Parliament repeals Sedition Act, amends Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to cover relevant aspects
SINGAPORE: Parliament voted to repeal the Sedition Act on Tuesday (Oct 5), while amending the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to cover aspects of the Act that “continue to be relevant”.
The Sedition Act has been in existence since 1938, and criminalises conduct with seditious tendencies including promoting disaffection against the Government and feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes.
Some aspects of the Sedition Act are “no longer relevant and have not been relevant for a long time”, Law Minister K Shanmugam told the House on Tuesday.
“For instance, the excitement of disaffection against the Government shouldn’t be criminalised. I think if it is, a lot of people, including many in this house, would be considered criminals.
“But it hasn’t been done away with sooner, because some of the other provisions were relevant,” said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs.
He noted that over time, there were other laws that covered some of the seditious tendencies outlined in the Act.
But there is one aspect of the Sedition Act that is not covered in any other legislation, namely conduct that promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups of the population, he said.
“We will be making related amendments to the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code to ensure that that aspect, to safeguard social cohesion in Singapore, is maintained,” he said.
While there are laws safeguarding racial and religious harmony in Singapore, the Government must ensure social cohesion along other lines, such as language and socio-economic status, said the minister.
As such, the Bill will amend section 267C of the Penal Code, which criminalises conduct that use documents or electronic records to incite violence or counsel disobedience to the law, to any lawful order of a public servant or lead to any breach of the peace.
It will now cover speeches and other forms of communication, said Mr Shanmugam.
It also “raises the threshold” of that section, requiring proof that the person intended for the violence, disobedience to the law or breach of the peace to occur, or knew or had reason to believe that they were likely to occur as a result of his words or actions.
In addition, it defines the phrase “counselling disobedience to the law” to mean providing instruction, advice or information to promote disobedience to the law.
He also pointed out that "the offences currently under the Sedition Act are arrestable".
Following the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code, some offences will be made arrestable to “ensure that the police can continue to be effective in investigations where particularly social cohesion is concerned”, added Mr Shanmugam.
These offences comprise: Deliberate wounding of any person’s racial or religious feelings, promoting disharmony between different racial or religious feelings, as well as the making, publication or circulation of material with the intent to incite any group of persons to commit an offence against another group of persons.
MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) raised several clarifications.
Noting that the Sedition Act imposes a time limit for prosecutions committed under the Act, Mr Perera asked if the time limit for prosecution has been removed from the new amendments, and the basis for this change.
Mr Shanmugam said that the time limit has to be seen in the context of what the Sedition Act provides, adding that the Act is a “very extreme legislation”.
“Basically most of the key elements of the Sedition Act, which kept the colonial rule in place, are being done away with. Bits and pieces which are relevant for modern Singapore have already been moved out into other legislation; now one last bit is being moved out.”
Mr Perera also sought clarification on whether providing information about the topic of civil disobedience, such as a lecturer teaching a class, would count as an offence under “counselling disobedience to the law”.
The minister said that this “in and of itself” is not an offence under section 267C of the Penal Code.
On making sections 298 and 298A, which cover deliberate wounding of and promotion of disharmony between different racial or religious feelings, arrestable, Mr Perera said that the Sedition Act contains safeguards and exceptions to “protect legitimate non-seditious speech”, that the sections in the penal code “do not appear to contain”.
While there must be “deliberate intention” to wound religious and racial feelings, Mr Perera said that he was not sure if those requirements provide the same safeguards laid out in the Sedition Act.
As such, Mr Perera asked for the threshold of “egregious cases that affect social cohesion” and 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 potentially inflame a delicate situation further? How would that risk be mitigated and managed?” he said.
Mr Shanmugam said that the safeguards in the Sedition Act “has got really nothing to do with the offences that are now found in other legislation”.
Pointing out that the Sedition Act makes the intentions of the person charged as irrelevant, the minister said that they are a “very different kind of offence”.