Whilst our Constitution guarantees freedom of association, this freedom is in reality tightly controlled in Singapore. Anyone that has been a part of a Registered Society in Singapore will know that there are restrictions on what Societies can and cannot do. One of these is on political activities. If your society is not a political association, you would not be able to engage in any political activities or to support such activities. This is well known within Registered Societies.
The issue of ‘political activities’ is not about what we choose to indicate in our constitution as Registered Societies. In fact, the Registry of Societies insists on certain mandatory clauses in any Registered Society’s constitution. The ROS provides guidelines on drafting a constitution for new societies that are to be registered and included in the template are certain mandatory prohibitions. Your registration will be refused if you do not include the prohibitions in your constitution. If your society attempts to amend these prohibitions out of existence after its formation, the ROS will not approve your amendment.
These are the prohibitions found in every Registered Society
13.1 Gambling of any kind, excluding the promotion or conduct of a private lottery which has been permitted under the Private Lotteries Act Cap 250, is forbidden on the Society’s premises. The introduction of materials for gambling or drug taking and of bad characters into the premises is prohibited.
13.2 The funds of the Society shall not be used to pay the fines of members who have been convicted in court of law.
13.3 The Society shall not engage in any trade union activity as defined in any written law relating to trade unions for the time being in force in Singapore.
13.4 The Society shall not indulge in any political activity or allow its funds and/or premises to be used for political purposes.
13.5 The Society shall not hold any lottery, whether confined to its members or not, in the name of the Society or its office‑bearers, Committee or members unless with the prior approval of the relevant authorities.
13.6 The Society shall not raise funds from the public for whatever purposes without the prior approval in writing of the Assistant Director Operations, Licensing Division, Singapore Police Force and other relevant authorities.
Clause 13.4 in the standard clauses provided by the ROS is found in every VWO in Singapore. It ought to be common knowledge among Executive Committee members and, at the very least, the President, Secretary or Treasurer of a Registered Society. The reality is that if an opposition political party were to approach a Registered Society for the use of their premises, the knee-jerk reaction would have been to refuse to let the premises be used for political activities. Most organisations in Singapore are habituated to respond in this manner and many in the charity sector in Singapore would readily admit to this. It is, therefore, quite surprising to find out that the SWAMI Home’s Executive Committee was unaware of the provision in its Constitution. In all likelihood they were lulled into complacency by the fact that it was some event involving an MP and did not address their mind to the fact that it was a political party unveiling its candidates for election. If the SDP or WP had done this, we can imagine the response.
For good measure, the Ministry of Home Affairs has responded by warning the SWAMI Home to adhere to its Constitution. I wouldn’t have wanted SWAMI Home to get into trouble as they carry out an important and vital service in the community.
After this issue was raised, the PAP team that used the premises claimed ignorance of the provision in SWAMI Home’s constitution. Such irony. It is the PAP government, with its desire to control trade unions and political activities , that created restrictions on associations in Singapore. It has been a long-standing approach of the PAP to isolate political activities and to commit organisations to register themselves specifically as a political association and to prohibit all other organisations from participating in any activity that is remotely political. It is quite ironic that a team of PAP candidates led by a Minister should make such a boo boo of not realising that SWAMI Home would be prohibited from allowing political activities on their premises. I do not doubt their honesty. It is very likely to have been an honest mistake. However, it is an honest mistake that displays a certain complacency; a cockiness resulting from being in power for too long.
When you are part of a political regime that is used to dictating to others what should be done, you tend to become oblivious as to how you might be falling foul of the very rules that you have authored. This incident is just one of many indications as to how some PAP leaders may have become somewhat complacent. Those in power should not be made to feel too comfortable in their position. They need to be kept on their toes.