It could turn out to be one of the costliest walks Singaporean Seelan Palay has ever taken.
The 33-year-old artist was charged on Friday for participating in a public procession without a permit, thereby breaching Singapore’s Public Order Act.
If convicted, the maximum penalty is a fine of up to S$3,000 (US$2,235) for first-time offenders and up to S$5,000 (US$3,725) for repeat offenders.
The “public procession” in question took place on October 1, 2017, when Palay presented his performance art piece “32 Years: The Interrogation of Mirror.”
The piece was a response to the experience of former Member of Parliament Chia Thye Poh, who spent a total of 32 years in detention without trial and under house arrest.
Beginning first in Hong Lim Park, the only space in Singapore in which citizens and permanent residents can assemble for a cause without permit, Palay then made his way, carrying a simple mirror, to the National Gallery—housed in Singapore’s old City Hall and Supreme Court buildings—and finally Parliament House.
After about half an hour of standing silently with his mirror, Palay was handcuffed and arrested by the police.
Singapore is known for strict laws against protests and demonstrations, but many aren’t aware of how far this control extends.
The Public Order Act, passed in 2009 ahead of the city-state hosting high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, has a broad definition of the term “assembly.”
That includes demonstrating support for or opposition to the government, publicizing a cause, or commemorating an event which includes even “a demonstration by a person alone for any such purpose.”
During the parliamentary debate over the Act, K Shanmugam — then a second minister for home affairs, now minister for home affairs and law — argued that the city’s population density, diverse races and religions, and need for stability made such legislation necessary.
“Every action by one group of people, however small, can have an impact – physically or emotionally – on another group,” he said.
He added: “We believe that stability for us is an existential issue, both economically and as a society. If key facilities were to be shut down as a result of instability, the impact on us would be far greater and far more corrosive than it would be in larger countries.”
The law is used to punitive effect. A 42-year-old man was sentenced to six-and-a-half months’ imprisonment and a S$5,000 (US$3,725) fine in April after he was convicted of three charges relating to a solo protest in Singapore’s business district just months after serving his sentence for a previous demonstration.
This isn’t Palay’s first run-in with the law. He had previously been jailed for participating in protests with other individuals, and subject to numerous investigations for activities spanning demonstrating outside of the Myanmar embassy to selling a book on Singapore’s use of the death penalty by British journalist Alan Shadrake.
(Shadrake spent a spell in a Singaporean prison after being found guilty of “scandalizing” the judiciary in his book).
Palay told Asia Times that he chose to end his performance at Parliament House because Chia had been a Member of Parliament before his long detention.
“I knew there was a possibility of some trouble,” he said, adding that he would have simply finished his performance and gone home if there had been no trouble with the authorities.
“It [was] more of a question that the work [was] trying to pose. So I [knew] there was a possibility but it was still up to the state to decide what they [would] do.”
That day, he was arrested at about 3:10 pm for allegedly participating in a public procession to commemorate Chia’s detention without a permit.
The police charge sheet said Palay meant to “demonstrate opposition to the actions of the Singapore government” in relation to Chia’s detention and the designation of Hong Lim Park “as an area for public entertainment in the form of performances.”
“The fact that a one-person assembly is considered illegal is completely absurd,” said Rachel Zeng, a member of a loose group of Singaporean activists known as the Community Action Network.
“It shows how allergic the authorities are towards politicized members of the public and reflects a high level of intolerance towards possible dissent and criticism.”
“To charge [Seelan] for voicing out solidarity with Chia Thye Poh, who was never granted a trial in the whole duration of his incarceration, actually prolongs the injustice,” she added.
Protests, whether involving individuals or a group, aren’t banned outright in the island state. But police permits can be difficult to obtain.
Terry Xu, who runs the independent news website The Online Citizen, put this to the test earlier this year. He made his two permit applications after being informed by the police that a permit would be required to station himself at a central train station to collect petition signatures for the provision of a live feed of Parliament sittings.
The second application was for a solo protest with a placard outside Parliament House late at night, while the third application was for a late night silent protest where he planned to sit alone, without any signage, in the heart of the business district long after most workers have clocked off. All four applications were rejected.
“Police have carefully assessed your application and take the view that the events applied for carry a risk of causing public disorder, as well as damage to property,” said the police in response to his final application.
“This to me shows that there is no intention of any sort by the police to grant permits for any form of assembly, regardless of whether it is a one-man peaceful protest or gathering of signatures,” Xu said.
Asia Times’ requests for comment from the Singapore police were not returned. Palay is scheduled for a pre-trial conference on May 30; Palay has decided to legally represent himself.