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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

We don’t look like a police state, do we?

I think we should slow down. I don’t mean being satisfied if the economy grows by 0.1 per cent. I mean the pace at which legislation is being introduced and passed under the all-encompassing phrases of national security and maintenance of law and order.

The Law ministry has been extremely busy in recent time, what with amendments to the Penal Code in the offing, new bail terms, tightening the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act, allowing IMDA officers to search premises of filmmakers whom they think are up to no good and ensuring that the next City Harvest-type of scandal doesn’t let the perpetrators off with a slap on the wrist.

A bit further back in time, there was the codification of rules regarding speech about the judiciary under the Administration of Justice Act and the Protection against Harassment Act against stalking and hurtful online remarks, plus changes to the Public Order Act on mass events and to get building owners to tighten security on their premises.

Truth to tell, I am feeling constipated. Before digesting one law, we are faced with another and yet another. I wonder how the Members of Parliament cope, with their full-time jobs, town council duties, advisory roles in grassroots, sports and trade union groups. Not to mention writing letters (not to the courts anymore) for constituents and making their presence felt in the constituencies. Oops! I believe they have families too. Do they really have time to read draft Bills critically? Or is it enough for them to agree with the “principles’’ in the legislation and leave the fine point to legal experts in the G?

Because you can’t quite argue against principles, especially if they’re phrased in a black-or-white way, such as “Would you rather have this (insert legislation)? Or would you rather have the country destroyed by terrorists, chaos on the streets, communal riots?’’

The G is a dab hand at such “do-or-die’’ scenarios and those who disagree with the “do’’ look like they are advocating “death’’.

Now Parliament has before it the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, which is due to be debated in the House next week. I am sure the G will say that this is urgent, given that terror attacks can happen “any time’’.  Among other things, the Bill includes a communications stop order. This means pesky busybodies have to refrain taking photographs and video during a security operation. I blame the idea of such a stop order on idiotic media outlets elsewhere which air “breaking news’’ of operations.

But it seems that while governments elsewhere can rant and rave about how operations are compromised in the name of free speech, they aren’t able to do much about it. (One analyst said he knew of no other jurisdiction which has such powers).

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It is different here. Because of the ruling party’s majority in Parliament and because people here place a premium on security above all other values.

I ask you this: Are Singaporeans always okay with measures that curb their freedom of expression or movement when it is done in the name of national security? Frankly, besides those who are constantly derided as the “vocal minority’’, most don’t give a damn. But we should care, lest this new terror era is used to justify measures that give the G too much control over what we say or do whether in crisis or non-crisis situations. Or if the “vulnerability’’ narrative that we are a fragile multi-racial and multi-religious nation gains so much traction that we dare not say or do anything, even if what we say or do is done in the interest of the country.

One lawyer suggested that the expanded  powers be “”confined within very strict perimeters vis-a-vis its usage’’ and for more information on the types of situation where the order could apply, to “avoid the impression that (Singapore) is becoming like a ‘police state’.’’

Six civil society groups have also banded together to urge the Government to narrow the definition of “serious incident” in the Bill that gives the police special powers. I agree because the Bill will cover situations that “seriously threaten public safety” – even if there is no disorderliness. The executive will have the final say-so on the seriousness of the threat.

The groups contend that the Bill “treats peaceful protests in the same way as terrorist violence, but they are fundamentally different, as they are non-violent and do not threaten public safety.”

They argue that with existing strict laws against assembly, the police are already “empowered to respond to them as they would any prohibited activity, and have done so”.

“Special powers are not needed,” they added.

More conservative types will say that they can always use Hong Lim Park for such activities. This is Singapore: tidy and organized. And some will brush off the misgivings of the groups because they have already been tagged as “liberal types’’ who will make such “human rights” noises.

I think the groups need more support, with more citizens expressing their sentiments on the Bill. Because once the law is passed, it is there for any G to take advantage of it for whatever end it has in mind.

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For example, I saw this assurance that the “special powers” in the Bill cannot be invoked for “routine operations’’ – which makes me wonder what constitutes routine operations.

Would, for example, a deranged man holding someone hostage in his flat be constituted a routine operation? Or trying to get someone who is attempting to commit suicide off the roof? Or a narcotics sting operation?

In the first case, the authorities can argue that security operations shouldn’t be compromised because there is a threat to life and limb. So please don’t go posting pictures of police mounting the stairs. For the second, the authorities can argue that such scenes shouldn’t be circulated because it would only give ideas to wannabe suicide victims. For the third, there’s the argument that drug syndicates shouldn’t be tipped off about the way officers conduct drug busts.

One thing’s for sure, we have a very clever government and there will be responses for every doubt/suspicion/question that we may have for the exercise of its powers.

I am sure some people would also say: What’s wrong with that? We should leave such matters to professionals.

We have such implicit (or is it explicit?) faith in the authorities even though the balance of power between the government and governed will shift in a very big way.

What would be next then? That police can barge into homes on the mere suspicion of wrong-doing? Or that IMDA officers can seize laptops because legislation to pre-empt the proliferation of fake news says they can? (Oh. That legislation might be in the offing too).

I don’t like it. Because it means we must  hope that the authorities and their agents do not abuse their power in the process of carrying out their (very broad scope of) duties. Because if they do,  we, the people, can effect a reversal of policies only once every four or five years.

I read an ST Forum Page letter writer who said we should not mindlessly question the G, especially during times of crisis. I agree. The questioning should come before or after the crisis has passed. This is the “before’’ period.

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I hope the MPs give the Bill a thorough going-over. I don’t want to live in a police state, even if it only looks like one.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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