Teen's death: This is a very sad case

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam gave a ministerial statement in Parliament yesterday in response to questions on the death of student Benjamin Lim. This is an edited excerpt.

This is a very sad case - a young girl has been traumatised. A boy's life has ended prematurely.

We must do right by these two young lives. When police deal with young persons who have committed offences, their main aim is to rehabilitate them, so that they can go on to lead a crime-free life. That gives them a second chance. It is tragic that such an incident has taken place. It has been a very trying and distressing period for both families. We are very aware of that.

And we have refrained from commenting in detail on the matter for two reasons: One, out of respect for Benjamin's memory, and to protect the young girl as well. And two, because it would be inappropriate to discuss the facts in detail, which may be disputed, prior to the Coroner's Inquiry (CI).

And given that a CI is pending, I took advice from AGC (Attorney- General's Chambers) on what I can say today. They have advised that I can set out what I am going to, in this speech, but I do so with considerable reservation. I will explain why later. I will now deal with the questions raised by Members by looking at the following:

First: What are the facts in this case? Second: What is the police protocol for interviewing a young person? Third: The deliberate falsehoods that have been spread in this case to blemish the police. Some people were doing this, as I will show later. Fourth: Why has my ministry not commented in detail, until now, on the matter?


TNP FILE PHOTO

THE FACTS

First, the facts. I want to emphasise that the facts are as we know them, at this stage. One: Why Benjamin was asked to assist in police investigations. And two: How the police investigated the case.

On Jan 25, a police report was made. An 11-year-old girl said that she had been molested in a lift. Among other things, police retrieved relevant CCTV footages. A boy in school uniform was identified as the suspect. This boy was later identified as Benjamin Lim. He lived in Yishun.

On that day, Jan 25, while he was coming home from school, it appears that he made a detour and he went to another block in the neighbourhood, before going home. He seems to have followed the 11-year-old girl. The two appear not to have met before. He went into a lift with her, at the ground floor of her block. And he is said to have molested the girl in the lift.

There are CCTV footages showing Benjamin making his way to the other block, and Benjamin quickly following the girl into the lift, after she entered it. And there is CCTV footage within the lift, showing what happened. Police have these footages. Benjamin admitted to the police that he touched a part of the girl's body. And that he did so intentionally.

The girl has said to the police that Benjamin touched a part of her body. After the incident, he stepped out of the lift on the 13th floor. The girl says that there was a brief exchange between them when he stepped out of the lift. She did not follow him. CCTV footage shows him going down one floor to the 12th floor and then taking the lift down to the ground floor. It would appear that the purpose of him getting into the lift was to follow her, and after the incident, get out and go back. She reported to her father what had happened. The family filed a police report on the same day.

Now let me turn to the police investigations. As stated earlier, police retrieved some CCTV footages. Based on his school uniform, police identified that the boy was from North View Secondary School. On the next day, Jan 26, police went to the school. Five officers went. Three from the NPC (Neighbourhood police centres), and two from Division.

The 3 NPC officers have detailed knowledge of the community. They interact with the community and the schools. They link up, deal with the school, the teachers, the community. They make the interactions smooth. They answer questions the school may have. Basically they facilitate the process.

The Divisional Officers assist in the investigation of cases. The five officers were not in police uniforms, not in any attire with the word "police". They went in plain clothes, in unmarked cars.

The officers showed a screenshot of the CCTV footage to the school officials. The boy in the screenshot was identified to be Benjamin. A school official brought Benjamin to the principal's office. One police officer spoke with Benjamin. Some of the school's educators were present. The officer spoke with Benjamin about the incident. The other four police officers were not present.

After the interview, