In 2016, 14-year-old Benjamin Lim fell to his death from his Yishun flat, hours after returning home from Ang Mo Kio police division for an alleged molestation incident involving an 11-year-old girl in a lift.
The North View Secondary School student was brought to the police station by police officers for his statement to be taken and released to his mother after being questioned by the police for three and a half hours, without the presence of a lawyer or accompanied by any adult.
As expected, the case sparked a debate on police processes and speculation over the circumstances leading up to his death. In fact, many instances of what happened before his death also emerged, causing the Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to take the rather unusual step of delivering a ministerial statement on the issue in Parliament in March 2016.
In August that year, State Coroner Marvin Bay ruled that the teenager’s death was a deliberate act of suicide that could have occurred probably from issues with managing his anger and emotions, as well as stress of being under criminal investigations.
Using this case as an example, international human rights lawyer M Ravi released a video on his personal video channel, RAVIsion, calling for the presence of a lawyer for witnesses and suspects during police interviews and interrogations, and highlighting citizens’ right against self-incrimination.
“Singaporeans have a legal right to not incriminate themselves during police interviews and interrogations. However, if they exercise this right, they may land in deeper trouble in court during trial. So, what is the point of having the right to not incriminate yourself then?” asked the lawyer in his video.
Introduction of “Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Adults” (AAYS)
At the end of Coroner’s inquiry for Benjamin’s case, it was reported in the ST that “State Coroner Marvin Bay said the police and his school had taken steps to engage him sensitively”, as they found out that the teenager was not accompanied by any adult during the interview.
However, Mr Bay’s report noted that an “additional refinement could be for a school counsellor to accompany the student to the police station”.
Based on this suggestion, a year after Benjamin’s death, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced a pilot project, the “Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Adults” (AAYS) which was rolled out at the Criminal Investigation Department, Bedok Police Division and the Central Narcotics Bureau’s Investigation Division.
Under the scheme, an independent and trained adult will have to accompany a young suspect under the age of 16 to law enforcement interviews. The website for National Council of Social Service explained that the “appropriate adult” should also be “a neutral party that provides emotional support to the young suspect and facilitates communications where necessary”.
The scheme is expected to be completed in mid-2019.
The volunteer, also called the Appropriate Adults (AAs), is expected to look out for signs of distress, aid communication between the young suspect under the age of 16 and the police when necessary, as well as provide emotional support. One has to note that the AA, receives only half a day of briefing before they are considered as trained for the job. The AAs are also instructed to remain neutral and not advocate for the young suspect, nor provide legal advice or disrupt the course of justice in any way, they also cannot be lawyers by profession.
This means that the AA is not a substitute for legal advice or legal counsel.
If that is not all, the AAYS does not include the parent of the youth or minor, meaning they’re left to be accompanied by strangers. This scheme only applies to those below 16 years of age, and adult suspects will not be given such opportunity or access to lawyers during their talks and interrogations with the police.
Call for the right to counsel and the right against self-incrimination
As revealed in the testimony by the police officer who took Benjamin’s statement at the coroner’s hearing, Benjamin admitted that he touched a part of a girl’s body, and he did so intentionally.
As such, Mr Ravi told in his video that if a lawyer was present during his interrogation, he or she may have advised Benjamin on his right not to incriminate himself.
“My intention in raising the Benjamin Lim incident is not to cast aspersions in any way, but to point out that there could potentially be real life consequences of not having immediate access to counsel, and thus not knowing what your legal rights are during such times,” he said.
He added, “How many of us know that we have the right not to incriminate ourselves? Even if we do, do we even know what exactly would be incriminating and consequences of exercising this right?”
Despite having the rights to not self-incriminate, under Section 261 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code, an adverse inference can be made against you if you bring up your right not to incriminate yourself and remain silent during police questioning.
As such, the lawyer argues that an average person who is not legally trained would not know “what information may incriminate him or her, and indeed what is meant by incriminating evidence or information”.
If that is not all, the police in the country is also not obliged to inform those called for questioning or interrogation that they have the right to not incriminate themselves.
“This is precisely why it is of utmost necessity if we are to give meaning to our legal rights, that witnesses and suspects have access to lawyer during police interviews. Their lawyers can then advise them so that they do not incriminate themselves,” he stressed.
To make things worse, one can be convicted solely based on his or her statement, without presenting any evidence to support the statement, said Mr Ravi. He also mentioned that although the police have to charge a suspect within 48 hours of arrest, but they can detain the individual for a “reasonable” period of time without a lawyer. Unfortunately, this “reasonable” period of time is not defined or specified in Singapore’s law and is left for the police to decide, said the lawyer.
“In short, you have the right not to incriminate yourself but it can be a major disadvantage for you to exercise it. So as you can see, we do need serious reforms in this area to protect and give meaning to what is guaranteed by the Constitution,” Mr Ravi pointed out.
He also noted that the right not to incriminate yourself is a basic right that is practiced around the world. It is also a “right to protect an accuse from police abuse and coercion”, he added.
As such, the lawyer emphasised the importance of reforms in the law since Singaporean police “have almost unrestricted powers of investigation and interrogation”.
“The right not to incriminate yourself, which include remaining silent during police questioning, reinforces the universal principal of justice – which is the right of an individual to be presumed innocent,” Mr Ravi said in the end of his video.