Singapore

'Ambiguities in rules and regulations on public assembly in Singapore'

When women's rights group the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) organised its International Women's Day carnival at the Speakers' Corner in 2015, it expected the process of booking the venue to be smooth sailing.

After all, it had held the same event the previous year with no incidents. This time round, things were different.

More than two months after its application to the National Parks Board (NParks), Aware was told it now needed to apply for a separate police permit.

The reason given: The group would be using a sound system.

This is even though it is not listed as a condition for which a police permit is necessary.

In the end, Aware got the green light - just three days before the event.

The episode illustrates what some civil society and arts groups say are ambiguities in the rules and regulations on public assembly in Singapore.

They call for more clarity as well as for the authorities to process permit applications quicker, so that organisers can firm up their plans.

Said Aware's head of advocacy and research Jolene Tan: "The uncertainty and difficulty of finding out about permit requirements is a barrier to event organisers.

"Finding out exactly which permits apply usually involves correspondence with various agencies and preparing large amounts of information for them before you even seek the permit itself."

Such concerns have surfaced in the wake of charges brought against civil rights activist Jolovan Wham last month for organising public assemblies without a police permit.

Under the Public Order Act, it is a criminal offence to organise or participate in a public assembly without a police permit.

The sole exception is Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park - the only place in Singapore where people can hold outdoor demonstrations without a police permit.

REQUIRED

It would be required if foreigners are involved or if race and religion are to be discussed.

Approval from NParks is still required for use of the space even if a police permit is not needed.

Interviews with 10 groups that have organised activities at the Speakers' Corner over the years found a mixed bag of experiences.

Ms Elaine Chow, president of Breastfeeding Mothers' Support Group, said it can be an "arduous process" for those unfamiliar with the requirements.

It got a police permit just one day before its 2015 event Big Latch On which celebrates World Breastfeeding Week, making for a nerve-racking experience.

It was open to foreigners, and the group had applied three weeks in advance.

But the authorities also helped to facilitate the application process, added Ms Chow.

Applications to hold events at the Speakers' Corner are made through a form on the NParks website.

It contains links to legal requirements under the Public Order Act and the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act that applicants have to meet.

For activist Gilbert Goh, 56, president of non-profit society transitioning.org, time is an issue.

He said an advance notice period of two weeks for a police permit to be processed is too long for events held in response to current affairs issues.

But others, including the organisers of the annual gay rights rally Pink Dot SG, said they are taking it in their stride, adding that the lengthy process "is not uncommon for most big public events".

National University of Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat called for more transparency on rules pertaining to the use of the Speakers' Corner given the importance of the space in giving visibility to public opinions.

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