Parliament 2014: Key test of new powers will lie in how they are used

AT ONE point during the four- hour-long debate over the controversial Bill that grants police temporary extra powers in Little India, it seemed there would be no respite for the Government.

Of the 16 MPs who spoke in total, no fewer than nine opposition MPs and Nominated MPs stood up to speak against it at length.

One after the other, they called it a "knee-jerk reaction" and "overkill". They argued that giving added powers to police officers was akin to creating a gated police state in Little India, and risked stigmatising the South Asian people as well as hurting, rather than helping, the healing process of the community there.

The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act is a temporary law that will last for 12 months and apply to the Little India area.

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

The MPs who spoke fell into three groups: those who opposed it vehemently, those who thought it necessary, and a handful who wanted to see the findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) first.

Capturing the sentiments of those who opposed it, Nominated MP Eugene Tan said: "The Bill is a disproportionate reaction to the Little India riot. Are we not taking a proverbial hammer to crack the nut?"

In the face of this strong pushback against the Bill, Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) rose to offer some perspective, urging detractors to understand the intention and how the law will be applied in practice.

It is important to understand the "legislative intent" of the law and not read it "expansively", he argued. In this case, "the legislative intent is to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol", he said.

So even if the Bill does give the authorities the power to even search a plane carrying alcohol over Little India when it lands in Changi Airport, that will not be done.

At the same time, fears over the powers to strip-search appear overdone, as they will be applied with the intention of allowing police officers to search a person who may have tried to hide a bottle of alcohol under a jacket.

It was in the same vein that Second Minister for Home Affairs S.Iswaran explained the intention for introducing the Bill now and not after the COI had completed its investigations.

Far from being one of "mindless efficiency", it was intended as a "targeted and necessary response to a clear and present need on the ground". In fact, he said, not taking any action before the COI ended would have raised many questions.

"Taking proactive and prudent measures does not amount to prejudging the issue. This is the duty of the Government and our agencies," he said. "And let me emphasise that these measures do not in any way intend to be definitive (about) the actual causes of the riot... That is for the COI to study and ascertain."

Understanding the intent of the Bill also helps to explain the need for it to be separated from the Public Order (Preservation) Act or POPA, and not, as some MPs called for, to continue using the latter.

Calling it the "most significant safeguard", Mr Iswaran said the Bill actually "seeks to curtail the powers available to the police compared to the present situation".

Thus, he added, if MPs accept that the extensive powers under POPA will be used with due restraint and safeguard, "then surely we should be assured that the exercise of these far more limited powers under this Bill will be similarly restrained".

The Bill has understandably raised concerns in some corners as it puts in the spotlight some of the wide-ranging and intrusive powers available to the authorities. But as Mr Iswaran and several MPs made clear, it should not be so quickly forgotten that what happened on Dec 8 last year was the worst public order disturbance in over 40 years in Singapore, and that the area is still crowded on weekends, and still in a state of "heightened security".

In that regard, the residents and business owners of Little India have just as much right to safety and security as the rest of Singapore, as Ms Denise Phua, an MP for the area, argued in supporting the Bill.

Still, however well intentioned, now that these powers have been passed into law, the next crucial step will be to ensure that they are applied sensitively and with restraint on the ground.

As Nominated MP Laurence Lien said: "Having legal powers and using those powers are two very different things." How the powers are actually used over the next 12 months will vindicate either the Government or those who oppose the Bill.

The intentions of the Bill are clearer, but now the scrutiny will shift from Parliament to the police officers and auxiliary police officers patrolling Little India each weekend.

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