Delivered in Parliament on 5 October 2021
Mr Speaker sir, the government has set out its rationale for the Repeal of the Sedition Act Bill. It said that it had used the Sedition Act in the past to address various forms of conduct that could weaken our social fabric and undermine our institutions. However, new laws were introduced to deal with these concerns in a ‘more targeted and calibrated manner’, such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019, the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act 2016, the Undesirable Publications Act, the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, and specific provisions under the Penal Code. MHA has said that, for this reason, it finds that the Sedition Act is of limited application and can be repealed but as a result, various provisions in other Acts are being amended.
Sir, I do not oppose this Bill but will pose some clarifying questions to the Minister on areas of concern.
Time Limit for Prosecution
Firstly, under Section 5(1) of the Sedition Act, no prosecution for an offence under section 4 shall be begun except within 6 months after the offence is committed, provided that for the purposes of this subsection a prosecution shall be deemed to be begun against any person when a warrant or summons has been issued in respect of any charge made against that person and based on the facts or incident in respect of which the prosecution afterwards proceeds. This would appear to create a time limit for prosecution for any offences committed under the Sedition Act. This plays a useful role of helping to reduce the risk of a suspect being investigated too long after the event, when relevant evidence may not be fully available.
With the consequential amendment to Section 267C of the Penal Code, this time limit for prosecution would not seem to apply anymore. I would like to ask the Minister to confirm this and if it is so, what is the basis for making this change?
Shouldn’t the time limit for prosecution provision have been also added as an amendment to the Penal Code in this Bill, in the same way that this Bill makes the offences described in Sections 298, 298A and 505 of the Penal Code arrestable because they are arrestable in the now-to-be-repealed Sedition Act?
“Counselling Civil Disobedience”
Secondly, the new Section 267C of the Penal Code will be amended to clarify that “counselling disobedience to the law” includes, but is not limited to, providing instruction, advice, or information that promotes disobedience to the law. My concern here is with the phrase “information that promotes disobedience to the law and such order.”
I would like to clarify whether the act of merely conveying information about the topic of civil disobedience, without any intent to induce someone to commit a specific act of civil disobedience, would count as an offence.
For example, a lecturer may teach a module on the history of civil disobedience as part of a course in history or politics. Or citizens may convey information to one another or on social media about acts of civil disobedience that have been committed elsewhere or in the past, or ideas relating to the philosophic arguments for and/or against civil disobedience.
If there is no specific intent to induce a person to commit a specific act of civil disobedience in Singapore that can be demonstrated from the said sharing of information, would this still constitute an offence? I think it should not. But I welcome the Minister’s assurance on this point.
Thirdly sir, this Bill makes offences under 298 and 298A arrestabale, meaning that the Police may arrest without a warrant. No doubt these powers were already in the now-to-be-repealed Sedition Act. However, I would like to ask for clarification about why these offences are now being made arrestable in the Penal Code for the following reasons.
At Para 11 of the MHA press release accompanying the First Reading of this Bill, (https://www.mha.gov.sg/mediaroom/press-releases/first-reading-of-the-sedition-repeal-bill/), MHA pointed out that the offences under the Sedition Act are arrestable, and states that with its repeal, making this change is “to ensure that the Police can continue to act swiftly and effectively when dealing with egregious cases that affect social cohesion”. Hence, MHA proposes to make, among other things, Sections 298 and 298A in the Penal Code, that deal with conduct which threatens social cohesion and harmony, arrestable.
The problem is, Sections 298 and 298A are broadly worded. By way of contrast, even the offences in the colonial-era Sedition Act contain safeguards and exceptions to protect legitimate, non-seditious speech, which these sections of the Penal Code do not appear to contain.
Section 3(1) of the now to be repealed Sedition Act defines a seditious tendency, and includes:
S 3(1)(e) “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.”
Crucially, however, section 3(2) sets out a list of exceptions to specify what shall not be deemed as seditious:
“(2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), any act, speech, words, publication or other thing shall not be deemed to be seditious by reason only that it has a tendency —
(a) to show that the Government has been misled or mistaken in any of its measures;
(b) to point out errors or defects in the Government or the Constitution as by law established or in legislation or in the administration of justice with a view to the remedying of such errors or defects;
(c) to persuade the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Singapore; or
(d) to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes of the population of Singapore, if such act, speech, words, publication or other thing has not otherwise in fact a seditious tendency.”
Section 4 then sets out the list of offences under the Sedition Act.
In contrast, Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code as amended by this Bill do not have such express exceptions or safeguards.
Perhaps the “safeguards” come in the requirement that there must be “deliberate intention” to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person in Section 298. In Section 298A, the offender must know that they are promoting or attempting to promote feelings of ill-will etc between different racial or religious groups, or must know that they are committing an act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity.
However, I am not sure if such requirements in Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code really provide for the same safeguards as section 3(2) of the Sedition Act. In particular, I am concerned about the scope of section 298A(b) – what if someone points out something which they know is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and is likely to disturb the public tranquility, but they are doing so for the purpose of trying to point it out so as to remove it? This would fall under the exception to section 3(2)(d) of the Sedition Act but with the Sedition Act to be appealed, that would not be an exception in the amended Penal Code. Will the Police investigate such conduct as a potential offence?
Sir, because of the safeguards in the Sedition Act but which are not in Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code, I do not think that the offences under the Sedition Act, versus Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code are a like-for-like swap or “porting over”, as it were.
Sir, MHA’s rationale for adding arrestability to these two offences, aside from merely porting these over from the Sedition Act, is also so is “to ensure that the Police can continue to act swiftly and effectively when dealing with egregious cases that affect social cohesion”. However, is there a threshold for what constitutes “egregious”, and if so, what are some of the criteria for it? Determining such offences involves judgement. And by making these offences arrestable and giving the Police the power to arrest without a warrant, would that not increase the risk of the wrong judgement being made, which might inflame a delicate situation further? How would that risk be mitigated?
Lastly, sir, Section 298 and 298A of the CPC were amended when the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was amended back in October 2019. I would like to clarify if those amendments are already in force. The Statues Online facility does not reflect any MRHA amendment being in force from 2019. The last amendment reflected there is in 2011. If the amendments to the MRHA passed by Parliament in 2019 are not yet in force, why is this the case?