SINGAPORE: Public order and good governance are "key" lessons Singapore can learn from the protests in different parts of the world including in Hong Kong, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said in Parliament on Monday (Mar 2).
Mr Shanmugam was speaking during the Committee of Supply debate on Singapore's approach to public order.
Since June last year, hundreds of thousands of protestors have conducted anti-government demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong, blocking roads and using improvised weapons in increasingly violent clashes with police.
"Some of them have engaged in extremely violent, disruptive behaviour, with the whole purpose of crippling the government," Mr Shanmugam said. "(They have) inflicted severe damage to the economy, and to the reputation of the city."
Mr Shanmugam said the protests also caused "very severe challenges" for the Hong Kong police force, pointing out that they were caught between the need to uphold public order and protestors who resorted to increasingly violent tactics just to instigate the police.
They also "severely damaged" the relationship between the police and the public, he said, adding that protestors were violent towards both police and residents who tried to go against them.
Mr Shanmugam said this was not helped by the "one-sided portrayal of the situation" in particular by international media, which he added often focused on criticising only the police.
"The demonstrators were always titled pro-democracy protestors. The police always were the reference to their brutality, a brutal response," he said.
One example, he said, was the first time a police officer fired a live round. "The media depicted it as an example police brutality as the picture went around the world. But all the events leading up to that point were ignored," he said.
"Protestors, as I said, were often portrayed in a positive light. The police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed. All that was ignored."
Mr Shanmugam said the Hong Kong police was “seriously stretched” as it faced “persistent criticism” both domestically and internationally.
"Even when they were off-duty, they had to fend off protestors targeting their family and their loved ones. Morale was obviously affected."
The first "key lesson" from this for Singapore is the approach to maintaining public order, Mr Shanmugam said.
“The actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society,” he said,
This is why Singapore has zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests, he said, pointing to the Public Order Act that makes it an offence to organise or participate in a public assembly without a permit.
Singaporeans who want to protest or demonstrate about issues can do so at the Speakers' Corner for protests without a permit, he said.
While Mr Shanmugam said authorities have been criticised for disallowing protests outside the Speakers' Corner, even if it is with just one person, he questioned where the line should be drawn. "How many protesters are acceptable, how do we tell what will be a peaceful protest, and what will escalate into violence?"
Mr Shanmugam said part of the issue with Hong Kong is that it allows protests, with police allowed to intervene only when they turn violent.
"By the time you have 50,000 people on the streets, and some people go in there deliberately intent on creating violence, how does the police handle this?" he asked.
"This sets up the police for failure and sets up the police to be the fall guys. It's far better to stage protests in specific places. Otherwise, no protests in other places."
This strikes a balance between competing interests, he said, adding that some protestors demonstrate at "iconic" places like Orchard Road to disturb others and get their cause noticed.
"So on the one side is the desire of protestors to get themselves noticed, on the other side is the disamenity to the rest of the community," he added.
"Why should one be favoured and why should the rest of the community just accept it?"
The second lesson Mr Shanmugam said, is that public order is not only about law and order, but also good governance.
"If you seek to deal with protests and your approach to protests is simply to have tough laws and enforce them, it's not going to work because underlying it is what's your social order?" he asked.
"What's the level of inequality, what's the social justice, how do people feel in your society, is it a fair society, do people want to support the system, do they by and large believe that they benefit from the system."
If a large majority of people feel that the system is fair and gives them opportunities, Mr Shanmugam said, this breeds faith in the system and ensures only a small number want to break the law, making it easier for police to handle it.
"But if a significant section of your population believes that the social economic system and the benefits are fundamentally unfair, and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, then no amount of strict policing and laws are going to keep people off the streets," he continued.
"The first point of importance for any government and for us as a lesson is really social economic political structure. It must deliver good governance, it must deliver to the majority, then your police force can go and deal with those who break the law and the rest of the population will say yes we support it. These people ought not to be breaking the law."
"You have to build it on a basis of fairness, upholding moral responsibility on the part of the leadership, proper governance - an approach of upright virtuous governance which inspires people."
Referring to Chinese history, Mr Shanmugam described how the Han dynasty rule inspired by Confucianism appealed to people as it led to progress as well as internal peace and stability, as opposed to the Qin dynasty's system of legalism of strict laws, harsh enforcement and collective punishments, which "worsened people's social and economic lives".
"If there is good governance and people benefit, you can always deal with a small number who want to disrupt," he stated.
NEW POLICE COAST GUARD BOATS
In Singapore, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore Police Force officers deserve recognition and appreciation for their professionalism, readiness and sacrifice over the years.
He announced that the Police Coast Guard (PCG) will buy new fifth-generation PT-class patrol boats to replace its third-generation boats, in a move aimed at better handling incidents in Singapore coastal waters.
"We will also get additional boats, and that will be a significant upgrade to PCG's ability to handle such incidents," he added.