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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Inside, Outside, Upside Down!

The absence of an independent electoral commission is inconsistent with Singapore’s claim to be a democratic nation.

Norfolk, England

On 11 May 1963, an English gentleman by the name of Frank Adler, somehow managed to gain access into Markham Royal Air Force Station in the English county of Norfolk. While within the boundaries of the Station, he obstructed a member of Her Majesty's forces and was promptly arrested. 

According to the UK Official Secrets Act 1920, the Markham Royal Air Force Station was a prohibited place and it was an offence for anyone to obstruct a member of Her Majesty's forces while ‘in the vicinity of any prohibited place’. 

Thinking he was clever, Mr Adler argued before the Court that as he was actually in the prohibited place, he could not be said to be "in the vicinity" of the prohibited place. 

The learned judge was not going to let Mr Adler get away with such a ridiculous argument.  Mr Adler was found guilty of the offence. 

The judge explained that the words "in the vicinity of" should be interpreted to mean on or near the prohibited place.  If the Court was confined to only the literal meaning of the words, it would have produced absurdity - as someone obstructing a member of Her Majesty's forces near the Station would be committing an offence, whilst someone doing the same thing inside the Station would not.

Mr Adler's case[1] is well-known to law students as being a classic example of the courts applying what lawyers call the "Golden Rule" for statutory interpretation. Under the Golden Rule, where a literal interpretation of a wording gives an absurd result, which Parliament could not have intended, the judge can substitute a reasonable meaning in the light of the statute as a whole.   

Cheng San, Singapore

2 January 1997 was Polling Day in Singapore.  On that day, top PAP guns walked into and stood inside a Cheng San GRC polling station while people were lining up to cast their votes. They were Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan and Deputy Prime Minister Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong, none of whom were candidates for Cheng San GRC.

At that time, Cheng San GRC was being hotly contested by The Workers' Party. As to the extent to which citizens at Cheng San GRC polling station were influenced to change their votes upon seeing high-ranking PAP leaders congregating there, we will never know. 

PAP won Cheng San GRC by a narrow margin of 54.8% to 45.2%.

After the 1997 General Election, the Workers' Party lodged a complaint to the police that Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan and Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong had been inside a Cheng San GRC polling station on Polling Day.  The Workers' Party cited two sections of the Parliamentary Elections Act:

Section 82(1)(d):
"No person shall wait outside any polling station on polling day, except for the purpose of gaining entry to the polling station to cast his vote".

Section 82(1)(e):
"No person shall loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station on polling day."

However, the Attorney-General stated that the PAP leaders had not broken the law. 

Pointing to the use of the word “outside” in Section 82(1)(d), the Attorney-General explained[2]:

“Plainly, persons found waiting inside the polling stations do not come within the ambit of this section. …. Only those who wait outside the polling station commit an offence under this section unless they are waiting to enter the polling station to cast their votes.”

As for Section 82(1)(e), the Attorney-General pointed to the use of the word “within” and explained[3]:

“The relevant question is whether any person who is inside a polling station can be said to be "within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station". … Plainly, a person inside a polling station cannot be said to be within a radius of 200 metres of a polling station.”

All these explanations of the English prepositions “in”, “within”, “inside”, “outside” – is making my head go terbalik[4]!
 
I need to go back to reading nursery books to refresh my understanding of “inside” and “outside”. (By the way, a very good nursery book which explains the meanings of these words is the children’s classic "Inside, Outside, Upside Down" by Stan & Jan Berenstain. I used to read that book to my children when they were toddlers.)

If Singapore had an independent election commission overseeing the election procedures, the Workers’ Party would have been able to lodge their complaint to such a body, instead of lodging their complaint to the police as they did. 

Unfortunately, Singapore does not have an independent election commission.   

