Workers' Party opposes temporary public order law in Little India

THE Workers' Party (WP) opposes a new law meant to give law enforcement officers powers to maintain public order in Little India, said party chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament on Monday calling it "unnecessary" and a "kneejerk reaction" to the riot that happened on Dec 8.


Get the full story from The Straits Times.

Here's Ms Sylvia Lim's speech in full:

Little India is a very special place. Many Singaporeans are proud to have such a unique quarter of vibrancy, where Indian culture and custom, and the uplifting aroma of Indian spices, seem to transport India to our shores. I remember bringing a visitor there. He was a young man when he left India thirty years ago for the United States, where he later became a naturalized American citizen and taught at a leading American university for more than three decades. Once he and I arrived at Little India, he was so reminded of his home country that he kept returning to the area on his own every day for the following days of his visit. Is it any wonder that our foreign workers from South Asia find comfort relaxing there on their off-days? Such is the magnetic draw of Little India to both Indians and tourists alike. The authenticity of Little India has stood the test of time, unlike what has happened to many other parts of Singapore including Chinatown. The legacy of Little India is to be preserved and defended.

As the same time, the social disamenities created by overcrowded streets on weekends and holidays are not new. Residents and the MPs for the area have been giving feedback to the government authorities for years. As far back as twenty years ago, I recall being deployed as a police officer on operations in Little India, to give out information to foreign workers and visitors not to obstruct road traffic, to walk on footpaths and not to use drains as urinals. Over the years, the overcrowding worsened and made it impossible to drive through roads at weekends and public holidays. I am sure the authorities are aware of the situation, but I am not sure what the authorities have been doing to manage the situation all this while.

The hasty introduction of this Bill in the aftermath of the 8 December riot is, to me, a knee-jerk reaction. Though the Government’s desire to act is understandable, this Bill will instead stigmatize Little India as a “special zone” requiring special legislation from Parliament. This Bill is unnecessary at this time, especially when the Committee of Inquiry (COI) set up to investigate the causes of the riot is set to release its recommendations by June. There are already sufficient powers under our laws and administrative regimes to manage the situation until the COI findings can be acted upon. I have also some particular concerns about the Bill. Let me elaborate on these points.

Committee of Inquiry (COI) findings out soon

The COI was appointed on 13 December and has 6 months to complete its report, which will take us to a deadline of 13 June. Assuming this Bill is passed today and comes into force in March, it will be effective for twelve months, from March this year to March next year. It will be in force for about three months before the COI report is out. After the findings are out, the Bill will continue thereafter for another nine months, regardless of what the COI findings are.

The Bill provides for draconian and resource intensive measures, including needing special permits to serve alcohol at hotel weddings (Clause 5), police searches for alcohol containers on persons and vehicles (Clauses 9 and 12), questioning persons who wish to enter the area (Clause 10) and refusing entry and banning individuals from the zone (Clauses 11 and 13). What if the COI findings are such that all these measures are barking up the wrong tree? How much wastage of taxpayers’ money and inconvenience to the public will be caused with continuing the measures for the remaining nine months?

In my view, the government has taken decisive steps to calm the situation post-riot. There is no need to rush to pass a special law when the COI findings will be out soon. The government can continue to calibrate its actions within the existing framework of national legislation and administrative powers, until the COI findings can be acted upon.

Existing laws and administrative arrangements adequate in interim

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, the government used the existing Public Order Preservation Act (POPA) to designate Little India a proclaimed area. For every weekend and public holiday since then, the Minister has issued such proclamations. This has facilitated a ban on the consumption of alcohol in public on those days; businesses selling alcohol for off-premise consumption were also directed to do so within shorter hours. As DPM Teo said in his statement to Parliament on 20 January, the authorities were able to calibrate the extent to which they utilized powers under the POPA. Earlier, Minister said that the powers under POPA were excessive and not appropriate for the situation at hand. While it is true that POPA contains wide powers and the fit is not ideal, the government has shown that it can calibrate its approach to the application of POPA to use only the provisions which are appropriate. In any case, this is just for a few more weekends until the COI findings can be acted upon.

