What Happens If Singapore Declares a National Emergency?


America has declared that COVID-19 constitutes a national emergency and has banned international flights as well as closed its parks and museums. Italy, Denmark, France, Iran, Israel, Spain and Malaysia have all announced a lockdown to restrict the travel of the people, ban non-essential travel, close down non-essential establishments, and impose strict social distancing. Elsewhere in the Philippines, provinces have ordered partial lockdowns, with the National Capital Region where its capital Manila is located, being sealed off.

With the phrases national emergency and lockdown being thrown around a lot, we want to look at what these terms entail, and how they would look like in the Singaporean context — in today’s explained

What is a State of Emergency?

In the event of an emergency, governments around the world are empowered to perform actions or impose policies that they normally are not allowed to. This specific situation is called a state of emergency and could entail things like the suspension of rights to own property or even move freely. Right now, because of the rapid spread of COVID-19, countries like the United States, Philippines, Hungary, Spain and Portugal have all declared a state of emergency.

In Singapore, a state of emergency is governed by the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act of 1964 and Article 150 of the Singapore Constitution. 

When are States of Emergencies declared?

France declared a State of Emergency after the 2015 Paris terror attacks that lasted for 2 years. (Source)

Usually, these declarations happen during extraordinary circumstances and are not approached lightly, as they might suspend constitutional rights. Three typical scenarios that warrant a state of emergency are:

  • Martial Law: The imposition of military rule during times of extreme threat of invasion or during actual war. 
  • State of Siege: When the government believes that there is a coup or rebellion trying to overthrow the state. The civil rights of parties such as political activists are likely to be curtailed under this situation. 
  • Civil Emergency: To deal with natural disasters or the dangerous situations that arise from them (looting, panic buying etc). The COVID-19 declarations around the world would fall under this category. 

How does a State of Emergency Start?

According to Singapore’s constitution, the President can issue a Proclamation of Emergency if she is satisfied that there is a “grave emergency” to the country’s “security or economic life.” By doing so, the President now has the ability to enact laws and decrees. 

However, if the Parliament believes that the emergency was declared prematurely or incorrectly, it can pass resolutions revoking the proclamation and the decrees that were issued. The President still has supremacy though, as she can declare another state of emergency if she wanted to. 

What can the President do in a State of Emergency?

President Halimah Yacob addresses parliament in 2018. (Source)

The short answer is: anything reasonable for the safety of Singaporeans.

According to the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act, the President can make regulations that are deemed necessary “for securing public safety, the defence of the Federation, the maintenance of public order and of supplies and services essential to the life of the community”. 

More specifically, the article states that she may enact essential regulations that may:

(a) Make provision for the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the regulations, and for detention of persons whose detention appears to the Minister for Defence to be expedient in the interests of the public safety or the defence of Singapore;

(b) Create offences and prescribe penalties (including the death penalty) which may be imposed for any offence against any written law (including regulations made under this Act); …

(e) make provision for directing and regulating the performance of services by any persons;

The law allows for the President to “make any regulations which (s)he considers desirable or expedient for securing the public safety.” From creating restrictions on movement (like the Malaysians have done) to forcing firms to produce goods that are deemed necessary, there’s a lot of leeway here. Essential regulations may also empower other authorities or persons to make orders and rules — think military leaders, important civil and political leaders. 

If these essential regulations aren’t followed, the President can also prescribe punishments that can go all the way up to the death penalty. If a punishment isn’t prescribed, individuals who flaunt regulations are liable on conviction to a general fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

How does a State of Emergency End?

The Proclamation of Emergency lasts in default for a period of 6 months. After this expiry date, all laws and essential regulations that were enacted cease to have effect. If the situation still remains dire, the President can always proclaim another state of emergency. 

However, as stated earlier, Parliament also has the power to vote down the Proclamation of Emergency if needed.

When has Singapore declared a state of emergency in the past?

Malayan Communist Party (MCP) members posing. (Source)

On 24 June 1948, a week after emergency was launched in the Federation of Malaya following a spate of violence by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), Singapore declared a state of emergency.

During this emergency period, the MCP carried out many violent acts and sabotage including murders, assassinations and arson attacks. Assassinations by communist hit squads were also rampant.

In 1955, the Emergency Regulations were reviewed by the Singapore government led by David Marshall and were replaced by a new set of security laws. Five years later on 31 July 1960, the Malayan government lifted the state of emergency. By then, the conflict had killed and wounded 8,000 civilians and security personnel.

Will Singapore proclaim another emergency due to COVID-19?

It is extremely unlikely. 

The only time that an emergency was ever declared was when there was an existential threat to the country (the threat of a communist takeover). While COVID-19 poses a serious threat to Singaporeans’ health and their financial standings, it doesn’t undermine the integrity of public institutions and the government. 

Containment efforts so far have also been rather successful, flattening the curve and allowing our health system to deal with the situation effectively. Thus, the government could look to tighten these already existing measures instead of proclaiming an emergency. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also floated the possibility of holding elections sometime soon, signaling that the government doesn’t see a need to curtail civil freedoms or rights right now.

For now, to avoid an escalation in the situation, and to allow normal lives to return quickly, Singaporeans will have to practice good personal hygiene and social responsibility. Adhering to social distancing and staying up to date with official news on COVID-19 will bring the nation a step closer to recovering together.

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