The Parliamentary sitting in January 2021 generated a firestorm of controversy with revelations that data collected by the TraceTogether system for Covid-19 contact tracing can be accessed by the police pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
This information caused an uproar because the Government had previously assured Singaporeans that such data could not be used for any other purposes apart from Covid-19 contact tracing.
In fact, Minister-in-charge of the smart nation initiative, Vivian Balakrishnan (Balakrishnan) and Co-chair of the Multi-Agency taskforce for Covid-19, Lawrence Wong had assured the public of the same in a press conference.
As this news broke, a public furore ensued as questions were asked of whether or not the Government had deliberately concealed this information which could in turn lead to an erosion of trust.
The criticism was so intense that Balakrishnan publicly admitted to having made a mistake. However, despite that admission, criticism still mounted – after all, should Ministers, who are paid millions, be making mistakes like this?
Likely as a result of this public outcry, Balakrishnan announced that the Government would be introducing legislation to set out seven categories of serious offences for which TraceTogether data can be used for criminal investigations which would include offences related to terrorism, drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping and serious sexual offences such as rape.
This brings us to the Parliamentary sitting this month where the law to formalise this commitment to limit the use of the data will be debated. Prima facie, this appears very positive.
However, take a closer look and it transpires that this Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) (Amendment) Bill (Bill) is set to be introduced on a Certificate of Urgency (COU), which means that the proposed law is urgent enough to be put through all three readings in one parliamentary sitting, without having the wording of the bill being presented to Parliament first and the ability to debate it in the following month (March).
As of today, no one knows — other than the government — how the bill looks like or worded.
Arguably, the COU could signify the Government’s commitment to restricting the use of data collected through the TraceTogether system. However, given the gravity of the situation, shouldn’t more time be given to Parliament to properly scrutinise and digest the contents of the Bill?
Unsurprisingly, the uncommon haste has led to questions as to the intentions of the Government. Is the Government rushing through the legislation to prevent potential loopholes in the legislation from being flagged before it becomes law? After all, once the Bill is passed, it will be more difficult to amend if loopholes are revealed further down the line.
The introduction of TraceTogether may have been rushed at the outset because of the urgency of the pandemic and the need to control it. The initial rush may have led to Balakrishnan’s “mistake” in the first place.
So, why are we making the same mistake (pun intended) twice by appearing to rush yet again? Why not take the opportunity (now that we have it) to assess the Bill comprehensively to ensure that the legislation is tight and fool proof?
It bears remembering that Balakrishnan’s “mistake” may not have been picked up by the public had it not been flagged in Parliament and picked up publicly. This shows that potential pitfalls take time to unfurl and be picked up. Instead of rushing things through, why not give the Bill some proper gestation time?
What is the immediate rush to push this through given the data has already been used at least once? If the Government really wants to protect the data and limit its use, why not just suspend use for now instead of using the COU to push through a rushed piece of legislation?
If the Government is serious about public concerns, then, Parliament ought to be given adequate time to properly discuss and debate the issues.