There are actually some aspects of this Bill which are wider than how POPA has been applied. For instance, in applying the POPA, the government has calibrated its approach to Little India, gazetting a proclamation only during public holidays and weekends. The Bill before us will make Little India a special zone every day of the week for twelve months. This is a stark indication of how the Bill is more onerous than the POPA in application.

The current legal framework already gives the government vast powers to meet law and order problems. POPA stipulates that if anyone commits the offenses of unlawful assembly or rioting in a proclaimed area, he will be subject to double the imprisonment; in the case of rioting, this means 14 years’ jail. (Section 27 POPA). Besides POPA, there are also many other laws at the government’s disposal. The Penal Code criminalizes acts of violence, and gatherings of persons intending to use violence; conspiracy, abetment and attempts of such offences are also crimes. Under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, drunkenness in public (Section 18) and disorderly behaviour (Section 20) are specific offences. Suspects can be arrested by police without warrant on the spot. The carrying of prohibited items such as weapons and corrosive substances are already criminalized everywhere in Singapore under the Arms and Explosives Act, the Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act, the Dangerous Fireworks Act and others. In 2009, Parliament passed the controversial Public Order Act with provisions allowing the police to issue “Move On” orders to persons it suspects may disrupt or disturb others in a public place. Are the existing laws not enough until the COI findings are out?

Besides legal measures, administrative measures are also available to manage the situation at Little India. As indicated in Parliament on 20 January, policing arrangements have been enhanced post-riot by way of 20 to 30 police officers as well as Special Operations Command troops complementing the 81 existing auxiliary police and private security officers. Other measures initiated included more CCTV surveillance and building stronger community partnership programmes. Foreign worker management has also been reviewed. Employers and dormitory operators have provided alternative recreational activities, while the transport for workers to and from Little India has been adjusted, with drop-off and pick-up arrangements improved. The Land Transport Authority is also involved in relooking at road access and traffic management. These positive moves have been very helpful to manage the situation in the interim.

Other concerns

I have three other concerns about the Bill.

First, stigmatization. Is it good for the residents of Little India to be singled out as living in a special zone where a dedicated security law has to be passed by Parliament? The current arrangement of using POPA is more palatable, as it is a law that can be used for any part of Singapore facing a temporary law and order situation. Passing this Bill will mean that for twelve months at least, residents can only drink alcohol outside their homes under a class permit, and their friends and guests will need to be extra careful when visiting them on any day of the week. Civil Defence paramedics and pharmacists in the zone who carry alcohol products for medical emergencies need to refer to Clause 4(3) to confirm that they can do so. They are joined by priests serving communion for church services. Under Clause 12, even driving through Serangoon Road in transit with a bottle of wine may attract searches and questions. Have we gone too far?

Secondly, a resource question. The provisions of the Bill are onerous to implement. Vast policing resources appear to be required to question persons entering into or remaining within the special zone, to search for and destroy alcohol containers, to search vehicles whether inside or outside the special zone, to issue banning orders to suspects etc. During the Ministerial statement on the Little India riot on 20 January, the government already expressed concern as to whether the additional deployment rates at Little India were sustainable. How much more resources would be needed to do what is envisaged under the Bill, every day of the week? Related to this, the role of auxiliary police is going to be enhanced. My colleague Pritam Singh will speak on this point. Are they suitable for the tasks under the Bill?

Finally, displacement effects. Designating the special zone may lead to displacement effects for the duration of the Bill. Persons who would otherwise frequent Little India may go to the neighbouring areas outside the zone e.g. across Jalan Besar. While the Minister can expand the special zone to cover adjacent areas under Clause 3, how this will change the landscape and living environment of adjacent areas for the next 12 months remains to be seen.

Conclusion

I have spoken of my concerns about the hasty manner in which this Bill is presented and the wisdom of jumping the gun when the COI is to complete its work by June. I have also elaborated on why I believe the existing legal and administrative framework can be used in the interim to manage the situation until the COI findings can be dealt with. My colleagues will further elaborate on the reasons why the Workers’ Party has grave reservations about the need, and the wisdom of this Bill.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, we are aware of the plight of the long-suffering residents in the area, who have put up with social disamenities for decades. The incident of 8 December suggests that the authorities will need to make some changes. However, the current holding measures should suffice until the COI findings are out.

For these and other reasons my colleagues will elaborate on, the Workers’ Party opposes the Bill.

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