New Little India law may hinder healing

VIGILANT: Police in Little India on Dec 22 to make sure that no one was consuming alcohol. A proposed law will give the police extensive powers to deal with the consumption and sale of alcohol in Little India over the next year.


    Jan 23, 2014

    New Little India law may hinder healing

    ON MONDAY, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean introduced the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill in Parliament, to establish a legislative framework for managing the situation in Little India over the next year.

    There's a lot that can be said about this law, but here are my four main observations.

    First, the law creates extensive powers to deal with alcohol consumption and sale, and the presence of weapons, in Little India. But some of them are unusual.

    For example, police can now order any person in Little India to remove their clothes, to inspect for alcohol containers or weapons.

    More curiously, police sergeants and above may randomly stop, search and detain any "vehicle, vessel or aircraft" regardless of whether it is in Little India, to check for any unauthorised alcohol consumption, or sale or possession of weapon, within Little India that the police reasonably suspect has happened or is likely to happen.

    Yes, my head is spinning as well. For starters, how can a reasonable suspicion of an offence logically justify a completely random search?

    And it almost seems that, if a police sergeant saw a person in a white shirt drinking beer in Little India, then he can stop any car anywhere in Singapore randomly (or any ship at Keppel or any plane at Changi Airport, for that matter) to look for this person in a white shirt.

    Second, the main difference between this Bill and the Public Order (Preservation) Act, which has underpinned the measures currently in place and concerns only weapons and subversive material, is the Bill's extensive focus on alcohol.

    This seems to confirm what many said when alcohol curbs were first introduced: That the Government has already decided that alcohol was the main cause of the riot.

    Otherwise, why focus so much attention on alcohol?

    If so, then the constant reminders to not pre-empt the Committee of Inquiry (COI) and let the COI do its work ring hollow.

    Third, the police must exercise their new powers carefully. In particular, it would be disastrous if these powers are used mainly against persons of South Asian descent.

    Such persons, whether locals, migrant workers or tourists, must be wondering if they will be singled out for searches, and so will likely just avoid Little India altogether.

    Finally, I wonder if this law would help or hinder the recovery of the community.

    We cannot shut our eyes and pretend that the riot did not happen, and many Singaporeans had legitimate law-and-order concerns that needed reassurance.

    A short period of reasonable enhanced measures may be justifiable, but a year of enhanced security could end up as a constant reminder of the riot and inhibit healing.

    The Bill still has to undergo its second and third readings.

    I hope that Parliament will debate rigorously these and other questions about the Bill, and hopefully Singaporeans can get a fuller explanation on why these measures are necessary in the first place, and how they will work.


    The writer is a corporate legal counsel and former Nominated Member of Parliament.