Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill [Bill No. 11/2018]
Sir, like other members of this house, I am in favour of providing the Police with enhanced powers to maintain public order and safety.
We have to look to incidents around the world, to learn about the evolving methods that terrorists use to inflict maximum damage and terror.
Even if these incidents have not occurred in Singapore, there is no guarantee that it will not happen here. And when they do, we need to be prepared for it.
The POSSPA Bill is an important step to equip and empower our security agencies to mount an effective response, should we one day need it.
While I support the Bill in its intentions, allow me to seek a few clarifications on its details.
Definition of “serious incident” – Striking the right balance
In Clause 3, “serious incidents” are defined to constitute terrorist acts, acts of serious violence, acts causing large-scale public disorder, and so on.
Members of this house, past and present, have continuously debated about striking the right balance between maintaining public order, and proportionate responses to achieving that order.
We have constantly been recalibrating this balance, not just today, but in 2009 when we discussed the Public Order Act, and again in 2014 after the Little India Riots.
In that light, can Minister clarify why “acts causing large-scale public disorder” (under part (c) of Clause 3) are defined as a “serious incident” on the same scale as violent acts of terrorism?
The Bill provided an example of such an act – describing “a sit-down demonstration … (which) attracts a large group of sympathisers who voluntarily join the sit-in… Their presence starts to impede the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic”.
The Bill proposes that the Police be given the same set of powers, whether it is dealing with acts of terrorism, or sit-down demonstrations which attract a large group of sympathisers. Why?
I do understand that there’s a concern that these assemblies might lead to violence and injuries, but can Minister clarify what exactly is the “high threshold” for the activation of the special powers spelled out in the Bill? What will trigger the activation?
I would like to also seek clarity on the size of an assembly that could qualify as a “large-scale public disorder”. When would a crowd be large enough for these special powers to be activated?
For some members of the public, it may also seem excessive, in these cases, to allow the Police enhanced powers to stop and question individuals within the incident area, and if the individual does not comply, to issue a fine of up to $20,000 or 2 years’ imprisonment.
Or in Clauses 18, 19 and 20 – to use force, including lethal weapons to ensure compliance of orders.
Again, members of the public are clearly supportive of the use of lethal weapons to ensure compliance of orders when there is a terrorist attack but the concern of some members of the public is whether we need to use such lethal powers for a sit-down demonstration? Can Minister address these concerns?
Communication stop orders
Next, I believe that the communications stop order in Clause 30 is absolutely necessary in situations where live communications could give terrorists an upper-hand.
We do not want to see an embarrassing repeat of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, or the Manila hostage crisis in 2010.
Related to my previous point, I would like to ask the rationale for requiring such a stop order – again, for “acts causing large-scale public disorder”. Can Minister provide some clarifications on why this is needed?
Enforcement of the communications stop order
I also understand that a member of the public would not be penalised if he/she was taking a photo and sending it to authorities via SGSecure.
In any given situation, there could be many people using their phones concurrently for different reasons, some violating the communications stop order and some may not. How then would this be effectively policed?
Clarity on language
Furthermore, I believe it would be beneficial to have more clarity on certain language used in the Bill. In Clauses 18, 19, 20 and 48 the police may “use force as is reasonably necessary”, “including the use of lethal weapons”. Can it be more clearly defined as to what constitutes reasonable force?
While empowering the police with necessary powers to maintain public order, we also need to balance this with safeguards to prevent the misuse of this power.
The Bill now also grants some special powers to “civilian assistants”, which I understand was not previously included in the Public Order Preservation Act (POPA).
How can we ensure that these civilian assistants are sufficiently trained, particularly to know what “reasonable force” entails?
Some members of the public are also concerned that with the communications stop order in place, if any case of potential police brutality were to occur, we would not have independent documentation of the event.
This may lead some to question whether there are sufficient safeguards to prevent a scenario of disproportionate power.
MHA has clarified that if members of the public have any allegations of misconduct, or abuse of powers by police officers, when POSPA has been activated, they should lodge a police report or report directly to the Ministry.
But we will have to bear in mind that they may not be in possession of any evidence to support that police report, due to the communications stop order. Can the Minister provide more clarity on this issue?
Sir I do understand the need and importance of this Bill and I hope Minister can address the concerns I have raised. Sir notwithstanding the above clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill.