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COI needs to be held to determine level of accountability of police and school

The content below is a letter sent to TOC for publication

By Tan Hua Lim

Reading the responses to the tragic demise of Benjamin, one cannot help but conclude that North View Secondary School (NVSS)’s abdication of responsibility and police’s vague protocols had, in no small measure, been a significant factor in causing the death of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim.

Benjamin’s school, NVSS had chosen to entirely honour its “obligation to the police” while ignoring its duty of care when Benjamin’s parents should have been contacted immediately, delaying his trip to the police station until his parent’s arrival.

Reactions to this tragedy showed that fear of the police had been successfully instilled not only among Singapore’s general population but that this fear virus had even infected other government departments. How else to explain the abdication of the principal's primary duty of care and instead choosing to discharge his “obligation to the police”? Was NVSS’s principal so overwhelmed by the appearance of five T-shirt wearing police officers in an unmarked car that he forgot that, as the principal of the school, he too had the right and authority to request for Benjamin’s parents to be present when the boy was brought to the station?

Did the five police officers, but more likely the team leader, indicated to the principal either  in words, body language, gestures, signals that he was not to interfere with police business  and that Benjamin was to follow them to the station at the time of the police’s choosing?

It can be argued that NVSS even exceeded its “obligation to the police”, perhaps unconsciously. How? The police’s job was considerably eased through the school’s many acts of commission and omission. it was probably fear and the school’s eagerness to be seen to be cooperative that Benjamin was disallowed to eat his bun while on the way to the principal’s office, even though it was the school’s recess. For most parents, it would be unthinkable for a vulnerable, hungry minor to be sent to the police station unaccompanied by either his adult family member or the school’s.  But that was what NVSS did!

The failure of the school to maintain contact with the police during Benjamin’s incarceration and with his parents after his release from police custody is illustrative of the school’s unconcern. Frantic and repeated calls by Benjamin’s parents to the principal after his death went unanswered until the next day. The school’s unilateral action to disallow Benjamin to attend the pre-arranged school camp which he looked forward to attending was insensitive, arrogant and inexplicable. Neither Benjamin nor his parents were consulted. The school’s explanation that it was better for Benjamin to spend time with his parents instead of going to the school camp after his experience with the police does not wash. Was this the tipping point that led Benjamin to leap from his room?

The school’s unilateral action to disallow Benjamin to attend the pre-arranged school camp which he looked forward to attending was insensitive, arrogant and inexplicable. Neither Benjamin nor his parents were consulted. The school’s explanation that it was better for Benjamin to spend time with his parents instead of going to the school camp after his experience with the police does not wash. Was this the tipping point that led Benjamin to leap from his room?

NVSS has to be held accountable for failing in its duty. The Ministry of Education has to realise all is not well in Singapore’s school, particularly the school’s cowed attitude whenever police officers turn up on their doorstep. No other young child should ever have to face what Benjamin went through.

The police: its vague protocols and default system of extracting confessions with threats and overwhelming force must change.

The police, in a statement on 31 Jan 16, reported Benjamin “cooperated fully with the police”. Read this as Benjamin “cooperated fully with the police…’out of fear’”. Posit the police statement with Benjamin’s parent’s report that their son ‘denied” he had committed the offence. Again, posit this against Benjamin’s haunting last words: “They said I am guilty, so I am guilty lor.”

The police are well-known for its expertise in extracting confessions, some of which turned out to be incorrect. See the recent case of the man with dementia signing a confession for a series of theft which was later proven false (read here).

By no stretch of the imagination can anyone see 14 years old Benjamin as a violent, hardened criminal. He does not deserve to have the whole arsenal of brutal police tactics applied to extract his cooperation. To begin with, Benjamin had already been softened by his school who appears to have bent backwards to cooperate with the police. Ang Mo Kio Police has to explain to Benjamin’s parents and all parents in Singapore the following: why send 5 T-shirted officers to arrest Benjamin when 1 or 2 would be more than adequate to do the job?

Was it humane to deprive young Benjamin of food and drinks during the lengthy interrogation in an unduly cold air-conditioned open office where Benjamin’s as yet unproven allegations of “outrage of modesty” must have been overheard by all and sundry in that office? Wasn't the police aware that the minor only had a cold bun from the time he went to school until they finished with him at 2.50pm? Was it any wonder that Benjamin's mother reported that her son’s hands were “unduly cold” when he was released to her?

Benjamin’s young life had been untimely snuffed out.  There should be an enquiry into the incident to determine the level of accountability of the police and his school, so that no other parents with school-going children in Singapore should ever have to hear Benjamin’s haunting last words “They said I am guilty, so I am guilty lor”