By Daniel McElroy
After holding a candlelight vigil in support of a death row prisoner in Singapore on July 13, several Singaporean activists have been faced with a government investigation and restrictions on travel abroad. Filmmaker Jason Soo, who was informed on September 7 that police would not allow him to travel to Australia for work the following week, is the latest vigil participant to come forward in outrage at Singapore’s restrictions on the freedoms of speech and assembly.
Activists organized the vigil in question for the night before a Malaysian national, Prabagaran Srivijayan, was to be hanged the following morning. Gathering with Prabagaran’s family outside the Changi prison, where he was held until his execution, the activists included a member of anti-death penalty organization We Believe in Second Chances, the editor of a news publication called The Online Citizen, and Soo, whose most recent film was about the 1987 detention of 22 activists under Singapore’s Internal Security Act.
Within minutes of lighting candles outside the gates to the prison, police arrived to confiscate both the candles and pictures of Prabagaran that had been attached to the fence. Prabagaran’s family and the demonstrators were told that they did not have to leave as long as they did not light any more candles, but on September 3 all were summoned for questioning by the Singapore Police Force and told to report on September 7. The summons cited Singapore’s Public Order Act—widely criticized for its highly restrictive terms—and the fact that the vigil had not been permitted.
When Soo called police the day before his interview to reschedule, he was asked if he had plans to travel abroad in the near future. Answering yes, he was told that his upcoming trip to Perth, Australia could not go ahead due to the investigation. Soo then inquired about the legality of these travel restrictions, only to be directed to Singapore’s Criminal Procedure Code, Chapter 68, Section 112, which states that a police officer “may require a person whom he has reasonable grounds for believing has committed any offence to surrender his travel document”. However, Soo and the other vigil participants have not been formally charged with any crime and have not had their passports confiscated.
Soo’s own encounter with police followed a similar encounter the day before between Terry Xu, another of the activists in question, and border patrol officers at the Woodlands Checkpoint between Singapore and Malaysia. Xu was also turned away from the border but was allowed to retain his passport.
Writing on Facebook the day he was originally supposed to appear for question, Soo expressed his outrage at the apparent criminalization of his actions at the peaceful candlelight vigil:
“It may seem a trivial thing, this suspension of the right to travel. But there’s a bigger issue about proper procedure, and about the rights of citizens and the boundaries of police power. It’s also an example of how civil rights in this country are being gradually stripped away, inch by inch, little by little, until one day, we realize that the only rights we have left is the right to obey. You have been warned.”