Everybody has concerns over the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, but it wasn’t enough to get them to say no, not the Opposition nor the Nominated MPs. Or they may well have been appeased or re-assured by Mrs Josephine Teo.
It was a Bill with “tension’’, as MP Christopher De Souza put it. We want the police to have the powers to protect us but not so much that it would make them too powerful for even us, the people, to control. Then there were concerns of unintended consequences, like being unable to gather evidence of police abuse (if it happens) or even evidence that could add to an understanding of what had taken place.
Which is why, I suppose, the Second Minister for Home Affairs went into some detail on the safeguards in place to assure people that these special powers won’t be imposed willy-nilly. It needed a two-key mechanism – by both minister and police commissioner – before it is activated. Even so, the police commissioner has to justify the need for every specific power, say, a “communications stop order’’. Plus, the activation has a one-month lifespan and must be renewed by the minister if they are still deemed necessary.
Much of yesterday’s debate centred on civil society’s concern about peaceful demonstrations being curtailed.
Several MPs and NMPs had asked about what would constitute a “serious incident’’ that would necessitate such special powers. They pointed out two examples laid out in the legislation that seemed to place peaceful demonstrations on the same level as a terrorist attack or a hijacking.
This is one of them: “A sit down demonstration for a cause attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit-in. For over a week, the group grows and the demonstrators start to occupy the publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the central business district. Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and interfere with normal trade or business activities in the area.”
Mrs Teo characterized views that allude to a clampdown on free expression as a “misrepresentation’’ of the legislation. It would only be invoked if the demonstration was a protracted one which had caused serious disruption, as articulated in the last line. She said repeatedly that peaceful assemblies were not the target, and that the police had given out over 900 licences last year for such gatherings.
She thinks that she will have Singaporeans on her side:“In fact, in such a situation, it is more likely that the Police will be asked: “Why are you allowing this chaos to unfold?”
She has a point. It is my belief that the Singaporean would prize law and order and business-as-usual above any sort of confrontation, even if peaceful.
In fact, I wondered why she had so little faith in the ability of Singaporeans to know how to behave in the event of a threat. So many examples were trotted out of people who did not obey police instructions and ended up making a security situation worse. All foreign.
Is it really in the Singapore DNA to go against police wishes? Look at this example: In 2003 during the Sars crisis, nobody quibbled about the G’s ability to impose quarantine orders for those suspected of being infected or meting out jail time for those disobeyed the rules. As for the media, do we really think that our traditional media would go about airing footage if the G says “Don’t. It’s a security risk.’’?
Of course, there is now social media. It is true that there are plenty of snap-happy people who like to share pictures and videos. The easy accessibility of the internet is a temptation. But you must also reckon with the people’s natural need for information during a time of crisis. If not from media, whether traditional or social, then the only input will be official. The question is whether the official channels are up to speed when it comes to giving timely and relevant info. Take Tuesday’s Pulau Busing fire. Pictures of smoke billowing from the island were circulating online at least half an hour before the SCDF gave its first statement on the fire.
In my earlier column, I said I do not like this legislation. I consider it draconian and open to abuse. You need only look at the questions asked by MPs that have to do with definitions: What is “a serious incident’’, “large scale’’, “reasonable force’’, “reasonable steps’’? It shows the wide scope of the legislation.
When she took the Bill through its second reading, Mrs Teo tried to pre-empt some questions, like why a provision in the old Public Order (Preservation) Act allowing Parliament to annul the Minister’s directive by a resolution wasn’t retained in the new legislation
She said: “There is no sinister reason for this. Even without this provision, members can question the Minister if they believe an Activation Order should not have been issued or should have been annulled. Parliament has not been and is not prevented from holding Ministers to account for decisions or policies, just because there are no specific provisions in the law. In any case, judicial review of the Minister’s decision to make an Activation Order remains an avenue to curb improper use by the Minister of his powers.’’
I would have thought the power to annul is rather more powerful than the power to question.
When the original legislation was drafted, lawmakers must have contemplated a scenario when the executive was up to no good when it invoked the powers. Given that the measures are draconian, they probably thought there should be just as speedy a way to prevent unnecessary over-reach, rather than the usual prolonged methods of debate and review.
I don’t think any MP picked up on this point. It is a pity because, written into the law, it is probably the best assurance that there is a quick method to reverse the situation should Parliament decide that the executive had got out of hand. This is far better than assertions in Parliament that the powers won’t be exercised lightly.
In the final analysis, it boils down to whether we trust the government of the day to do the right thing by the people, even as they ban communications, close cordons, remove vehicles, requisition equipment and question bystanders.
It was NMP Kok Heng Leun who came closest to articulating the unspeakable – whether the minister and police commissioner should justify their need for action and if there was an over-riding mechanism. Maybe the President’s consent should be sought as well, he suggested, like the case for Internal Security Act detentions. (By the way, he stressed that it was not a matter of “mistrust” but “accountability”.)
To Mrs Teo’s credit, she took the bull by its horns: “I have reflected on Mr Kok’s points and I think his main discomfort has to do with the discretion given to the Minister and CP, whether we should trust them to act honourably at all times, or whether we should curtail their discretion and not leave it to chance.
“Therefore, he asks whether we can impose conditions under which the powers are used, and whether these conditions can be written into the Act. In my view, it is not unreasonable to consider such risks.’’
She threw the ball back to the MPs. “There is a risk of too much discretion, but there is also a risk of too much delay.’’ Which is the bigger risk in a serious incident and which has graver consequences, she said.
It was for MPs to make that judgment.
And so they did.
Let’s hope the law will never be activated.