In 2011, UN member countries called on Singapore to establish bodies such as a human rights institution and an independent electoral commission. The Singapore Government rejected the UN calls, arguing that such bodies were not necessary. The Singapore Government said:

“Elections in Singapore have always been conducted fairly. The electoral system and its procedures are clearly spelt out in Singapore law which applies to all political participants, regardless of affiliation. The Singapore Elections Department, staffed by civil servants, adheres to the Parliamentary Elections Act and conducts elections in a fair and transparent manner. During the conduct of elections, there are equal opportunities for all political participants to observe and monitor voting operations. The result is an electoral system of integrity that has enjoyed high public trust and served Singapore well." [5]

The Singapore Government’s official explanation side-steps the actual problems of not having an independent electoral commission.

Notably, we have no safeguards against gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when electoral boundaries are drawn so as to manipulate vote percentages to benefit the political interests of an incumbent government. Gerrymandering undermines the integrity of the electoral process.  Hence, it is crucial to have an independent body to oversee the process of boundary delimiting.

At every general election in Singapore, boundaries have been drawn and re-drawn; constituencies have come and gone.  The reasons for making those changes have never been satisfactorily explained to the public. 

The Elections Department being under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, it is a hopelessly constrained agency.  We need an independent electoral commission to safeguard the integrity of the process of choosing our national leaders, and more importantly, to give citizens confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of the result.
 
The lack of an independent electoral commission is a glaring gap in Singapore’s electoral system.  The Singapore Government’s official explanation for denying its citizens the benefit of an independent election commission, is inadequate and unconvincing. 

Up to now, the ruling party has had to continually fend off persistent criticisms that it has created an un-level political playing field in order to preserve its political incumbency. However, when the PAP-led Government sets up an independent electoral commission, I am sure that PAP critics will have a lot less to complain about. 

But the time when it will be of greatest significance to the PAP, is on the day when the PAP becomes an opposition party. When that day comes, I have no doubt PAP would then be very glad for the existence of the independent election commission they had established while they had been the ruling party.  

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss





[1] Adler v George [1964] 2 QB 7
[2] http://www.singapore-window.org/ag0721.htm
[3] http://www.singapore-window.org/ag0721.htm
[4] Means “upside-down” in Bahasa Melayu
[5] (Para 96.25, Addendum to Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, 22 September 2011)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Truth or Dare? Run the Gauntlet, Torch the Ashes, Raise the Phoenix

The phoenix is a bird which rises from its own ashes to fly again stronger and fuller of life than before.

Singapore’s foremost political leader once famously stated [1]:

"What political party helps an opposition to come to power? Why should we not demolish them before they get started? Once they get started, it’s more difficult to demolish them.  If you are polite to me, I'm polite to you but I'll demolish your policy.   It is the job of every government to do that if you want to stay in power."    

The elder statesman has candidly explained that a ruling party which is in power would want to stay in power. One way to stay in power is to demolish opposition before they get started.  For once they get started it is more difficult to demolish them. 

Singapore’s ruling party has stayed in power for over 50 years.  So firm has the PAP's grip been that since the first post-independence general elections were held up to the 2011 general elections, there were never more than 4 elected Members of Parliament from the opposition.  Currently, there are just 7 out of 87.

With respect, I do not agree that it is laudable for a ruling party to seek the demolition of opposition parties.  When a political party wins the mandate to form the government, it takes on the responsibility of serving the nation. The ruling party must serve the nation in priority to its own interests. 

Is it in the interest of Singapore to have weak opposition political parties and feeble civil society organisations?  I do not think so.  Allowing circulation of differing ideas and opinions will build a more robust nation, one which would have the full complement of solutions for its problems.

Systems to guarantee plurality in politics are entrenched in many democratic nations.  For instance, in Germany, Sweden, Canada, Australia and other democracies, political parties are entitled to receive subsidies or cash grants from the government for their political activities. [2] Such government grants help to ensure the survival of political parties, their ability to play their part in the political process and the continuance of healthy competition for political office. 

Laws and regulation are necessary but must not curb healthy political competition.  Sad to say, we have many laws which have the adverse effect of stifling the activities and growth of opposition political parties and non-partisan civil society groups.  One of which is the Political Donations Act (Act) [3]. 

According to the Elections Department [4], the Act seeks to prevent foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics through funding of candidates and political associations.  

The Act imposes an onerous compliance regime on both the political association and its donors.  

