Laws affect us, and we need to be involved in their making

By Howard Lee

When Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan wrote on his ministry’s blog-site about introducing a law that will allow Housing Development Board officers to enter HDB flats to conduct repair works, it raised more than a few eyebrows from concerned citizens online.

Khaw Boon Wan MND blog leaking ceiling“We need to do more to help our residents who are inconvenienced by their neighbours who refuse to cooperate,” he wrote. “Minimally, HDB should be given the power to enter the flat for the purpose of carrying out the necessary investigations and repairs. We will need to amend the legislation to empower the HDB to do so.”

The chief concern seems to be about the infringement of privacy, how prior permission from owners should be defined and sought, why HDB would even require such a law if neighbours are cooperative, and if it would be effective to begin with.

There are also concerns about whether HDB officers would be allowed unauthorised entry without the presence of police, which suggests that fraudsters might be inclined to, ironically, use this law as a loophole cover for criminal activities.

Granted, the fact that it is on the Ministry of National Development’s blog platform as a “Minister’s musing” rather than an official statement on the MND’s official webpage gives a little comfort that such a law might be a long way from being implemented, if at all. But this case, although not the only one, sheds a rather uncomfortable light on how laws are implemented in Singapore.

Earlier this month, following the hostage incident in Sydney, Australia, Law Minister K Shanmugam posted on his Facebook page, suggesting that there could be a tightening for the conditions for granting bail in Singapore.

Shanmugam FB bail law“The world is now afflicted with this madness – deranged men running amok, and using religion as an excuse to kill innocent people,” he wrote. “Understand that the killer was out on bail, while being accused of a serious crime, and had a history. Calls for a careful re-look. I have asked MinLaw to review our framework for granting bail.”

That remark also drew comments online about excessiveness, civil liberties and the degree to which the state can control the lives of citizens.

Again, this being on the Minister’s Facebook page, we can hesitantly assume that he is seeking feedback, although his post suggests that his Ministry is already seriously considering this.

Three concerns can be raised from these two episodes, as much as flag out potential problems with how laws are proposed and passed in Singapore.

First, a “feedback session” can quickly turn into “we are implementing this”, because there is no lack of supporters to egg it forward. As already evident in these two cases, as much as there are citizens who oppose these laws, there are also those who support them, either having considered it carefully or in blind support of the Minister/government. It is not difficult, then, for a Minister to declare, “based on public feedback, we can see that citizens want this and will hence proceed with it”, side-stepping opposing voices who took pains to craft a reasoned protest.

Such is the nature of digital democracy. Such also is the nature of astro-turfing.

As it is, we have comments like “human rights are good only for those who are sound and knows how to exercise it” left unchecked as such feedback.

Second, even for those who reject, issues that pertain to civil liberties tend to receive a fair amount of airing online, but few citizens are willing to, or know how to, take it to the next level to actually protect their rights. Part of it could be due to an innate trust among citizens that this government would not abuse its powers. Part of it could also be the belief that, so long as I behave myself, this will not affect me.

The truth is, of course, far from trust levels or common belief. Even with the best of intentions, a law that can potentially infringe on our rights could be benign at the point of preposition, but fraught with potential for abuse, even unknowingly, at the point of practice. Suffice to say that we are more adept at following the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of it.

leaked ceilingThird, we need to be mindful why such laws need to be passed in the first place. In MND’s case, who is the key beneficiary? MND would like you to believe that it is the resident living with water dripping from upstairs into his flat. But the true benefit is convenience for HDB – they do not have to deal with the hassle of trying to contact residents, or even check if the quality of HDB flats or renovation contractors pass muster. Get a locksmith, fix the leak (temporarily if necessary), and throw the bill to both upstairs and downstairs neighbours.

Whose rights are protected, if at all? Who will be responsible should there be fraudsters who exploit such a law, at the expense of trusting residents? Did the Minister even consider the potential for fraudulent activities?

Similarly, the likely changes to the conditions for granting bail raises issues. The shock from Sydney is hardly valid justification for rolling out measures that could potentially restrict the freedom of mere suspects of a crime. Do everyday citizens actually benefit from such restrictions, or does it merely ease the load for security forces? Which category of people under investigation falls within this group of those who might pose a risk to society? Who defines this risk?

These issues and questions might seem trivial if viewed in the “greater good” theory of our Ministers, but the potential for misuse has to be at the top of our minds, as it should theirs. Ultimately, the good might not be as great as professed, if we do not press them for placing limits on the bad, or scrap the idea altogether.

When Parliament sits next year, what would it discuss? All of us have an opportunity to make sure it focuses on national issues, just as the Prime Minister believes strongly that his party and government should focus on. Write to your Members of Parliament – you can find out who they are on the Parliament website – and tell them what matters to you.

We can choose to let our elected representatives chat aimlessly about municipal issues, in constituencies that you don’t even live in, or we can press them to ask Ministers tough questions about laws they intend to pass. Laws affect all of us, and we have a stake in how we want them to affect us.