Feb 20, 2014

    Little India Bill creates new normal

    PREDICTABLY, the "ayes" have it. Parliament has passed the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill after a heated debate.

    Reading the news reports, I could not help but feel that, in a way, both sides were speaking at cross purposes.

    Opponents have expressed concern about the Bill and the extensive powers being given to police and auxiliary police.

    The strength of the opposition should not be understated - besides several Workers' Party MPs, apparently as many as five non-partisan Nominated MPs criticised the Bill, which signals broad and deep opposition among Singaporeans.

    Still, People's Action Party ministers and MPs have rightly pointed out that the police have been relying on the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) for their expanded powers since the Dec 8 riot, and that the new Bill actually confers narrower powers than POPA.

    In other words, the Bill is actually more restrictive than POPA.

    But what seems to escape the Bill's supporters is how this new law normalises these extraordinary powers. It will make these emergency powers feel almost ordinary and part of everyday life.

    Even though the new law will last for only a year, this normalisation effect will persist for long after.

    This may well explain the deep disquiet felt by Singaporeans, even among those who recognise the legitimate need for temporary enhanced measures in Little India.

    Both sides would agree that the powers under the new Bill are not powers that law enforcement can or should have in the ordinary course of affairs. Both sides would also agree that the use of POPA carries a heavy "footprint", as its powers are meant for extreme situations.

    I would hazard that the real question dividing the two sides is whether we should introduce a new law that treats these extraordinary powers as not being particularly unusual, or, alternatively, insist on the continued use of POPA to reinforce that these powers are intrusive and unusual, appropriate only for emergency situations, and hence should be withdrawn as soon as reasonably practicable when the emergency ends.

    In an interview published before the debate, a senior Home Affairs Ministry (MHA) official analogised the riot to a "very sudden and serious illness".

    He compared POPA to emergency surgery and intensive care, and the new law to general recovery.

    An alternative analogy might be that the riot was an infection, and POPA a very strong antibiotic, where we use the antibiotic for the minimum necessary time period to fight the infection, and then withdraw it entirely after completing the course.

    The Bill's supporters have pointed to a gap in existing legislation to justify this new law. But perhaps when one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    Just because there is a gap in the law, and the Government can easily muster the parliamentary majority to pass new laws, does not mean that the gap should be filled with this Bill.

    Instead, we must ask ourselves whether it is desirable to fill the gap in this way, and whether there is any other way to achieve the desired outcome of maintaining public order in Little India.

    The current practice of extending POPA on a weekly basis through proclamations in the Gazette gives the police the necessary powers to do their job, while signalling that these extraordinary powers should be limited to emergencies and are not to be granted or used lightly.

    This will also naturally minimise the period in which emergency powers are used.

    And if the Government believes that there are powers under POPA that are not necessary or appropriate for use in Little India, which is the responsible thing to do, then it is always open to the police commissioner to order officers on the ground not to invoke certain specified powers.

    Indeed, some powers, such as the withdrawal of telecommunications services and the requisition of property, may be exercised only by the Home Affairs Minister or the commissioner.

    There are ways of achieving the desired outcome without passing this new law. They may not be as expedient or convenient. But expediency and convenience are poor reasons for passing this Bill.

    Singapore is not a police state, and this Bill does not make us one. But the way in which this Bill was passed, and the apparent disregard for how it normalises an emergency situation, troubles me tremendously.

    The debate in Parliament is over, but this difficult discussion must continue.


    The writer is vice-president of civil rights group Maruah, a corporate counsel and former Nominated MP. He disagrees with the new Bill.