A political association is defined to include not just political parties, but also non-partisan groups like The Online Citizen (a socio-political website) and MARUAH (a non-governmental organisation). 

An organisation which is deemed to be a political association can only receive donations from Permissible Donors.

A “Permissible Donor” is defined as a Singapore citizen not less than 21 years of age; or a Singapore-incorporated, Singapore-controlled company, the majority of whose directors and members are Singapore citizens and which carries on business wholly or mainly in Singapore.

Onus is on the political association to verify that the donor is a Permissible Donor before accepting the donation. 

Hence, in order to comply with the Act, the political association has to request the donor for his NRIC and to give his personal details. In the case of a corporate donor, the political association would need to inquire or do checks on the company’s business, directors and shareholders. All these inquiries are an intrusion on the donor’s privacy and discourage the donor from making the donation. 

Political associations can only accept less than $5,000 in anonymous donations per financial year.  Any anonymous donation which will bring the total of anonymous donations beyond $5,000 in that financial year, will have to be returned or surrendered to the Registrar of Political Donations (Registrar).

If the political association receives a single donation of an amount not less than $10,000, or multiple donations from the same donor the aggregate of which is not less than $10,000 in a financial year, it must submit a Donation Report to the Registrar giving the name, identity number and the address of the donor and the date, value and description of the donation.

In addition, a donor who has made multiple small donations with an aggregate value of $10,000 or more to the same political association in a calendar year, is himself also required to submit a Donation Report and a Declaration Form to the Registrar.  Failure to do so is an offence under the Act.

I am not clear how the requirement to report donations of $10,000 or more serves the stated aim of prohibiting foreign donations.  It is clear though, that such a requirement makes donors wary of making other than small donations. 

The Act is yet another hurdle for opposition parties, by making it difficult for them to raise funds for its activities. 

It is a ‘Hard Truth’ that money is necessary for democratic politics. Political parties need funds for their activities. Lack of funds inhibits the activity and growth of the political party.  

It is evident that the opposition cause has many supporters and well-wishers, and the numbers are growing. 

If only some of the many supporters would be convinced to brave the gauntlet of making political donations, I believe that it would spark such a huge game-change, that the phoenix will rise from its ashes.  

Then the promise we saw in the watershed general elections of 2011 will be allowed its fulfilment in 2016.  

References: 

[1] "HARD TRUTHS TO KEEP SINGAPORE GOING" (2011) by Lee Kuan Yew, at page 82


[3] Cap. 236, enacted on 15 February 2001


About the Author

The author is the Secretary-General of the National Solidarity Party (NSP).  This article is written in her personal capacity. 

The author appeals to readers to consider making a donation to NSP.  Click on this link to find out how to donate to NSP: http://nsp.sg/donate/

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My thoughts on the new MDA licensing regime

On 28 May 2013, the Media Development Authority (MDA) announced the introduction of a new licensing regime to take effect from 1 June 2013. Under this new regulation, "online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here" will require an individual licence from MDA.

This would apply to websites that "(i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months". 

These websites would also have to put up a S$50,000 performance bond, and commit to removing any objectionable content within 24 hours.

MDA said that the new regime aims to place the internet platforms "on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed". If consistency is desired, why not place the print media on par with the online media? 

Judging by the language of the new MDA rules, meritorious volunteer socio-political websites are caught. Such websites now are cast into a legal limbo, having to operate with the prospect of being required to be licensed hanging over their heads. If the MDA decides, they would be required to put up a $50K bond, which they cannot afford to. In contrast, MSM websites owned by profit-making, public-listed companies, would not have the same difficulties. 

It is discomforting that the Minister has the discretion, the limits of which is still unclear, to decide whether and when a website should be licensed. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of a democratic society, and as such it should be respected and carefully protected. We should never allow any fundamental constitutional liberty to be glibly trampled on.

Every Singaporean is a stakeholder in the well-being of our nation. Concerned citizens should be encouraged to play their part by expressing their views and offering their feedback. 

Enabling the expression of diverse views makes for good decision-making. To curtail and narrow variety of thought is to stifle growth and to limit solutions. 

