Picture from AFP

Booting out the (local) boys in blue – is that the key issue?

By Howard Lee

Would you accept foreigners in your police force? That would seem to be the question raised by the people in charge of our police force, expressed at the recent Police Workplan Seminar.

Except that it is not nearly a question as it is an indicator of things to come. “We need, to some extent, some sensitivity to understand our foreign population,” Police Operations director Lau Peet Meng was cited as saying. “The danger is if it’s (purely Singaporean), you will lose touch with the people you’re policing.”

His remarks were supported, in a sense, by the findings of the Committee of Inquiry hearing for the Little India riot last year, where a shortage of manpower and the inability of officers to communicate with the alleged rioters were cited as reasons for the escalation of violence.

The response to the suggestion was, as expected, not generally supportive. Media reports indicated that more than half of the students who were invited to the workplan seminar were not in favour of the idea.

An article published by TOC on this issue also received comments that expressed misgivings about having foreigners in the police force. Some expressed concern about the loyalty of foreigners when protecting the home front, others lament on yet another excuse to increase the foreigner population.

Quite a few, and rightly so, identified that the real crux of the problem, the cause of the crunch in the numbers in the police force, was the poor pay that our police officers continue to receive.

These views were raised despite the recent increases in salaries for the home team. This suggests that the pay increase since 2012 has not lead to a significantly successful increase in the recruitment of the right talent.

The decision to turn to the foreigner option, then, is worrying, and I do not mean this from the perspective of having foreigners defending the home front or the ever increasing number of foreigners to our shores. This article is not about expressing xenophobic views, much as some like to portray that nowadays.

My concern about this move by the police force stems from what can only be perceived as subjecting the public service to market forces – cost of labour goes up, increasing pay further would impact budget, so let’s look for cheaper alternatives.

A police officer is not an object to be cheap-sourced. For that matter, neither should the rest of our human capital-intensive economy. If the government has learnt nothing about what made the people so angry with its immigration policy, then this incident is surely the clearest indication of that lack.

In addition, we are not here talking about any other production line worker, but our boys in blue. It is a public service rendered to the people, to which must necessarily be paid the highest respect, no less if not more so than the dignity accorded our Ministers. They risk life and limb keeping our country safe, and it is an absolute shame that we should ever consider them replaceable by the lowest bidder.

Instead, what has the Ministry of Home Affairs done to re-examine the operational cost of the home team? If there are any lessons that can be learnt from the Little India riot, would it not be that a seasoned, well-trained and ready pair of boots on the ground beats any technology that can be dreamed up, or even unnecessarily purchased?

For sure, the other argument would be that you need foreigners to police foreigners, because they will not “lose touch” with the ground. If that was a serious consideration, then seriously had the home team commanders erred.

Cultural sensitivities in a large country such as China or India are so diverse geographically that it would be wishful thinking to believe that a foreigner from such a country – any part of such a country, for that matter – can be dropped in and assimilate better with the ground, compared to a Singaporean who has been well-trained and given enough time to establish relationships in his beat.

Instead, what has MHA done to ensure that officers get such ground time to better prepare themselves for contingencies? Are our police officers spending so much time behind the desk with paperwork that they can ill-afford the time to get in touch with the ground?

Clearly, there are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about how to get the most out our of our boys in blue. Cutting costs, outsourcing to foreigners for cheap numbers and a misguided notion that nationality leads to familiarity should not be factors to consider.

In his May Day rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted by media as saying, “developing better workers and creating better jobs is our collective responsibility”. It would have been pure irony if the Ministry of Home Affairs did not take heed of the words of their commander in chief.

Image from AFP.