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The rights of silence needs resuscitation

By M.Ravi 

Was having coffee with a friend who is about to be questioned by the police. He said he will exercise his right of silence until he sees his lawyer and obtains legal advice.

His jaw dropped to the floor when I told him that the right of silence was abolished by the government in 1976. I added that if he doesn't answer the questions by the police, his silence will be adversely interpreted against him. It is troubling to know that many Singaporeans still think that they have a right of silence when questioned by police. Can’t blame them. They watch it in Hollywood movies where the police will warn a suspect of his or her right to remain silent. Malaysia restored this fundamental right a few years ago.

Back to my friend, I recounted to him 2 sad incidents of Singaporeans taking away their lives in response to police interrogations during my legal practice. The first one involved a taxi driver's only son who worked his way up to be a top student in a polytechnic. He was interrogated for allegedly committing a very minor offence. Unsure of his rights, he felt intimidated and leapt to his death from the 17th floor when he left the police station.

Another case involved a mother who vehemently denied that during police questioning, she admitted to her offence. The ‘false’ statement was shown to her in court. The problem is that any investigating officer in Singapore is allowed to interpret a statement made to him without an interpreter if he understands the language of the accused. The lady struggled to pay fees to her lawyers to defend her. When she kept insisting that the establishment had wrongly framed her, and the statement was falsely obtained, her lawyers demanded more fees as the trial prolonged. In court, the judge gave a tough time to the lawyer defending her.

Unsurprisingly, she was unable to withstand the pressure and during a break in the hearing day itself, she leapt to her death opposite what was then known as the Subordinate Courts. She left a poem for her young children and in it she declared her innocence.

Many of us know about the Benjamin Lim case. He was a minor, so the circumstances and media attention was different. There are other cases, too many for my one post.

The right to remain silent and the right to immediate access to lawyers are very basic human rights. Both are intrinsically linked and are in dire need of resuscitation. When was the last time anyone objectively and thoroughly reviewed police powers and the criminal procedure code?