Whatever may be the laudable premises on which the new licensing regime is said to serve, there will be a chilling effect on socio-political discourse. One hopes that the new regime is not a pretext by the incumbent to control dissenting or critical voices.  After all, it is easier to push ahead when there is lesser opposition.


Here is the link to find out the details of the protest to be held on 8 June 2013 at Hong Lim Park: http://www.facebook.com/events/185882738236629/

Here is the link to the online petition for the immediate withdrawal of the new licensing regime: http://www.petitions24.com/petition_for_the_immediate_withdrawal_of_the_licensing_regime

POSTSCRIPT: On 6 June 2013, this Blog joined more than 160 websites/blogs which blacked out their pages for 24 hrs in a mass online protest over MDA's new licensing regime.

Screen shot of this Blog when it was blacked out.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

EMPTY NEST


I used to joke that I lived in a zoo.

Four growing children jostling for space, attention and food.  Home was a never-ending commotion of chattering, shouts, squabbles and uncontrollable giggles.  Anxieties over exams, high fevers and character development competed with frustrations over lights left on, belongings lost or found elsewhere and bedrooms in a persistent mess.

For years, we ate on plastic plates and drank from unbreakable mugs: glass and children do not mix. Since day 1, we have never bought the sofa or furniture we liked or wanted. Thus, we spared ourselves from pain when sweaty bodies spread themselves over the fabric sofa, when the coffee table became stricken with ink stains or when the TV chair collapsed through repeated abuse.

Those days, I longed for peace and solitude. Even taking a shower offered no solace.  A closed door would not deter anyone below 5 feet tall from asking or discussing something with you through the same.

Now, three out of four have flown away.  We are down to our last.  Unruly bedrooms are a thing of the past. Neatness and tidiness are now able to reign as they never did before. And yes, we can now drink from glasses.

These days, when I sit in my living room, I can actually hear the sound the wind makes. 

But how I miss the sound of the front door bursting open and the rushing in of voices pitching the latest complaints; the urgent pleas for food to feed sudden hunger pangs; the wails for justice by an aggrieved party; the din of vocal negotiations over dining table rights or TV channels; the excited discourse of half-finished sentences punctuated by peals of laughter.

All that has now been consigned to memories.

To think that I can finally buy the designer crockery or the kind of sofa or furniture which I have seen and admired in other people’s houses, offer me little joy and no compensation for the quiet stillness which now resides as an unwelcome guest in my empty nest.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

VACANT SEATS, VANISHED WARDS & THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING BY-ELECTIONS


Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has held a total of 11 Parliamentary By-Elections (BEs).  The Punggol East BE would be the 12th. 

The first nine of the 11 BEs took place during the 16-year period from independence in 1965 to 1981.  After 1981, there was only one BE in 1992 and no BEs for the next 20 years, until 2012 when the Hougang BE was held. 

BE 1981 – A Watershed 

JBJ won the 1981 Anson By-Election
In 1981, Member of Parliament (MP) for Anson, C. V. Devan Nair became President and vacated the seat.  BE 1981 turned out to be a watershed.  The PAP's candidate lost to opposition candidate, J. B. Jeyaretnam in a three-cornered fight.  Jeyaretnam become the first opposition MP, ending the PAP's then 15-year monopoly.

After that, there were no BEs for 20 years even though there were several occasions when seats were vacated by death, resignation or disqualification.

Seats Left Vacant

In December 1983, MP for Havelock, Hon Sui Sen, passed away in office. No BE was held in the ward.  His seat was left vacant for the next 12 months till December 1984 when General Elections (GE) were held.  In GE 1984, the Havelock seat was erased from the electoral map.

In November 1986, Jeyaretnam’s seat in Anson was vacated after he was disqualified from holding a seat in Parliament. The following month in December 1986, the Geylang West seat became vacant after its MP, Teh Cheang Wan committed suicide.  No BE was held for either of those two vacated seats till the next GE, held in September 1988.  In GE 1988, the wards of Anson and Geylang West were erased from the electoral map.

For nearly two years, Singaporeans residing in Anson and Geylang West had no MP of their own while Parliament was short of two elected MPs.  Before those two seats become vacant, Parliament had 79 elected MPs.  Did 77 elected MPs do the job as well as 79?  Yet, for GE 1988, the number of elected MPs was increased from 79 to 81. 

