Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Parliament, Little India Bill: Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill (Pritam Singh) – 18 February 2014

For many years now, South Asian foreign workers, the same ones responsible for building our roads, schools and HDB flats congregate in Little India. They are ferried there in buses and after working six days a week, Sunday is the one day they come to Little India, repatriate money, consume familiar cuisine, meet with friends and sit in public areas in Little India discussing everything from their local politics, to the health and happiness of their families back home.

Little India has been a crowded place on weekends for many years now. Given the large numbers of such workers, the prospects of a minority of them drinking too much and congregating at HDB void decks in Little India is a reality. In fact, many Singaporeans avoid Little India on Sundays primarily because it is too crowded, and work their schedules around this fact, a behavioural state of affairs that mimics drivers who try their best to avoid Orchard Road on Saturday afternoons and weekends in general.

Unsurprisingly, and for many years now, residents in Little India have given feedback on a range of issue affecting foreign workers: the lack of portable public toilets for foreign workers on weekends causing them to relieve themselves indiscriminately at times; the lack of proper drop-off points in view of the large numbers of foreign workers ferried to the area; and the number of liquor licensees in the area. This is in addition to feedback asking the government to consider using the significant foreign worker levies it collects to be ploughed back into welfare-related concerns for foreign workers.

The Government certainly has a duty to take measures to prevent the recurrence of another riot, however it is difficult to understand the timing of this Bill especially since the reasons behind the riot have not been established by the Committee of Inquiry (COI), in addition to the fact that the Government has gone on record to state that there are a variety of opinions on the cause of the riot. In view of such ambiguity, a pre-emptive Bill that is clearly tailored to addressing alcohol-related concerns in a specific area only cannot represent a positive example of how laws ought to be made in Singapore.

The fact of the matter remains that as a society, we have had no sustained conversation amongst ourselves as Singaporeans, as to the reality of living with foreign workers where Singaporeans themselves already live cheek by jowl. Have their numbers grown too large for a small island to accommodate without us unwittingly impinging on their civil liberties, preferring them to be out of what we consider to be our space? Can our foreign workers really be expected only to be confined to their living quarters? This is a sustained conversation that needs to take place and unsurprisingly, educational initiatives to understand and respect the rights of our foreign workers who number almost a million, are not mainstream, even though foreign workers represent a very significant minority in Singapore.

In view of this, it would have been far more propitious of the Government to await for the findings of the COI to be presented before tabling the Bill, so a holistic legislation can be looked into how to accommodate the recreational rights of our foreign workers, not just in Little India, but throughout Singapore especially in areas where foreign workers congregate, along with the concerns of local residents. This would also have allowed for more time for the collection of public feedback, including in areas where alcohol-related businesses and residential areas sit close to one another.

In fact, about two weeks before the riot, the Minister of National Development went on Facebook to comment, “void decks in HDB towns have sometimes been abused by drinkers who go on to urinate in staircases and that this is a common complaint from residents.” This comment made on the back of the launch of a MHA public consultation exercise to review measures on liquor sale and consumption in public places which started on 25 November 2013.

Significantly, this MHA statement of 25 November 2013, while referring to the problem of alcohol sale and consumption, acknowledged that the issue was not unique to Little India. But this Bill before Parliament today targets Little India specifically and will operate in practice to curtail civil liberties of a specific community of foreign workers in an area frequented more than others by a specific community of Singaporeans.

The Bill itself grants a number of worrying powers to the authorities and in particular to Auxiliary Police Officers (APOs) who will have to make calls and decisions based on their judgement, on the basis of reasonableness, which is theory sounds fair, but which may not be so simply reduced on the ground.

Clauses 9,10 and 11 of the Bill give APOs the power to inspect people entering Little India including possible strip-searches, powers to require reasons for entry and powers to refuse anyone entry into Little India.

We can debate this Bill in Parliament and extend powers to APOs accordingly, but the practical workings of this Bill on the ground are not adequately addressed. The Minister for Law has correctly stated that South Asian foreign workers, like the rest of our foreign workers are generally a well-behaved group. However, there is concern that without the proper language, mediation and cultural training, APOs who may not be Singaporeans and who are contract officers — some of whom may not have the depth and quality of training of police officers — may be ill-equipped for the job.

Are there areas of concern that foreign workers may be shouted at on the ground or spoken to rather roughly to on grounds of reasonable suspicion? Bearing in mind that these are the very same officers that will be making active decisions on the ground on strip searches, deciding who enters Little India and have powers to turn people away from Little India, can the Minister, inform Parliament what training, in particular cultural training, APOs will undergo, lest APOs themselves unwittingly become a factor “that prejudices the recovery of the community”.

As this Bill has identified a specific area in Singapore, frequented by members of the South Asian community – be they local or foreign — it is practically inevitable that South Asians will be subject to these powers more than any other community. While powers to strip-search an individual do exist in the context of other laws, with this Bill, such powers will be exercised for an extended period, in an area of Singapore frequented by one ethnic community in particular. Could there be unintended consequences that encourage racial profiling in Singapore and is this a healthy law enforcement development in the context of a multi-racial society? Even though the Bill is only a temporary measure, a worrisome precedent would already have been set.

It has been publically stated by the Government that this Bill reduces the powers available to the authorities to manage the situation Little India today. If this is the case, then why the need for this Bill? Can the Minister further clarify what are the serious operational shortcomings on the ground that do not allow the Government to wait until the COI finalises its report? Does the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) preclude the authorities from moderating the exercise of their powers?

The argument that this Bill scopes existing powers better comes into distinct relief with regards to clause 12 on powers of search and seizure, which give a police officer — on reasonable suspicion — the power to “stop, enter, search, remove and retain any vehicle, vessel or aircraft” not just in Little India, but anywhere in Singapore for the reasons spelt out in clauses 4, 8 and 13(11).

Another troublesome detail concerns clause 11 read with clause 13 on the special zone banning notice. The explanatory note to the Bill states that a lone demonstration in support of causes within Little India can also be subject to the banning notice. The drafters had not explicitly included this provision in the Bill proper except in open-ended terms, but subjecting civil society to the threat of a banning notice through the explanatory note, likewise does not correspond with narrowing the scope of existing laws.

It is difficult to understand the rush to introduce this Bill, which is directed at alcohol consumption by foreign workers in Little India, when the problem is not unique to Little India and the post-riot situation in Little India has been stable under existing legislation. The absence of period of public consultation on this Bill is also a glaring omission. In this Bill’s place, Singaporeans would have been better served by a piece legislation that addresses liquor sale and alcohol consumption throughout the island, and not just Little India. Mdm Speaker, I oppose the Bill.

Written by singapore 2025

18/02/2014 at 8:43 am

Posted in Parliament

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