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The release of Dan Tan: Significance and impact

By Teo Soh Lung

The decision of the three-judge Court of Appeal to free Dan Tan Seet Eng on Wednesday must surely shock the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Home Affairs. Never in the 61-year history of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, or CLTPA, has a detainee ever challenged the legality of his arrest and detention, and secured release from the apex court!

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said that the grounds for Dan Tan’s detention were given as fixing football matches in countries including Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Turkey and that “while … these acts are reprehensible and should not be condoned, there is nothing to suggest whether, or how, these activities could be thought to have a bearing on the public safety, peace and good order within Singapore.”

It was reported that Chief Justice Menon said that the court was unable to see how the grounds put forward for Tan’s detention could be said to fall within the scope of the circumstances which the power to detain under the CLTPA may be exercised by the Minister of Home Affairs.

It would appear that the ministry had not been too careful with how the detention order had been drafted! Or perhaps it really had nothing to show that Dan Tan’s activities had, or will have, any effect on the public safety, peace and good order of Singapore!

The CLTPA was enacted in 1955 with the aim of controlling gangsterism. The law permits detention without trial and detention orders are renewable indefinitely. It is a law that empowers the police to imprison any member of the public, without any meaningful safeguards. The late Mr Subhas Anandan, one of our best known criminal lawyers was once unjustly imprisoned under this law.

Under the CLTPA, the prisoner has no right to see the evidence the police has against him. Even appearing before a review board would be pointless for there is no right to sight such evidence, if any. The CLTPA is a law that is well-known and feared. I recall that one of my clients was even prepared to admit to a serious crime that he did not commit because the police had threatened him with the CLTPA if he chose to claim trial. Fortunately I did not agree with his fear.

The CLTPA, though meant to be “temporary” at inception, has been renewed without a break every five years. It was last renewed with the agreement of the Workers’ Party in 2013. In Parliament, Mr S Iswaran, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade & Industry said that the law has, over the years, extended its application from controlling gangsterism to that of controlling drug syndicates, illegal moneylending and “in October 2013… was used to deal with 5 persons for their involvement in global soccer match-fixing activities. Of these, 4 were issued Detention Orders and 1 was issued a Police Supervision Order.”

It would appear that tiny Singapore had taken upon herself the role of the world’s policeman!

What will now happen with this historic judgement? Will the three who were served with detention orders together with Dan Tan now proceed to court to seek their release, if they are still in prison?

And will those alleged illegal members of moneylending and drug trafficking syndicates, as well as gang members, now challenge their detention orders?

Will Tan now seek damages for wrongful imprisonment from 2013 till today?

It will be interesting to see if the hundreds who are still in prison – several for more than ten years – will now commence legal proceedings against the government. The CLTPA has been invoked far too frequently and with utmost secrecy and immunity, despite the government’s assurance that “prosecuting offenders in court is, and will always be, the first and preferred course of action.”

The availability of this law has I am sure, affected the ability of our police force to investigate real crimes, encouraging them to use the CLTPA as a short cut without considering the hardship that the families of those detained will face as a consequence of their detention. The government has never made known the number of arrests, reasons and length of detention in Parliament, save perhaps, for the purpose of renewing the law. It is time our government be accountable to us.