Picture from AFP
Picture from AFP
Vincent Wijeysingha
The Ministry of Home Affairs has introduced another Public Order Bill, supposedly aimed at dealing pre-emptively with potential unrest in Little India. The move is being sold as necessary, in the aftermath of Singapore’s worst riot in 45 years. But a closer examination of the Bill raises disturbing questions.
In enacting this Bill, the government proposes to take drastic action against both Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans living within as well as passing through Little India. Measures include strip-searches for alcohol, raiding premises and vehicles without a warrant anywhere in Singapore, banning ‘suspicious’ persons from entering a designated ‘Special Zone’, consisting of most of Little India, for up to 30 days.
Police may also issue an on-the-spot ban for up to 24 hours without referring to their superiors. Several of the powers can also be exercised by the auxiliary police which employ many foreigners and who may not have the same professional standards or cultural sensitivity as our police force.
To carry out these tasks, the Bill grants the government immunity from prosecution and claims for damages in Clause 19(3):
No liability shall be incurred by the Government because of the enactment of this Act or for anything which is done or intended to be done in good faith and with reasonable care, in the exercise or purported exercise of any power, or the performance or purported performance of any function or duty, under this Act.
This means that regardless of how the police and auxiliary police treat an individual, they can never call the government to account or obtain damages should they be injured (since the Bill allows officers to use force to prevent entry to the Special Zone.)
Powers granted to the police and auxiliary police under this Bill are too broad. How does one determine when a strip search should be carried out? More alarming is the fact that such a power is given to auxiliary police who are nowhere near as highly trained as our police force.
The Bill prejudges the reasons for the riot. In reality, no one knows what triggered the violence on 8 December, and a Committee of Inquiry has just begun looking into the matter. But various Cabinet ministers appear to have already decided that alcohol is to blame. This makes a mockery of the Inquiry process and shows a disrespect to the Chairman, respected former judge, G. P. Selvam. Furthermore, the Bill prejudices the present criminal proceedings against the foreign workers charged for their alleged roles in the riot.
Other factors could have triggered the riot – auxiliary police sent to deal with the initial accident might have been poorly trained and ill-equipped to deal with a riot, particularly since they have not encountered one in the last half century. As the Home Affairs Ministry said in December, the Committee should “study the issue thoroughly, come to a fair and objective assessment, and submit their recommendations thereafter”. The Government must take its own advice.
There have been numerous riots over the centuries. Interestingly, all of them seem to have been precipitated by either heavy-handed police behaviour or by poverty-related issues. Riots have occurred in the US, Britain, France, Haiti and in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Indeed, even in August 2011 a riot broke out in London over an arbitrary arrest by the police.
Sociologists have coined the term ‘tipping-point phenomena’, described as a point in time when a large number of people rapidly and dramatically change their behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice.
Writing in The Guardian on 19 August 2011, Stephen Reicher and Clifford Stott noted, “Riots generally occur when groups have a sense of illegitimacy about how they are treated by others and where they see collective confrontation as the only means of redressing the situation.” They go on to note that historian, E. P. Thompson, argued that “in a world where the powerless are generally invisible, the riot is a form of ‘collective bargaining’.” This results in the problems of the rioters becoming a “problem for the powerful and hence the powerful have been forced to take note of issues they had previously ignored.”
Reicher and Stott note that politicians in the UK following the August 2011 riots characterised the riot as mindless mayhem. They argue that, “If, however, you see the actions as a meaningful response to a shared sense of illegitimacy and lack of alternatives then you need to address the way in which this has arisen.”
The Woolf Report into the riot at Strangeways Prison in Manchester found prison conditions intolerable and prisoners’ concerns were ignored. Lord Woolf, a respected judge, recommended major reform to the prison system. The Guardian newspaper described his report as a blueprint for the restoration of “decency and justice into jails where conditions had become intolerable”.
The Scarman Report into the 1981 Brixton riots, also written by a respected judge in November 1981, found that the area in which the riot occurred were beset by serious social and economic problems. The whole of Britain was affected by a recession by 1981 but the local African-Caribbean community was suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate. Just before the riot, a house fire, suspected as being racially-motivated, had killed a number of black youths. The police investigation was criticised as inadequate.
According to the Scarman Report, the riots were a spontaneous outburst of built-up of resentment sparked by particular incidents. Lord Scarman stated that “complex political, social and economic factors” created a “disposition towards violent protest”. The Scarman Report highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline, warning that “urgent action” was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming, in his memorable phrasing, an “endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society.”
In the days following the 8 December riot, the Government took pains to emphasise that it was an isolated incident. This, despite calls from numerous quarters for authorities to examine whether poor treatment of migrant workers contributed to the outbreak of violence.
Little India has been peaceful for more than two months. There have been no further reports of unrest. If, as the government claims, the riot was an isolated incident, we can reasonably expect that peace will prevail, especially if the police and auxiliary police do their jobs properly. There is no need to inconvenience Singaporeans by subjecting them to more draconian laws.
Prior to the riot, alcohol had been available in Little India for decades. No major incident occurred as a result of drunken bad behaviour. The proposed Bill unfairly penalises business owners who have spent money obtaining liquor licenses. They were not involved in the riot but are being punished based on an unsubstantiated hunch.
The Bill is purportedly “temporary” for one year. Yet experience has shown us there are no guarantees it will not be extended. The Internal Security Act and Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act are also subject to regular parliamentary renewal. Given the haphazard way in which the Bill is being enacted and the alarmingly wide powers granted to the police and auxiliary police, all Singaporeans should be concerned, especially since both locals and foreigners can be dealt with under it.
If a single disturbance gives the government an excuse to enact bad law in one area, in all likelihood it can implement a similar Bill in other areas deemed problematic. Indeed it has done so in the past. In 2000, opposition politicians J. B. Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan set up the Open Singapore Centre as a public policy think tank. Three months later, the government promptly enacted the Political Donations Act which even until today is used against legitimate non-political organisations such as Think Centre, The Online Citizen and Maruah.
Citizens should rightly be concerned about the Bill. It will receive its second reading in Parliament on Monday 17 February and unless postponed, it should be enacted then because no doubt Parliament will not want to be interrupted in the Budget Debate following the Budget Statement on Friday 21 February. Citizens who feel the Bill is an appropriate response to the Little India riot should consider whether they are content for yet more constraints on their civil liberties.

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