Local NGO, Transformative Justice Collective (TJC), which advocates for the human rights of prisoners and those on death row, opposes the expansion of police powers to stop-and-frisk as outlined in the Road Traffic Act amendment and called for its removal.
In a statement on their website released on Tuesday (18 May), TJC noted its concern that this proposed amendment to the Act introduces measures “without adequate discussion” on the potential cost of these frisk searches on members of the public.
Among others, the amendment allows for police officers as well as “senior approved persons” to conduct frisk searches on commuters of public transport and use handheld scanners to screen them.
The statement added: “Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) is further concerned that these measures will contribute to racial and religious profiling, and perpetuate racist and xenophobic sentiments that have unfortunately been intensifying in our society of late.”
Citing a New York University (NYU) study which shows that young urban men in New York who experienced police stops also reported higher levels of anxiety, while those who experienced more intrusive stops experienced more trauma.
Referencing Senior Minister of State for Transport Dr Amy Khor’s remarks in Parliament as the bill was debated in which she compares frisk searches to routine searchers at major public events, TJC stressed that this “discounts the psychological effect it may have on those who are singled out for searches during their public transport journey in plain view of other commuters.”
“It has been the case that “stop and frisk” practices in other jurisdictions, for example in New York and the United Kingdom, have drawn strong criticisms for disproportionately targeting minority men and boys,” TJC added, noting that this has given rise to a sense of expectation that will be stopped just for going about their day.
In Parliament, Dr Khor’s had highlighted that people afforded with this power to conduct frisk searches will be trained on how to identify people who display “suspicious behaviour.” However, TJC critiqued the lack of detail in the proposed amendments as to what entails “suspicious behaviour”.
It explained: “Suspicious behaviour’ is a nebulous idea, like ‘dangerous people’, both given to stereotypes based on race, skin colour, class and presentation (e.g. people with tattoos and piercings also tend to be disproportionately targeted).”
TJC questioned is such pre-emptive policing is “really capable of being free of biases” given that the very premise of it requires officers to make assumptions on who is more likely to be a danger to others around them.
The group went on to say also that there is evidence to show that raining does not necessarily translate to fairer practices.
It added, “In the absence of transparency around the training materials and guidelines for how officers should make decisions about who to stop and frisk, these reassurances by Dr Khor ring hollow.”
Moving on, TJC noted the lack of legislative safeguards in the amendments against “unnecessary use or abuse of such powers”, noting that police officers and so-called ‘senior approved persons’ are given complete discretion on who to stop and frisk.
The group pointed out that in countries such as the United States or United Kingdom, officers are generally required to have reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime or is in possession of an illegal item in order to conduct a search. They are also required to inform the person of the reason for the search.
The proposed amendment to the Road Traffic Act, however, states in a “catch-all” way that a search can be conducted as long as the officer “reasonably considers it necessary” to “ensure the security or safety of persons” on public transport.
TJC criticised that “Such broad powers to police and search our bodies are antithetical to our welfare, autonomy and sense of safety as we use public transport.”
Beyond that, TJC also noted that the proposed amendments do not outline avenues of recourse for individuals who may feel aggrieved by the manner of the search or by the conduct of the officers carrying out the search.
“Ultimately, profiling contributes to a sense of alienation, disenfranchisement and stigmatisation of racial and religious minorities, and other marginalised groups,” TJC warned.
It went on to highlight how, in Singapore, many Indian and Malay men—“especially if they are dark-skinned, travel alone, sport bears or carry backpacks”—are often repeatedly stopped for screening and bag checks.
“They find it extremely humiliating and distressing to be subjected to such a check, to the extent that many of them account for the extra time this will take when they are commuting by public transport,” TJC pointed out.
The group referred to an anecdote of a Tamil man who reported feeling an improvement in his mental health once he started driving and wasn’t subject to the “dehumanising checks” anymore.
TJC asserted, “These frisk searches represent another way for the State to intrude upon the bodies and lives of minority and marginalised communities, who already face microaggressions and other material harms in almost every aspect of their lives.”
It went on to slam the state’s reliance on the rhetoric of “national security” and “terrorist threats” to “justify the unilateral expansion of intrusive police powers and to dismiss concerns about the harms these practices bring about. “
It asserted that when these justifications are cited, there is also the added responsibility of the state on “being transparent about the threat assessment to the public.”
“There is also a need to weigh the necessity and effectiveness of each specific measure that expands police and state powers, against the potential harm and intrusion into our privacy and well-being that they bring,” it concluded, calling for the removal of this expansion of police powers.