Inception of GRCs

In 1988, Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced.  Under the newly enacted laws applicable to GRCs, it provided that the government would be obligated to hold a BE only if ALL the MPs in a GRC vacated their seats. [1] There would be no obligation to hold a BE if one GRC seat was vacated.   The effect of this is that all GRC seats are virtually guaranteed to remain in place and GRC territory would not be up for grabs despite any vacancy, until the next GE.        

Since GRCs were introduced, more and more areas became GRCs and the number of Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) drastically shrank over successive GEs.  For GE 1988, there were 42 SMCs.  For GE 1991, the number of SMCs shrank to 21.  For GE 1997, GE 2001 and GE 2006, the number of SMCs were 9.  For GE 2011 it was slightly increased to 12.    

BE 1992 in Marine Parade GRC

The 10th BE was held in Marine Parade GRC in December 1992.  This BE was called by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who wanted to bring new blood into the PAP’s ranks and also secure a stronger mandate after PAP lost an unprecedented four seats at GE 1991. 

On this occasion, the entire group of PAP MPs at Marine Parade GRC resigned, paving the way for a BE.  This was the first and only time in Singapore's political history that a BE for a GRC was held.  PAP won back Marine Parade GRC in a four-cornered contest.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 1997

On 5 August 1993, MP for Eunos GRC, Dr Tay Eng Soon passed away.  Also in August 1993, MP for Toa Payoh GRC, Ong Teng Cheong resigned from PAP to run as Singapore's first elected President.  Those being GRC seats, the PAP government was not obligated by the law to hold any BE and did not do so. Those two GRC seats remained vacant for the next 3 years and 5 months until GE 1997.  In GE 1997, Eunos GRC and Toa Payoh GRC, which stood for almost a decade since 1988, disappeared from the electoral map. 

For GE 1991, the number of elected seats was 81.  When those two GRC seats were vacated in 1993 by Dr Tay Eng Soon’s passing and Ong Teng Cheong’s resignation, Parliament carried on with less than its full cohort of elected MPs till it was dissolved by GE 1997.

So if 79 MPs could do the job as well as 81, did we need 81 MPs? Yet, the total number of elected seats was increased to 83 in GE 1997.
 
GRC seat vacant till GE 2001

In December 1999, MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Choo Wee Khiang resigned from his MP position and PAP membership before pleading guilty to cheating charges in court. With Choo's resignation, then Acting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the other Jalan Besar GRC MPs would continue to serve the constituents. The GRC seat was left vacant for the next 1 year 10 months till the next GE held in October 2001.

2 GRC seats vacant till GE 2011

In July 2008, MP for Jurong GRC, Dr Ong Chit Chung passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 2 years 10 months till the next GE held in May 2011.  On 27 September 2010, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Dr S. Balaji passed away.  His seat was left vacant for 7 months till GE 2011.  As those seats were not filled, the total number of elected MPs in Parliament dropped from 84 to 82. It seemed 82 MPs could do the job as well as 84.  However for GE 2011, the number of elected seats increased to 87.  

BE 2012 in Hougang 

On 15 February 2012, Workers’ Party MP for Hougang, Yaw Shing Leong was expelled from his political party, which left his seat vacant.  The next day, the Prime Minister told the press that there was no fixed time within which he must call for a by-election. [2]  Concerned about the prospect of having no MP indefinitely, Hougang constituent Mdm Vellama d/o Marie Muthu applied to Court on 2 March 2012 to challenge the government’s position that the timing of the BE at the Prime Minister’s discretion.  On 9 May 2012, the Prime Minister called for a BE in Hougang, the first in 20 years.  In a one-on-one straight fight with the PAP, the Workers’ Party won back their Hougang seat.

Prime Minister’s Discretion

For GRCs, statute provides that the government has no obligation to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.  Even so, academics have weighed in to say that “a strong moral and political case - on the principle of representative democracy - can be made for holding a BE in a GRC when one member has vacated his seat.”[3]  What if it was the minority MP who vacated his GRC seat?  What if the GRC loses not one but two of its MPs? So it may not be all that certain the government does not have to call for a BE if a GRC seat is vacated.
  
