Is Little India Bill too steep, MPs wonder

Workers gathered for alcohol and food at the coffeeshop along Kerbau Road in Little India on a Sunday evening of 26 Jan 2014.

SINGAPORE - A bill proposing enhanced measures to maintain law and order in Little India sparked a spirited debate in Parliament yesterday, with more than half of the 16 speakers making their reservations known.

The measures will last for a year, and be applicable in a previously-drawn-up "special zone" in the area. Some who spoke against it said the current Public Order (Preservation) Act or PO(P)A is sufficient, questioning the necessity of the Bill that was passed yesterday.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim said that her party altogether opposed the Bill, and called it a "knee-jerk reaction" that is "unnecessary" at this time.

She added during the second reading of the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill that it would pre-empt the findings of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) set up to investigate the causes of the riot.

Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Faizah Jamal asked if the Government was "indulging in speculation", with its focus on alcohol restrictions, as alcohol was "no more than a contributing factor".

Some voiced other concerns. "I hope that this Bill will not dilute and sanitise the flavour of Little India, both functionally and symbolically," said Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng.

NMP Janice Koh also argued that such a Bill runs the risk of racial profiling and stereotyping.

"Overkill", "overreaction" and "disproportionate" were some words used to describe the Bill, which came in response to the riot at Little India on Dec 8 involving 400 South Asian nationals.

Members were also concerned over language barriers between police and migrant workers in the area, which may give rise to misunderstandings.

They questioned the equal powers given to Auxilliary Police Officers who, they felt, did not have the same kind of training as police officers.

In supporting the Bill, the MP for the area, Ms Denise Phua, said that it is "better safe than sorry". She also said that the Bill addresses the concerns of the majority of residents in Little India.

Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran said: "The powers under PO(P)A are extensive, even draconian, as it is a law conceived to deal with far graver State of Emergency-type situations."

He added that the alcohol restrictions are only in Little India so as to provide a "targeted and proportionate" response, and that measures would apply equally to all persons, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

Only auxilliary police officers selected by the Commissioner of Police will be allowed to act under this Bill, he said.

Responding to suggestions that the Bill pre-empted the COI, he said: "It would have been remiss of the Government, if we had reverted to business as usual and waited several months for the COI to establish the causes before taking action."

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