The Straits Times says

Keep Bill's focus on organised crime

Proactive moves against serious crimes can help to ensure these do not take root insidiously, like vermin that become harder to eradicate over time. Such steps are more pressing for organised crimes as offenders acting in concert - tapping technology and applying organisational principles of efficiency - are far more potent than solo operators. Crime syndicates are skilled at masking the identities of kingpins, devising new methods of operation, and expanding socially damaging activities across borders. They pose a growing threat, given their scope to operate anonymously via social media and move money electronically.

Against this backdrop, the Organised Crime Bill yields useful tools to help the authorities tackle such lawbreakers at different levels. It also offers an opportunity to raise awareness of transnational criminal activities in this region and beyond - such as terrorism, drug running, money laundering, trafficking in women and children, and arms smuggling. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also highlighted illegal trade in fake essential medicines, counterfeit consumer goods, wildlife, electrical and electronic waste, and ozone-depleting substances. The Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads and other criminal groups in the Asia-Pacific are said to rake in about S$500 billion annually from transnational crimes.

The ill-gotten gains of mobsters and, indeed, of other criminals too may be seized under existing laws, after they are duly convicted of serious crimes. The Bill goes further by allowing confiscation even without criminal conviction. It can be ordered when the court is satisfied, on a balance of probabilities, that someone has been part of organised crime activity (defined partly as a "serious offence" listed in the Bill's schedule) and derived benefits from it. While the laws need more bite to act against criminal groups, the Bill's creation of wide-ranging powers calls for some scrutiny. A trend elsewhere of using civil procedures to recover criminal proceeds has raised concerns of public perception - when, say, the authorities opt to strip a suspect of wealth rather than mount a criminal case that invokes the more onerous burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Certain plea bargainers might escape criminal con-victions when property is "charged" rather than the person.

Few would cavil at the need to act firmly against organised drugs and arms smuggling, illegal gambling, human trafficking, kidnapping, and making explosives. But is the Bill drawn too widely by deeming a motley set of other acts as equally serious too - like Productivity and Innovation Credit Bonus fraud, will forgery, and criminal intimidation via threats to "impute unchastity to a woman"? Better to be focused on organised criminal activity that matches lay perceptions of the evil to be curbed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Keep Bill's focus on organised crime'. Print Edition | Subscribe