On 23 September 2022, anti-death penalty activist Rocky Howe filed an application in court to seek, among other things, a declaration that the police had abused its powers in investigating him for participating in a purported ‘illegal procession’. Rocky Howe and independent journalist Kirsten Han — both members of the Transformative Justice Collective — were hauled in for investigation in June, for allegedly participating in two ‘illegal assemblies’ outside Changi Prison earlier this year: once when they sat there with a few others the night before the execution of Abdul Kahar bin Othman, and another time when they took photos with the sign “END OPPRESSION, NOT LIFE”’ two nights before Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam was hanged.
Both Rocky and Kirsten went to the police station wearing T-shirts bearing anti-death penalty slogans.
During the interrogation, police officers took issue with the T-shirts that they were wearing. Specifically, the police officers claimed that by walking from the nearby market to the police station in those T-shirts, they had participated in an ‘illegal procession’.
The T-shirts that they were wearing were then confiscated on the spot. Their friend who was at the waiting area of the police station had to hastily purchase other T-shirts for them to wear instead. On top of seizing their mobile phones, the police also asked Kirsten for her social media passwords, which she refused to give them.
Police overreach and harassment of activists and critics of the government are longstanding issues in Singapore, and have intensified in recent years, with the expansion of police powers to search and seize, and a growing arsenal of legislation like POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) and FICA (Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act) that can be used to police and punish almost any activity or association the government deems a threat.
In 2013, cartoonist Leslie Chew was arrested and detained for two days for drawings which highlighted discrimination faced by the Malay community. The police confiscated his laptop, mobile phone and hard disk. In 2015, activist and ex-political detainee Teo Soh Lung’s mobile phone and laptop were confiscated by police officers because she made a public Facebook post on ‘cooling off day’, which prohibits anyone from campaigning on the eve of polling day during elections.
In 2020, two young Singaporeans were investigated for each participating in a one-person climate strike. Their mobile phones and electronic devices were also seized. There are many other such examples of citizens and civil society groups being intimidated by the police. The chilling effects of such abuse of power is that citizens are cowed into submission, and are afraid of participating in the civil and political life of the country.
Police powers often go unchallenged and unchecked. The Internal Affairs Office, which supposedly investigates police misconduct, is not an independent body, lacks accountability, and operates as a department in the Singapore Police Force.
Over the past two years, TJC has interviewed many persons who have experienced heavy-handedness by law enforcement. Based on these conversations, we fear that assault under custody, arbitrary detentions, threats of harm, and forced confessions may be routinely deployed, not just by the police but other law enforcement agencies as well. It is almost impossible to verify accounts of abusive behaviour by the police and other law enforcement agencies, as they are extremely opaque institutions that only answer citizen or media queries on their own terms.
There are no cameras in police interview rooms and the government has refused to install them despite calls from some activists and opposition politicians to do so. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are constantly surveilled as they go about their lives, by an exponentially growing number of police cameras.
Lawyers are not allowed to be present during the interrogation process, making it easier for law enforcement authorities to ride roughshod over ordinary citizen’s basic rights. Accused persons and others required to attend police investigations are not entitled to immediate access to lawyers. Horrifyingly, just yesterday (13 October 2022), the media reported that a 19 year-old facing capital charges has been denied access to his lawyer while in remand and subject to days of police interrogations, despite his lawyer’s repeated applications to see and advise him. This lack of accountability and grave power imbalances between those with institutional power and those without is endemic across our key public institutions.
Singapore’s laws — in particular, the criminal procedure code — are worded in vague and broad terms, paving the way for excessive, disproportionate use of police powers. When police powers are used to haul up, detain and harass ordinary citizens who express their views peaceably, we must question whose interests the police exist to serve. If we were free from the threat of police harassment and punishment, how much more able would each of us feel to speak our minds, disagree with those in power, and stand up for what we believe is right?
Activists, journalists, academics, artists, students, civil society groups and other ordinary workers in our society have both the right and responsibility to hold to account our government, our employers, and other institutions that affect our lives profoundly. Our ability to fulfill this role is severely compromised when we are intimidated into submission. We are incapacitated by the ever-present threat of punishment for crossing visible and invisible lines, left with little choice but to surrender to the will of those in power, or face significant legal, social and material sanctions for daring to question an oppressive status quo.
In an authoritarian regime that thrives on our obedience and compliance, Rocky’s court application is a necessary act of resistance. Such acts of resistance are rare in Singapore. There are less than a handful of cases where ordinary citizens have sued the police force. In taking out this application, Rocky stands in solidarity with the thousands of ordinary people who, under the PAP government, have been intimidated by law enforcement, detained without trial, forced into exile, imprisoned, fined, sued, bankrupted, had their homes raided and their belongings seized, lost their jobs, and who have been publicly shamed and slandered for daring to dream of a more just, compassionate Singapore, and working towards building one. And we at TJC stand with him. As long as we resist, they cannot bury our voices.