Progress Singapore Party Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai on Tuesday (5 January) questioned Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation Vivian Balakrishnan on whether the latter’s explanation was meant to be an apology on the Government’s behalf for its oversight regarding the scope of use of TraceTogether data.
The Singapore government previously assured the public that TraceTogether will only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing purposes.
In a multi-ministry taskforce press conference in June last year, Dr Balakrishnan and co-chair of the COVID-19 taskforce Minister Lawrence Wong claimed that TraceTogether is not a tracking device and that only a “small number of personnel have access to the data for contact tracing purposes”.
However, it was revealed a day prior in Parliament that the Singapore police are empowered to obtain any data under the CPC, including data from TraceTogether.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said this in response to Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza’s question on whether data from TraceTogether will be used for criminal investigations and what legal provisions and safeguards are present in using such data.
Mr Tan noted that authorised police officers are allowed to access TraceTogether data for authorised purposes.
Noting that there has been “a lot of responses from the public” regarding the matter, Mr Leong said yesterday: “Or is his [Dr Balakrishnan’s] message telling us that in Singapore, we should just take it that the Criminal Procedure Code will be able to access all the information that they have on us in Singapore?”
Mr Leong also asked Dr Balakrishnan at what point he had discovered that the statement that he previously made on TraceTogether data use is going to be affected by the CPC.
Reiterating that the CPC was “not in my mind” when he made his previous statements, Dr Balakrishnan replied to Mr Leong that the Government had decided that it was “better to be upfront” after having discussions “over the last few weeks” as to whether the Government “should, in fact, change the law or whether we continue as we are now”.
“That’s why we are very glad that Mr [Christopher] de Souza asked the question and MOS [Minister of State] Desmond Tan answered it yesterday,” he said.
Referencing his nearly two decades’ experience as a Member of the House, Dr Balakrishnan said: “All the staff who have worked with me over the years will know that I am obsessively concerned with accuracy — needless to say, absolute adherence to honesty.”
“And that means over the years, from time to time, when I have misspoken, I have said so. I’ve never shied away from saying so, because as I said, it is far more important to maintain trust,” he stressed.
Dr Balakrishnan added: “I might be right, you may be wrong, or I might have mistaken something or overlooked something, but rest assured when I discover [the mistake], I will say so, and to the best extent possible.”
“We will find a solution together. That is my approach, and I don’t see any need to change from that, and I hope you understand,” he concluded.
Prior to Mr Leong’s question, Dr Balakrishnan said that he “did have sleepless nights wondering” if he should persuade his colleagues in the House to change the law.
He added that he would be “happy” to hear any suggestions for legislative or policy changes regarding the issue from other MPs, including the Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.
The Government’s decision to allow police to obtain data from its COVID-19 contact tracing system TraceTogether for criminal investigations has sparked an uproar among netizens since Tuesday, with many saying that people were given “false promises” from the beginning.
In 2013, AsiaOne reported that Dr Balakrishnan — as then-Minister for the Environment and Water Resources — had called on the Workers’ Party (WP) to apologise to hawkers embroiled in a long-running dispute over the cleaning of hawker centres in Aljunied GRC.
WP MPs ran the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) at the time.
Dr Balakrishnan told reporters that he “will be happy to invite” then-WP chief Low Thia Khiang “for a cup of coffee” in a meeting with the hawkers once the cleaned hawker centres have been inspected.