As a human rights group, MARUAH, makes this stand that this Public Order Bill ought not to be passed in Parliament. This Bill is not a useful instrument to secure public order in Little India or in Singapore. It is a Bill that goes against the grain of observing human rights and the dignity of the person, because of the wide-ranging powers that will be bestowed on the officers who will manage the surveillance on the ground.
We say that this Bill is:
- discriminatory towards the communities living in Little India (boundaries as drawn to be in the Special Gazetted Zones)
- overly focused on alcohol consumption as the cause of the riots in Little India. MARUAH will henceforth refer to the riots as the Race Course Road riots, which is a more accurate reflection of the boundary in which the riot happened
- one that gives too much power to police officers and auxiliary police to search and seize personal property and to strip-search individuals
- vague on definitions of, for instance, ‘public space’ as it can also include ‘enclosed spaces’; and on licensing procedures for businesses operating in the Special Gazetted Zones
- offering immunity to the Government on the premise that actions taken at that point in time were carried out in good faith
- premature as the results of independent investigations on the riot and research on alcohol consumption patterns are not even ready as yet
Taking these factors into account MARUAH firstly questions the rationale for this Bill. The rationale given in the Explanatory Notes puts forward a case that Little India is a security risk and that more powers are needed for the officers to maintain public order. If that were the case, then we ask for the evidence to show this risk. It is equally important to share a comparative analysis on data for other areas such as Clarke Quay, Boat Quay, Geylang, Golden Mile Shopping Centre, Lucky Plaza and 24-hour Kopitiams. This evidence, we hope, will provide data on brawls, thefts, sexual violations, loud behaviour, rioting, etc. – all of which
constitute law and order issues.
We query why this Bill deals with Little India when the riot took place in Race Course Road. This gazetted area extends to many other roads and streets in the Little India district, where many diverse communities dwell and live. We ask what is the rationale and evidence to turn such a vast area into a risk-prone zone.
If the Government’s answers to the above questions are to rely on the numbers of foreign workers who visit and congregate in the area, then MARUAH has little choice but to call out the prejudicial mind-set with which this Bill has been drawn up by the Government. We state that proportionality is the crucial arbiter here. Many foreign workers are law-abiding guestworkers; they do not come to Little India to create trouble. The majority of Singaporeans who live in, or visit Little India, do not break the law. Is this Bill then a proportionate response to deal with the smaller proportion of foreign workers, tourists and Singaporeans who
misbehave? And again, why then not have this Bill, renamed and reworked, to be applied in other gazetted zones around Singapore as there are misbehaving people who can become a security risk in these areas too.
Secondly there is an over-focus on alcohol consumption throughout this Bill. The approaches of restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, retaining licences, searching personal property and strip-searching, etc. are restrictions on people – all persons. They are also violations by law on the rights of the individual to be subjected to such searches and restrictions. We ask if this is the best way to handle alcohol consumption. There are other ways – investing in public education, partnerships with groups and governance over the issuance of licences to sell alcohol. We ask why these intrusive measures through the Bill are needed when there are also other existing laws at present that can be used by the officers to take errant citizens or foreigners to task. Again, we state that the implication in this Bill is that alcohol was the cause of the riot and that the solution is to control alcohol
consumption. This kind of causal link between the riot and alcohol consumption is a problem in itself, when we are still awaiting the results of the Committee of Inquiry (COI).
Thirdly certain clauses in the Bill (despite the effort to define the terms) are still vague and open to interpretation. This is hugely disadvantageous to the citizen/foreigner but arms the officers with the powers to assert their authority. What is meant for example by ‘public space’ (open to the air or enclosed) is bewildering and open to interpretation. As such the citizen, the foreign worker, the businessman; all remain at the mercy of the interpretation by the officers working on the ground.
Fourthly MARUAH is deeply concerned about the immunity on offer to the Government, as it is assumed that the Government has acted “in good faith and with reasonable care”. Our Government does try its best to act in good faith. Nevertheless these are subjective terms. Interpretations can only be challenged if Singapore is transparent with its information. We do not have a Freedom of Information Act. Past experiences also show that a Coroner’s Inquiry is not always an open and transparent process to the public or even the aggrieved party. As such MARUAH asks that any inquiry into the role of the officers as representatives of the Government; be a Public Inquiry, to ensure that immunity is well placed and well deserved.
Finally we wonder why this Bill needs to be tabled at this point in time. The COI has yet to even begin on its work, which according to its mandate, will look into the cause(s) of the riot and responses of the officers who were on site. There will be recommendations on how the Government and the community can further improve in our responses to such situations. There has also been no public consultation on this Bill which stands to affect all of us. And the Ministry of Home Affairs is conducting research on alcohol provisions in Singapore. Surely, we say, if this Bill is to address security concerns well, then it is best that the Bill becomes a more timely response and accommodates the views of the COI, the researchers and the public. Is there an absolute necessity for this Bill to be passed now?
We say, in conclusion, that the current presentation of this Bill is discriminating for its focus on Little India, simplistic in its alcohol focus as a cause of the Race Course Road riot, liberal in the powers it is giving the officers, protectionist in offering immunity to the Government and reductive when it comes to respecting the dignity of citizens and all foreigners who live and work here.
We ask for a stay order on this Bill till the COI results are out, till the research is complete and till the public is consulted on this issue.