By Terry Xu
The Public Order (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday.
The controversial bill was introduced by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hian, to grant more powers to law enforcement officers in Little India. The move comes after the riot at Race Course Road on 8th Dec last year.
The new measures designate a section of Little India as a “Special Zone”. The area is the same as that which was outlined as non-alcohol consumption and sale area after the incident on 8th Dec.
After the the Second Reading of the Bill by the Second Home Affairs Minister, S Iswaran, MPs rose to question some aspects of the new provisions.
In reply to the questions on why existing laws are inadequate, Mr S Iswaran explained that the restrictions being enforced in Little India currently come from a provision under the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA). He describes the power of the provision as excessive and unnecessary for the purpose of maintaining public order in Little India.
The new bill, he said, would be a more targeted and calibrated approach at keeping the peace in Little India. It will also be limited in geography, duration and scope.
“Notwithstanding the diverse interests and perspective within each of stakeholders, we have been encouraged and gratified by the understanding and support of business associations, grassroots leaders and residents in the area,” he added.
However, the points raised by Nominated MP (NMP) R Dhinakaran – who said some merchant associations in Little India had said that businesses have been adversely affected by the enforcement measures – seemed to contradict the minister’s claims. He highlighted that 95 per cent of the businesses in Little India cater to foreign workers and only 5 per cent of the shops are involved in the sale of alcohol. He was worried that the new Bill might penalise normal businesses which had nothing to do with the riot.
The general opinion from MPs of the Bill was that it seemed like a kneejerk reaction towards an isolated event and that the clauses introduced within the Bill seemed to imply a presumption of the actual cause of the riot -alcohol.
Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman and MP for Aljunied GRC, Slyvia Lim, said that there is no need for the government to rush to pass a special law when the COI findings would be out in a few months, in June.
The government can continue to calibrate its actions within the existing framework of national legislations and administrative powers, she said.
The WP, she said, opposed the Bill.
Even People’s Action Party (PAP) MP, Foo Mee Har, voiced her reservations on whether the new Bill is a proportionate response to the riot. She also said it is unclear how the new Bill would enhance the state of security in Little India . Ms Foo, who is MP for West Coast GRC, added that clause 19 (3) of the Bill which provides immunity to enforcement officers from any damages arising from carrying out their duties with reasonable care is a cause for concern and asked if there were any means of recourse to the affected if they should feel that they have been wronged.
Addressing concerns over the excessive powers granted to the law enforcement officers to conduct strip search and barring entry to individuals into the Special Zone, Mr Iswaran said police will ensure that reasonable doubt is present before searches are warranted. Immunity for police officers enables or allows them to carry out their duties without the fear of being sued.
Powers to allow officers to remove clothing from a suspect will only be given to police officers ranked sergeant and above.
He added that the proposed Bill will be in place for 12 months and will not be renewed unless Parliament approves of it.
He reiterated that the power vested by the new bill is much lesser than what exist in the POPA.
Out of the 16 speakers, 10 were not supportive of the bill, 3 were supportive but had reservations on clauses in the bill and 3 were in full support of the amendment.
The Bill was passed by Parliament.
(Image by Terry Xu, taken at Little India)