As for SMCs, the PAP government has made clear their position that “The timing of the by-election is at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not obliged to call a by-election within any fixed time frame.” [4]  Mdm Vellama’s challenge is currently being heard by the Court of Appeal[5]

On all those occasions when the Prime Minister exercised his discretion and decided not to hold any BE to fill the vacant seat, did the Prime Minister exercise his discretion in the interest of the electorate, or otherwise?  What about the constituents’ democratic right to be represented in parliament by one whom they have elected?  

In her article, "Snap polls a sign of change in PAP's approach?" published in the Straits Times on 10 January 2013, opinion editor Ms Chua Mui Hoong said that PAP has a "track record of not holding by-elections, unless it was for its own planned succession". 

If Ms Chua Mui Hoong is right, then all those times when the PAP government decided not to hold any BE to fill vacant seats, those decisions were self-serving.

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

Reference: http://www.singapore-elections.com/



[1] Section 24(2A), Parliamentary Elections Act, Cap. 218
[2] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1183211/1/.html
[3] “By-Election” The Straits Times, 1 August 2008 see link at http://newshub.nus.edu.sg/news/0808/PDF/BY-st-1Aug-p32.pdf
[4] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reply in Parliament on calling a by-election in Hougang SMC (9 March 2012)  see link at http://www.pmo.gov.sg/content/pmosite/mediacentre/speechesninterviews/primeminister/2012/March/transcript_of_primeministerleehsienloongsoralanswerinparliamento.html
[5] Vellama d/o Marie Muthu v Attorney General (Civil Appeal No. 97 of 2012)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Blue Pill or Red Pill?


I delivered this speech on 2 June 2012 at the ‘That We May Dream Again’ Event.




Click here for the link to the YouTube video clip of my speech.









How many of you have seen ‘The Matrix’, the movie with the handsome Keanu Reeves as Neo and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus? [1]  

In the Matrix movie, Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills: a blue pill and a red pill.  This is how Mopheus explained the choice to Neo:

I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole? 
Let me tell you why you're here.
You're here because you know something.
What you know you can't explain,
but you feel it ... … There is something wrong with the world.
You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. 
You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.
You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  

Credit: Christian Mes, Law School Memes

I kinda felt like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the Rabbit Hole, when I read Teo Soh Lung’s book, and when I began to find out what happened to those who were arrested on 21 May 1987.



‘Prequel’ to Operation Spectrum

Straits Times article published on 22 May 1986
But let me tell you what happened exactly one year before.

On 22 May 1986, the Straits Times reported that the Law Society of Singapore was strongly critical of the Government for proposing new laws which would curb the freedom of the press.  Teo Soh Lung was head of the Law Society Committee which prepared the critical press statement.  The Law Society was concerned that the proposed new laws would restrict freedom of speech. The Law Society’s public objections to the proposed laws attracted much attention. 

But despite the controversies, the proposed new laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in August 1986.  After all, there were only 2 opposition MPs out of 79 seats in Parliament.

Was the Government unhappy with the Law Society for speaking against the proposed new laws?

A few months later in 1986, the Government proposed yet another set of new laws, this time aiming at the Law Society.  One of the proposed new laws was to remove the Law Society’s right to offer comments on matters affecting law, unless asked by the Government to do so.

Again, Teo Soh Lung headed the committee under the Law Society to review these proposed new laws aimed at lawyers.  About 400 lawyers met and passed a resolution for the Law Society to call on the Government to withdraw its proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act.  However, despite the strong objections, the proposed laws were voted through by Parliament and became law in October 1986. 

So a very peculiar situation thereby arose in Singapore. The Law Society is, by law, not allowed to speak up on law, unless invited up the Government to do so.  This restraint on the Law Society remains to this day.  The Law Society cannot speak, unless spoken to.  

Then, in the early hours of 21 May 1987, Teo Soh Lung was arrested and detained under ISA.

Do you think her arrest was expected or unexpected? 

