Lessons from the furore over the Little India Bill

While watching the recent parliamentary debate on the Little India Bill, the old adage that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" came to mind.

Since the riot in Little India on Dec 8, the Government has invoked the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) on weekends and public holidays to maintain calm and order and allow the police to take action against anyone consuming alcohol in public.

It did this for six weekends. Still, it was mindful that relying on POPA, an emergency-type law that conferred wide-ranging powers including the use of lethal force, should not and could not be a long-term solution.

So on Jan 20, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean tabled a new Bill in Parliament, called the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill. It would give the police fine-tuned powers in Little India and last for a year until longer-term measures could be enacted.

It allows the men in blue to ban people from the neighbourhood for up to 30 days and quickly suspend the business licences of those suspected of flouting the law.

They can also search and enter premises within the area where they reasonably suspect alcohol has been consumed, prohibited items have been kept or a banned person is, without a warrant.

But since the Bill's introduction, the Government has been fending off a small firestorm of criticism from civil society activists, who took issue with how the legislation places too much focus on alcohol as the cause of the riot, and how that may influence the ongoing Committee of Inquiry's (COI) deliberations.

The unhappiness culminated in last week's Parliament sitting, when a total of nine opposition, Nominated and Non-Constituency MPs spoke against the Bill.

Their criticisms fell into four broad areas: the law's intrusive nature in allowing for strip searches; that it may influence the COI's investigations; that it would lead to a dilution of Little India's culture and colour; and that it would confer powers on auxiliary police officers.

Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran stood up to defend the Bill, saying essentially that introducing it was the right thing to do. He said: "I am sure that many Singaporeans, and Members of this House, will agree that it would have been remiss of the Government, if we had reverted to business as usual and waited several months for the COI to complete its work and establish the approximate causes before taking action."

He also pointed out the inconsistency of positions taken by some critics of the Bill, saying that their logic was "quite elusive".

On the one hand, they had welcomed the measures that have been taken by the Government so far and argued for the continuation of POPA to keep Little India safe. But why were they showing reluctance to accord powers which are "significantly reduced" compared to POPA, he asked.

The minister added: "If you are concerned about the exercised power that is enumerated in this Bill, then why are you not even more exercised by that concern in the context of the powers under POPA?

"And if you are concerned that somehow this Bill will tarnish the image of Little India, then what do you think the proclamation of a state of danger in Little India every week would do?"

Parliament eventually passed the Bill with the broad support of PAP MPs, though the chorus of nays was unusually loud.

This episode raises questions on why the Government and the political opposition acted as they did in the aftermath of the worst outbreak of violence here in 40 years.

First, why did the Government feel a need to fix something that was not broken by tabling a new Bill? Did they not anticipate the ire of activists and others who would naturally be suspicious when any new laws that they perceive to curb individual liberties are tabled?

Why were they unable to clearly explain and get across the key message of the change, which is that they were essentially reining themselves in as far as sweeping police powers go?

Then there are the questions about the political opposition.

Why were they so against the Bill? What exactly were they objecting to?

Could it be that the opposition did not fully grasp what the new Bill was about? Were they objecting for the sake of objecting, a case of political posturing?

Or did their response, and that of the NMPs, reflect general discomfort with the powers police would now enjoy, which many people may not have realised already exist under current laws.

These include the right to conduct strip searches, which are already allowed at all large-scale events under the Public Order Act, such as the National Day Parade.

We may never know the answer to some of these questions, but several lessons can be drawn from the episode.

On the Government's part, what transpired has highlighted the importance of clear public communication on a key policy or legislation from the very get-go, to prevent misunderstanding and worry.

Mr Iswaran highlighted last week that all powers under the Bill were already available under POPA. The main exception pertained to alcohol-related measures, he noted. They address a current gap, where someone without a liquor licence who sells alcohol illegally can be charged in court but his other business, such as a restaurant, stay unaffected.

During the debate, the Home Affairs Ministry sent media outlets a table showing how the new law stacked up against POPA.

This was published the next day. It showed, at a glance, that the police would now be unable to exercise powers in six areas, including imposing curfews and using lethal weapons in arrests.

Had this been released when the Bill was first tabled, it would probably have gone some way to put the new law in context, in helping many grasp the finer points of the new law. One wonders if there would have been less objections in the House then.

As for those who were against the Bill but argued for the continued use of POPA, they have to ask themselves if their stand was indeed, as Mr Iswaran pointed out, somewhat lacking in logic.

Parliamentary debates are enriched when non-establishment voices provide an alternative point of view and point out gaps or weaknesses in policy and legislation.

The House reconvenes on Monday for two weeks - first to approve the national Budget, and then individual ministries' spending plans. MPs can file "cuts" - a call for a $100 reduction in a ministry's budget - for a chance to query a ministry's budget and comment on its policies.

Observers of last week's session might have been forgiven for being left bewildered by why the Government was pushing the new laws and also why the opposition was against it. Hopefully, those following the marathon budget sessions to come will not be left similarly puzzled.

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