at the station, Mr Tan was obviously in need of medical assistance.
The officer who arrested Ms Chee Siok Chin got ahold of her finger and bent it. Ms Chee cried out “You’re breaking my finger! You’re breaking my finger!” which was recorded on video.
Another protester was treated in a similarly shameful manner. Mr Seelan Palay fell over as he was led to the police vehicle. The officers proceeded to drag him by the arms into the van, causing him to hit his head against the steps of the van.
Mr Chong Kai Xiong, another one of the protesters who was arrested, had three of his left fingers sprained when an officer grabbed and twisted them during the arrest.
At the police station, the police demanded that the protesters remove their “Tak Bolen Tahan” T-shirts and hand them over for investigation.
In the first place, did the police not have enough video footage and photographs showing the protesters wearing their T-shirts?
Secondly, could they not have taken photographs of those arrested while they were in custody? Why the insistence that the shirts be seized?
Mr John Tan asked to call lawyer Mr M Ravi for legal advice first to see if the police had the right to seize the T-shirts.
The Investigating Officer refused and called in four of his colleagues, who proceeded to pin Mr Tan against the wall and literally ripped the shirt off. As a result, Mr Tan sustained scratches to his arm.
The police also demanded that the protesters hand over their cellphones. When Mr Chia Ti Lik initially refused, four officers were called in.
But there was one officer who stood out in his utter lack of respect for the uniform he wore. Station Inspector Tan Kok Ann, a stout man with a crew cut, was flippant as he was dishonest.
When the protesters were standing around and talking with each other in the holding celling, SI Tan insisted that everyone had to be seated. Dr Chee Soon Juan asked that the officer leave the cell as they were in the midst of a private conversation.
But SI Tan refused and stood right in front of the group.
Later in the evening, the Station Inspector came in and told the group that everyone was free to leave after bail was posted. All except Ms Chee Siok Chin whom he said was being held back for further investigation.
Upon hearing this, the group decided not to post bail in order to remain in the police station with Ms Chee. They asked to see her as she was kept separate from the men.
Officer Tan Kok Ann turned down the request as, according to him, those arrested could not communicate with each other. This was obviously a fabrication as all the male protesters were kept in the same room and were freely talking among themselves.
In addition, when Ms Chee was arrested in September last year over the Burmese issue and was taken to the Tanglin Police Division, she was allowed to communicate with Mr John Tan, Mr Gandhi Ambalam, and Dr Chee who were also arrested.
However, after hearing that the rest would not post bail if they did not get to see Ms Chee first, Officer Tan quickly returned and told the group that everyone, including Ms Chee, would be released together.
As if pleased with himself for his great performance that day, SI Tan Kok Ann did a little jig in front of those in the holding cell. Yes, in full uniform.