Police has to do more than keep crime down

When Singapore's men in blue are hauled to the courts, is it a sign that the force isn't what it used to be or that the system is working well and no one is above the law?

It's a question that is asked every time a senior law enforcement officer gets into trouble with the law.

When the chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force were both charged with corruption, one after the other, for receiving sexual favours from women who had business dealings with their organisations, many wondered what had happened to the high standards expected of Singapore's enforcement agencies.

Was this the beginning of a downward slide when the integrity of even the most senior officers was being called into question?

Or did it show, as the Government would argue, that it was still as zealous about the incorruptibility of the public service and would not hesitate to throw the book at anyone caught with his pants down?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above - standards have slipped but the Government hasn't lost its resolve to keep the system clean.

In which case, we will most certainly see more of such cases.

Such as the shock appearance in court last week of a senior Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) officer accused of misappropriating $1.7 million from the very organisation tasked to keep corruption under control.

When even the CPIB isn't spared, you have to wonder whether the problem is more deep-seated.

If the recent cases are merely the result of weak controls within these organisations, the problem can be solved by tightening the checks and by other administrative and financial measures.

Indeed, the tightening did take place soon after two officers from the Singapore Land Authority were found guilty of pocketing more than $12 million in 2010.

But if the cases are the result of an erosion of the zero-corruption culture and of the values and ethos of the public service, it would be a much more worrying issue.

That very senior officers were involved in these recent cases would worry those concerned about this larger values issue, even though the Government believes the system is sound.

The anti-corruption culture was developed from many years of continual vigilance and political will and is a much heralded hallmark of the Singapore system. It clearly cannot be allowed to be eroded through neglect or inaction without severe consequences to the integrity of the public service.

That is why the Government has had to pursue wrong-doers relentlessly, even when its legal case wasn't water-tight, as when the court dismissed the charges against the CNB chief.

It is the right approach to take to ensure Singapore continues to be relatively corruption-free.

More challenging for law enforcement agencies is dealing with the changing values and expectations of a more educated and diverse population. People will still expect the country to be relatively crime-free but will have different views on how to achieve this happy state of affairs.

Already there have been changes, such as the law that gives judges discretion in passing sentences on persons convicted of murder. The judges can now decide between life imprisonment and the death penalty when previously they had no such choice.

There has been a similar shift in dealing with drug offenders.

These changes reflect changing public views towards the use of the death penalty.

A more educated public will also expect greater transparency in the way law enforcement decisions are made.

There have been calls, for example, for the Attorney-General's Chamber (AGC), which is the legal arm of the Government, to explain publicly its prosecutorial decisions - why it decides to pursue some cases and not others, or how it decides the specific offence to charge a person with. It is under no obligation to do so, which sometimes leads to needless speculation as to the reasons behind its decisions.

In the recent case of the prison officer who was convicted of causing the death of a prisoner through a negligent act, it isn't clear why it took the authorities almost three years to bring the matter out into the public.

The prisoner, Dinesh Ramen Chinnaiah, died in September 2010 after being subdued by several officers following his assault of a prison warden.

From the court proceedings last week, it seems clear that the officers acted properly and by the book. Dinesh was violent, they had to deal with him robustly, and it was unfortunate that he died of breathing difficulties as a result.

But three years is too long for this matter to have been kept under wraps without a proper explanation for the delay.

There have also been comments in the media about why a coroner's inquiry was not held. Although the AGC has explained that this was not unusual as the cause of death had been established from court proceedings against the prison officer, the question remains whether the inquiry could have been held earlier.

Being timely with information is a key part of being transparent and will reinforce public confidence in these institutions.

Ultimately, Singapore's approach to law and order issues has to take into account changing public attitudes and expectations.

Indeed, the job of the police is not to stop crime at all cost.

If it were so, the most effective measure would be to impose a nationwide curfew after dark. It would bring the crime rate drastically down but also make us prisoners in our own homes.

The job of the police is to allow people the freedom to do what they want to do within acceptable limits, and still try to keep crime down.

Hence, in societies that allow public demonstrations, for example, the police's job is to ensure that these activities can take place because the people believe it is their right to do so, even if it poses law and order issues.

That's a different approach from what's practised here, which is that the police will not allow such activities to take place because they say it may create problems.

Will that change as Singapore society changes?

The job of the men in blue is to keep step with these changing times while keeping crime down.



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