– The exceptional policing powers granted in this Bill will affect innocent Singaporeans, who stand to be strip-searched on the most whimsical of grounds. There are no proper safeguards on this power they have been given.
– These powers are also given to auxiliary officers, who are not as adequately trained as police officers.
– NCMP Lina Chiam is calling for a motion to commit the Bill to a Select Committee for further scrutiny, and for the findings of the Committee of Inquiry on the real causes of the 8 December 2013 Little India riot to be established first.
This Bill provides for wide-ranging policing powers, which can be used against any person who is within or about to enter the special zone in Little India, in the wake of the riot on 8th December last year.
No demarcation of the special zone on the ground
The first thing that one would notice, is that there is no provision for there to be any indication of the boundaries of the special zone to members of the public who are on the ground. Since people who are entering into the special zone will be subject to additional laws, it is only right that the Bill provides for the clear demarcation of the zone for people through highly visible public signs and warnings.
COI has barely commenced
While it is commendable that the government is taking the effort to ensure the peace and safety of the residents following the riot, the Bill cannot be seen as a reasoned and considered response, as these exceptional policing powers are being granted based on preliminary conclusions made in the immediate aftermath of the event. The Committee of Inquiry has barely commenced its proceedings and has yet to report on the causes of the 8th December riot.
Since the government has deemed it necessary to hold a public inquiry into the incident – and rightly so – we should wait until the COI has made its findings before we even contemplate such exceptional measures in this Bill. The status and standing of the COI, whose role is to objectively identify the cause of the riot, will be compromised.
This Bill appears to be a knee jerk reaction, rather than one based on hard facts, which can result in measures that may aggravate the original problem.
For instance, many of the provisions in this Bill seem to zero in on the sale and consumption of alcohol as the cause of the riot. In this regard, may I point out that the number of liquor licenses granted within the special zone is at its lowest in 5 years, according to a report presented to Parliament on 20th January regarding the events leading to the riot. Why is it only now that a riot has taken place?
There was a clear element of a traffic accident that night in Little India which preceded the riot. Why then is there no provision in this Bill on transport safety?
While it may be necessary for steps to be taken in the interim, it must be borne in mind that we do not have a full picture of what had taken place that night, and should be circumspect in giving any additional policing powers to law enforcement agencies. There has not been any indication of a potential for such an event to repeat itself since it happened in December and until this has been shown, the exceptional powers such as those granted by section 9 cannot be justified.
The hardest hitting provision of this Bill is Clause 9(1)b, which provides for the police officers and auxiliary police to order any person who is about to enter or who happens to be within the special zone to remove pieces of their clothing. The clause does not specify a limit to which the enforcement officers can go and based on its plain wording, the clause allows for officers to order the removal of all of a person’s clothing. Such searches are humiliating, especially to innocent persons. The Bill does not provide any safeguards to the dignity of the person, allowing officers to make these orders in public. Nor does the particular provision provide any protection for women who may be subjected to the search. Furthermore, the section also empowers auxiliary officers, to make these orders.
I note an interview on the Public Service website Challenge, with Mr Roy Quek, Deputy Secretary (Operations & Development) of the Ministry of Home Affairs. On this Bill, Mr Quek says and I quote:
“Let me clarify: when we say for a policeman to be able to search your articles of clothing, it means, for example, you’re wearing a jacket, I say, “Can I have a look at your jacket?” and you give me your jacket, as opposed to my patting you down and frisking you”.
The wording of Section 9 in this Bill clearly gives enforcement officers the power to order the removal of garments worn by persons. Allowing for this is, in principle no different from allowing the police to frisk a person, since by ordering for the removal of a person’s clothing, frisking would of course be unnecessary.
I think this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the powers that the Bill provides enforcement officers with, especially in this clause.
Could the Minister therefore clarify the Deputy Secretary’s comments?
Auxiliary officers should not be entrusted with extra powers
This is highly troubling since auxiliary officers are privately hired by companies whose main concern is not with law enforcement but with profits earned from providing a service. Auxiliary officers are not properly trained or equipped with the right policing techniques for them to be entrusted with such exceptional powers.
However, what is most disturbing is that this provision is pre-emptive and not reactive – that means an officer does not need to suspect anyone of committing a crime before the powers can be exercised. While the Bill does state that the power can only be used if it is considered to be ‘reasonably necessary’. What constitutes ‘reasonable necessity’ however, is not defined at all. This effectively means that the officers will have absolute discretion over when a person can be strip-searched. To allow enforcement officers such wide powers goes too far.
I do not think this bodes well at all. Imagine innocent tourists being harassed by auxiliary officers. What does this tell them about the state of law enforcement in Singapore? Little India is, after all, a popular tourist destination.
These problems extend to each and every person who attempts to enter or are within a special zone, whether they are Singaporean or foreigners. Any person entering the zone stands the chance of being harassed by the auxiliary officers, on the most whimsical of grounds. This includes residents, employees and business owners whose daily activities require them to be put at risk of being subject to these procedures every single time they enter the zone. My point is not that the powers should be targeted at any one specific community, but that the blunderbuss approach that has been taken could and probably would result in untold anxiety and distress to the majority of innocent people who enter the zone.
Disproportionate impact on migrant workers
It would be important that appropriate measures must be taken to ensure migrant workers understand the offences proscribed in this bill. If laypersons have trouble understanding and interpreting legislations, what about migrant workers with a low command of the English language?
I am also concerned about the manner in which police and auxiliary officers would approach migrant workers whom they suspect may have committed a crime within the special zone. It is foreseeable that a situation could arise where a language barrier between the officer and the worker impedes effective communication and thereby lead to misunderstanding between both parties. This could lead the officer to view the worker as suspect and to then charge the worker under the respective provision under this bill.
In this regard, it is highly worrying too that any offences under this Act can be compounded on the spot. I think this opens the way for potential abuse. From the point of view of the people affected, I can imagine that what then happens on the ground will not be very much different from extortion.
I would also like to highlight the fact that aggressive and intrusive policing by auxiliary officers towards migrant in Little India have been documented by the NGO, Transient Worker Count Too. It also appears that migrant workers have been disproportionately targeted with fines for offences such as littering and smoking.
As a result, it may have the unintended effect of causing migrant workers to feel disproportionately discriminated against. To allow such feelings of alienation to fester within the migrant worker community would only aggravate the tensions between migrant workers and Singaporeans, possibly sparking off a worse riot. It is certainly not in Singapore’s interest to do so.
Why is it that this Bill deals with a special zone that encompasses the whole of Little India, whereas the riot actually took place only along Race Course Road? What is the rationale behind turning such a vast gazetted area, which includes many other roads and streets, into a risk prone zone?
I note that Clause 1(2) of the bill indicates that the provisions here would be in force for one year from the date of commencement. May I ask the Minister what will the Government intend to do thereafter? And what would the Government do if a similar incident were to happen again within this one year, and it is found not to be the result of alcohol consumption?
I am calling for a motion to commit this Bill to a Select Committee for further scrutiny, and until the findings and recommendations of the COI have been established. I believe this Bill has been ill thought-out and has not been adequately examined by experts.
I urge the Minister to at least consider amending Clause 9 on the wide ranging powers given for strip searches, and that the extraordinary powers in this Bill not be granted to auxiliary officers.
I believe our citizens are as serious as the Government in the desire to enforce public order, to safeguard our country from further incidents of this nature. But we hope that this will not be done in a way that destroys the soul of Little India – which is not merely a tourist attraction, but a neighbourhood that holds special historical and cultural significance in the hearts of many Singaporeans.