You have the right to remain silent … Or do you? Lawyer M Ravi explains how silence may backfire during police interrogations in Singapore

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you …”

Singaporeans familiar with films or television drama series originating from the United States are bound to have come across scenes in which a police officer reads the suspect their “Miranda rights” and the “Miranda warning” during arrest.

The “Miranda rights” and the “Miranda warning” were enacted by the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court via its decision in Miranda v Arizona. Under the U.S. Fifth Amendment, a criminal suspect has the right to avoid self-incrimination during police interrogation.

However, what Singaporeans might not necessarily know is that such a right to remain silent during police interrogation may not easily be invoked here, and may in fact be detrimental to a suspect when applied, said Singaporean human rights lawyer M Ravi.

In a video titled “The Erosion of Rights in Singapore” published on Wed (24 Jul) on his RAVIsion YouTube channel, M Ravi recounted a conversation he had with a friend of his, who told him that that he will exercise his right to silence during police questioning until he sees a 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,” said M Ravi, adding that “if he did not answer the questions [posed] by the police, his silence will be adversely interpreted against him in a court of law”.

“Your immediate access to a lawyer upon arrest has also been curtailed in favour of granting the police priority in its investigation,” he stressed.

While the Singapore Constitution guarantees citizens access to counsel, the courts have “repeatedly decided that this access to counsel can be given within a ‘reasonable’ time period to be determined by the police”, noted M Ravi.

Back in 2014,  the court upheld a 20 year-old Court of Appeal decision that allows for accused persons to be denied access to a lawyer for up to two weeks or more after their arrest and detention.

In his judgement for a case that M Ravi was representing, Justice Choo considered the issue of what amounts to a “reasonable time” between an individual’s arrest and his freedom to contact a lawyer.

Referencing a 1973 High Court decision, Justice Choo observed that it is arguable that the Court’s reference to “reasonable time” did “not mean that the police ought to be afforded a ‘reasonable time’ for investigations, as the Court of Appeal in Jasbir Singh thought… but rather intended no more than to acknowledge that, while an arrested person should be entitled to consult counsel immediately after arrest, there has to be a ‘reasonable time’ for any necessary or unavoidable delay occasioned by practical or administrative concerns, eg, having to transport the arrested person to the place of remand or having to contact the counsel of the arrested person’s choice.”

“In other words, the police can detain you for an extended period without you being advised by a lawyer as long as it is deemed a reasonable period, although the police may have to explain their reasons in court if asked to do so,” he warned.

M Ravi highlighted that should someone undergoing police investigations signs a statement to the police, the police is not required by law to provide them with a copy of said statement.

However, citing the example of social worker and civil rights activist Jolovan Wham’s case, he added that someone who refuses to sign the statement for the above reason, they could be charged for not signing the statement.

Right to silence a “constitutional” one: M Ravi

M Ravi also argued that the removal of the right of silence during police interrogations is a reflection of the “erosion of rights in Singapore” referred to in the title of his video.

“Do you know [that] when we were ruled by the British, we had greater protection of our rights compared to now? … In Singapore in the last 50 years, we have seen certain rights either being abolished or curtailed to the point we no longer know what exactly those rights are, even if they still exist,” he said.

Singapore’s criminal justice system, he said, is “very much based on a crime control model as opposed to the due process fair model” where “the repression of crime and removing of legal technicalities that ‘handcuff’ the police” are prioritised over “the fundamental due process of law and giving effect to our constitutional rights”.

While facilitating the efforts of authorities in combating crime is important, he questioned if the curtailment of constitutional and basic rights of individuals is justified in light of such repression.

Restoring the right to silence during police interrogations in Singapore, is “in fact, a crucial part of the legal process, and it is a constitutional right to protect us from incriminating ourselves during police interrogation or interviews”, M Ravi further argued.

“Few Singaporeans are even aware that they have this right or how to make use of this right. This is especially important, as you can be convicted on your statement alone. I repeat, you can be convicted on your confession alone,” he warned.