Parliament 2014: Q & A on police powers

SINGAPORE - Just before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) begins its investigation today into the December riot that broke out in Little India, Parliament has passed a new Bill allowing the police to continue their efforts to maintain public order and calm in the area.

On Tuesday, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran addressed concerns over the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill or PO(ATM), adding that the temporary measures - which will be in place for a year - are in response to the Little India riot on Dec 8.

A total of 16 members of the House debated on the Bill, which Mr Iswaran said will give the police less power than they do under the Public Order (Preservation) Act or PO(P)A.

The latter was invoked last year after Singapore's first riot in more than 40 years.

Wrapping up the debate, Mr Iswaran said the powers under PO(P)A are extensive as it is a law conceived to deal with far graver State of Emergency-type situations, including powers to implement curfews and authorise lethal force.

WHY CAN'T WE CONTINUE TO RELY ON THE PO(P)A?

Some have characterised it as a knee-jerk, hurried response. This is hardly the case...

This is a case of a targeted and necessary response to a clear and present need on the ground.

We have three choices: One, we continue with the current arrangements with all its powers in PO(P)A and the question that we have to ask ourselves is what precedent does it set to use such pieces of legislation with extreme powers in a situation like this, and what sort of risks does that pose?

Another alternative is to revert to the status quo to what we had before the riot, I think members would agree that is not satisfactory.

The third option is in the form of the current Bill - to have a specific set of powers, scoped for the situation, for a limited period of time so that the police can continue to maintain law and order in Little India.

WHY NOT WAIT FOR NEW LAWS AFTER THE COI?

The COI will take some time to finish its work.

It has been given six months and thereafter, whatever the recommendations, they have to be deliberated upon and appropriate measures be put in place.

So there is considerable time still ahead.

Who would be answerable to Singaporeans and to the residents in Little India if another incident were to occur?

It is incumbent on the Government and our agencies to take reasonable steps and measures to ensure that such an incident does not recur.

This Bill provides for calibrated powers, far less than in PO(P)A, to continue with the measures to maintain law and order in Little India.

ARE THE POLICE POWERS PROVIDED FOR IN THIS BILL UNPRECEDENTED?

All powers, specifically police powers, in this Bill are already available under PO(P)A, which has been invoked on a weekly basis since Dec 8.

In drafting the Bill, the specific powers of search and seizure, for example, take reference from similar provisions in the Public Order Act governing special, large-scale events like National Day Parade.

In investing such powers in our officers, we must ensure that they exercise them with sensitivity, with prudence and with care.

ARE THE MEASURES DISCRIMINATORY?

The Bill is focused on Little India because that is where the riot occurred on Dec 8, with inevitable lingering security concerns.

And in fact, we continue to have large gatherings there on the weekends.

So we need measures to ensure that public order and calm is maintained at that location.

WHAT IMPACT WILL THE BILL HAVE ON LITTLE INDIA?

Little India is, and continues to be, a place of interest and enjoyment for residents, business operators, foreign workers, and tourists alike.

Drinking continues to be permitted in licensed premises during weekends, and most activities can continue unencumbered.

By providing a safer law and order environment, the measures we have taken serve to preserve and enhance the colour and vibrancy of Little India, not detract from it.

zothman@sph.com.sg


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