HOT PURSUIT AFTER COOLING-OFF DAY

2.00pm, Tuesday, 31 May 2016 — Seven or eight police officers swarmed into the diminutive 67-year-old’s home. Ignoring her request to take off their shoes before entering, they roamed around her place for more than an hour, taking videos and photographs as they wanted. The troupe left with her computer CPU, laptop and handphone.

The invasion of Teo Soh Lung’s home and the seizure of her personal effects were made on the heels of a police report filed against her by the Election Department (ELD) for making four Facebook posts on Cooling-Off Day of the Bukit Batok By-Election (BBBE) that ELD said could be tantamount to election advertising.

If found guilty of an offence of election advertising, Soh Lung would be facing a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both.

Cooling-Off Day was born in Singapore on 1 July 2010. It was birthed by our government to protect the citizenry from the danger of emotional voting. As the government states on its official website:

“The day before Polling Day is known as Cooling-Off Day. There is a prohibition against election campaigning during this 24-hour period to give voters some time to reflect rationally on issues before voting.”

To date, Singapore has had seven Cooling-Off Days:

For three of the seven last elections, there were no complaints of Cooling-Off Day breaches based on public information. Four of the past seven elections saw police reports filed for Cooling-Off Day breaches:

The BBBE held on 7 May 2016 saw Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) candidate, Chee Soon Juan face off with the ruling party’s candidate, Murali Pillai.

On 27 May 2016, ELD issued a media statement to announce that it had filed police reports against socio-political site, The Independent Singapore (TISG), Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng for possible election advertising.

It was the first and only time that ELD had decided on its own initiative to complain of Cooling-Off Day breaches — and did so by filing three police reports. All other complaints of Cooling-Off Day breaches on public record were made by citizens.

In the wake of ELD’s police reports, the Singapore Police Force moved with lightning speed and charismatic efficiency.

9.59pm, Saturday 28 May 2016 — Soh Lung found an envelope containing a letter from the police under her front door. Apparently, a hardworking member of the Singapore Police Force had made his way into the condominium where Soh Lung lived and up to her front door that Saturday night. The letter informed Soh Lung that she was required to attend at the Central Division Headquarters at Police Cantonment Complex in connection with police investigation for an offence of election advertising. Her attendance was compulsory.

9.30am, Sunday, 29 May 2016 — A policeman knocked on Soh Lung’s front door. Albeit a Sunday morning, he had come over to personally check if Soh Lung had received the police letter and to obtain her confirmation in person that she would be coming to the police station.

10am, Tuesday 31 May 2016 — Soh Lung presented herself at Police Cantonment Complex. There, she was questioned for two hours. At 12.15pm, Soh Lung requested for a lunch break as she was tired, but her request was denied. The questioning continued for another hour, after which she was put into a car with four police officers and taken to her residence. Another car of four officers from the Forensic Department followed, making a total of eight officers in two cars arriving at her place of residence.

On that same day, 31 May 2016, Roy Ngerng also presented himself at Police Cantonment Complex where he was questioned for about three hours, after which the police took him to his home and seized two laptops, two hard drives, memory cards and a mobile phone.

Arising from ELD’s police report against TISG, four individuals from TISG were separately questioned by the police, two of whom were immediately taken by the police, one to raid his home and the other to raid both his home and his office, where their electronic devices were seized.

However, that was not the end of it. On 13 June 2016, a citizen filed a police report to complain that two posts published on the ‘Fabrications About The PAP’ Facebook fanpage (FAP) on Polling Day of BBBE (7 May 2016) could be election advertising. On 17 June 2016, FAP founder, Jason Chua Chin Seng, was questioned by the police after which the police raided his home and seized his handphone, iPad and two laptops.

The aftermath of the BBBE saw tough action taken by the police in response to the four police reports for possible election advertising (three by ELD and one by a citizen). Altogether seven individuals were questioned, six police raids were conducted (one had both his home and office raided) and five individuals had their personal devices seized.

For Soh Lung, she endured the trauma of a lengthy police interview and the indignity of being taken by eight police officers immediately thereafter to raid her home.

Was it necessary for the police to spring a surprise visit to her home?

Was it necessary for seven or eight police officers to step into her home?

Was it necessary to seize her handphone, laptop and desktop CPU — comprising all her personal communication devices?

During the police interview, Soh Lung readily acknowledged that the publications ELD had complained of were made by her and her alone. She therefore could not understand why it was necessary to raid her home and to seize her personal devices, thereby depriving her of their use indefinitely. Moreover, the seized personal devices contained materials far beyond relevancy to the publications that were the subject-matter of the ELD complaint. Her personal devices also contained personal information which would become open to scrutiny by total strangers.

The police ended their investigations in February 2017 without charging anyone. Stern warnings in lieu of prosecution were issued to three individuals from TISG, Jason Chua, Roy Ngerng and Soh Lung (making a total of six warnings in all) and seized items were returned to their owners.

On collection of her items, Soh Lung found that her laptop was damaged beyond repair.

In their 27 May 2016 media statement, ELD said that they filed the police reports after taking into consideration the nature of the postings and the potential impact that they might have had, noting that Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng “regularly engage in the propagation, promotion and discussion of political issues”.

ELD picked Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng because they had a public following.

If the objectives of the powers-that-be was to 杀鸡儆猴 (literal meaning: kill chicken scare monkey), the action taken against Soh Lung and the others in the aftermath of BBBE, did the trick.

If your gardener gets too busy nipping buds, your garden may become flowerless — and what is the joy of that?

See author’s video documentary “Nipping Buds” related to this post at https://www.facebook.com/jeannettechongaruldoss/posts/4041170675965184

A lawyer practising in Singapore for more than 30 years.