Bill passed for powers to keep order in Little India

PARLIAMENT on Tuesday passed a controversial Bill that the Government said will allow the police to continue to take calibrated measures to maintain public order and calm in Little India.

Opposition and Nominated Members of Parliament, however, opposed the Bill.

They said it was hasty, unnecessary and lacked safeguards against possible misuse of the powers it grants the police.

The new Bill is called the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill or POATM. It is a temporary law that will be valid for 12 months and apply to the Little India area.

It will grant police the power to exclude or ban people from entering the area if their conduct is likely to threaten public order, and to search any vehicle, person or place reasonably suspected of being related to an offence.

It also enacts a general prohibition on alcohol sale, supply and consumption in the area, except under specific conditions. And it empowers the authorities to cancel or suspend a permit or licence on short notice if a licensee flouts the alcohol ban.

Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran yesterday told Parliament that since the Dec 8 riot in Little India, the Government has taken steps to address factors that could have contributed to it. The steps have helped stabilise the situation, instilled confidence and won wide acceptance among stakeholders, he said.

To do so, the Government had to invoke on a weekly basis a provision under the Public Order (Preservation) Act or POPA.

But POPA was conceived for far graver situations, and as a result, grants police broad and extensive powers, he said.

"While some of these powers are needed to maintain public order in Little India today, many others are excessive and unnecessary for this purpose," he added.

These include the power to impose a curfew and even authorise lethal force where necessary.

The new POATM Bill, by contrast, provides for "a focused set of powers, far more limited than the extensive powers available today under POPA", Mr Iswaran said, to support security, traffic management and alcohol restriction measures in Little India.

Of the 16 MPs who joined the debate yesterday, three from the Workers' Party (WP) opposed the Bill, and five Nominated MPs and one Non-constituency MP criticised it. WP chairman Sylvia Lim said it was unnecessary as the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the causes of the riot will release its recommendations by June.

Mr Iswaran said time is needed to consider COI recommendations and put measures in place. In the meantime, "it is incumbent on the Government and our agencies to take reasonable steps and measures" to make sure there was no repeat of the Dec 8 incident.

The seven People's Action Party MPs who spoke threw their support behind the Bill.

Ms Denise Phua said her constituents who live in Little India support it.

Police commissioner Ng Joo Hee on Tuesday issued a statement to allay concerns over police powers to conduct searches.

"Our police officers on the ground have demonstrated that they have carried out their duty in a reasonable manner and will continue to do so," he said.

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