The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Singapore is not a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 21 of which governs the right of peaceful assembly.
The right of peaceful assembly is, though, a fundamental human right that is part of the corpus of customary international law. It is also a general principle of law.See Art. 38(1), 1945 Statute of the International Court of Justice.
There is not yet a regional human rights treaty to which South-East Asian nations can adhere, although a non-binding human rights declaration was issued by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013. Paragraph 24 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration provides that: "Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly." Singapore is a founder member of ASEAN.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Section 14(1)(b) of the 1965 Constitution of the Republic of Singapore grants every citizen of Singapore the right to assemble peaceably and without arms. Under Clause 2(b), Parliament may by law impose "such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof or public order".
The 2009 Public Order Act (as amended through 2012) and the Public Entertainment and Meeting Act are used to control any public assemblies, including public rallies or demonstrations, public discussions, or unauthorised political meetings.
The Public Order Act defines an assembly as follows:
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).
Authorisation must be secured for any public assembly. Under Section 13(1), if,
in the case of any proposed public assembly or public procession, the Minister is of the opinion that it is necessary in the public interest to do so, the Minister may, by order published in the Gazette, prohibit the holding of that public assembly or public procession.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
According to Section 75(2) of the 1955 Criminal Procedure Code (as amended), if a person "forcibly resists or tries to evade arrest, the police officer or other person may use all reasonable means necessary to make the arrest." It is further specified that the person arrested "must not be restrained more than is necessary to prevent his escape".S. 76, 1955 Criminal Procedure Code (as amended).
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
According to Section 63(2) of the 1955 Act,
a police officer may act in any manner (including doing anything likely to cause the death of, or grievous hurt to, any person) if the police officer has reasonable grounds to believe that —
(a) the person (whether acting alone or in concert with any other person) is doing or about to do, something which may amount to a terrorist act; and
(b) such act by the police officer is necessary to apprehend the person.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Singapore is not a State Party to the ICCPR.
In the 2015 Universal Periodic Review of Singapore under the UN Human Rights Council, the right of peaceful assembly was addressed by the government as follows:
Singaporeans have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech and expression. This, however, is not an unqualified right, as acknowledged by the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which also recognises limits to freedom of expression, including those provided by law and those necessary for the respect of the rights and reputations of others, for the protection of national security, public order or public health or morals.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2011 report on Singapore:
Public assemblies are subject to extensive restrictions. Police permits are required for assemblies that occur outdoors; limited restrictions apply to indoor gatherings. Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park is the designated site for open assembly, though events there can likewise be restricted if they are deemed disruptive. Non-Singaporeans are generally prohibited from participating in or attending public assemblies that are considered political or sensitive. A 2017 amendment to the Public Order Act increased the authorities’ discretion to ban public meetings and barred foreign nationals from organizing, funding, or even observing gatherings that could be used for a political purpose.
The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act of 2018 granted the home affairs minister and police enhanced authority in the context of a “serious incident,” which was vaguely defined to include scenarios ranging from terrorist attacks to peaceful protests. Officials would be permitted to potentially use lethal force and to halt newsgathering and online communications in the affected area. The special powers could even be invoked in advance of a likely or threatened incident.
Authorities in recent years have increasingly punished activists for holding unauthorized events, including even the smallest possible “assemblies.” Activist Jolovan Wham was fined in 2019 for “organizing an assembly without a permit,” having organized a conference in 2016 that featured a speech via video link by a prodemocracy leader from Hong Kong. Wham’s appeal in the matter was dismissed in August 2020, and he elected to spend 10 days in jail rather than pay a fine of S$2,000 (US$1,400), though he paid a separate S$1,200 (US$860) fine for refusing to sign a police statement. In November, Wham was charged with staging an illegal protest for holding a sign with a smiley face near a police station in March, in support of two young activists being investigated by the authorities. The two activists had separately posed for photographs in public that month while holding protest signs about climate change.