Activists question Public Order Bill

SINGAPORE - A proposed public order law for Little India that will be debated in Parliament next week was criticised by some civil society activists last night at a forum.

They said it places too heavy a focus on alcohol as the cause of the Little India riot when that has yet to be officially established, they said.

But one law expert pointed out that the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill is constitutional and does not give unfettered discretion to the Home Affairs Minister and law enforcement officers.

Dr Kevin Tan, a National University of Singapore (NUS) law don, said they must satisfy specified criteria before using the search powers granted in the Bill. For instance, they must have "a reasonable suspicion" that a person is carrying alcohol before they can search him.

He was among four people in a panel discussion on the Little India riot, which involved a group of foreign workers, mostly from India. The others were: Mr T. Sasitharan, head of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, undergraduate Prabhu Silvam and NUS architecture lecturer Lai Chee Kien. Organised by human rights group Maruah, the event at Park Mall was attended by about 70 people.

The Bill was proposed last month to give officers more powers, including alcohol searches, for a year in Little India.

Dr Tan said it has an "underlying assumption" that alcohol was the cause of the December riot. This was problematic, he added, as the official Committee of Inquiry is still ongoing. "It could be multiple causes... The danger (of this Bill) is you end up targeting a wider range of people who may have absolutely no connection with any of the causal links that led to the riots," he said.

Still, the Bill would not contravene citizens' constitutional right to movement or assembly as it was explicitly about keeping public order, he added.

One impact of the Bill could be the destruction of the culture and colour of Little India built up by its communities, said Mr Sasitharan. Mr Prabhu, who had interviewed nearly 50 shopkeepers in the area, said many who sold alcohol were losing money owing to the alcohol ban.

Earlier this week, five other civil society activists sent a paper expressing similar concerns to the Speaker of Parliament.

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