For Soh Lung, it was completely unexpected.  She had been watching Miss Universe the night before. 

‘All Power Has Legal Limits’

Soh Lung and other detainees appealed to the Court against their ISA detention orders. [3]

In the course of dealing with Teo Soh Lung’s appeal, the Court of Appeal declared that all power has legal limits. The rule of law demands that the courts should be able to review the Minister’s decision to detain anyone under ISA. The Minister did not have unlimited discretion. 

This was wonderful news to the detainees.  The detainees would have the Court’s protection against abuse of the ISA.

What happened next?

Within one month, the Government drew up new laws to take away the Court’s power to review the Minister’s decision to detain a person under ISA.  The proposed new laws would completely reverse the effect of the Court of Appeal’s judgment a month ago.  These new laws were voted on by Parliament and become law in January 1989.  Henceforth, if the Minister decides to detain a person under ISA, he has no obligation to explain his decision to any Judge.  This is still the case today. 

Strange?  I think so.  The Government acted with lightning speed to amend the Constitution and the ISA, to cancel the effect of a Court of Appeal judgment. 

Credit: Jared Nash, Law School Memes
The Singapore Constitution

In Singapore, Parliament can enact or amend ordinary law with the support of a simple majority (i.e. more than 50%) of elected MPs. 

As for the Constitution, it cannot be amended unless with the approval of two-thirds of elected MPs. 

However, throughout the history of Singapore, there has never been more than a handful of opposition MPs in Parliament.  That being the case, it would not be terribly difficult to get the requisite majority needed to amend the Constitution or to change laws. 

In fact, since independence, there have been some 40 acts of parliament to amend the Singapore Constitution.  Our Constitution has been amended loads of times.

Can it be right to constantly amend the Constitution or to keep changing the laws?  What are the limits?

We have seen how quickly laws have been proposed and voted through by Parliament.  This is because our system is one where the ruling party has, at all times, held an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament. 

I don’t think it is just about amending or abolishing the ISA.  Ultimately, the ISA is but a tool.  As with any tool, we also need to consider he who wields the tool.  We need to consider the entire system under which we operate. 

So under our present system, how is the use of powers checked and balanced?  Who checks and balances powers?  Who can we rely on for protection against unjust use of powers?  The Courts ?  Opposition MPs ?  NMPs ?  NCMPs ?  Mr Brown perhaps ? 

The ‘One’ Who Shall Protect Us

But I know The One who can be our Strong Protector. The One is in our midst here.  The One I speak of is YOU and ME: Citizens, Ordinary Citizens who are not afraid to Speak Up when things do not seem right. 

A strong civil society with an active citizenry is a powerful counter-weight against any wrong use of powers.  They know the power of our combined voices.  Which is why much efforts have been made, and will continue to be made, to control our freedoms.   

Friends, for too long, we have been afraid and too silent.  But let us not be afraid or silent anymore.  Let us embrace our whole humanity – we are people who think and feel.  And we CARE and we WILL speak up against wrongs and injustice.

Let us re-activate our minds, quicken our conscience for rights and wrongs, restore our voices and reclaim our freedoms.  Let us bring active citizenry back to its rightful place in our society.  Our minds, our heart and our voices in active citizenry - that is our best safeguard against bullying. 

The Choice

Let me come back to what Morpheus said to Neo. 

Here is the blue pill. Here is the red pill. 

Take the blue pill – forget the hard truths, remain in Oblivion and dream about illusions.

Take the red pill - know the truth, leave your detention cell, and dare to dream about a new future. 

Do you not want to take control of your life? 

Do you not want to shape your own your future? 

You need no longer be slaves to fear.  Freedom is at hand. 

Take the red pill and take your place in society. 

____________________________

FOOTNOTES

[1]  In Greek mythology, Morpheus is the God of Dreams, responsible for the dreams of people.

[2] The complete dialogue between Morpheus and Neo is fascinating.  Click here for the dialogue transcript:  Click here for a clip of this pivotal scene from the movie.

Me with Chng Suan Tze
[3] Chng Suan Tze v Minister of Home Affairs [1988] SGCA 16.   


Me with Teo Soh Lung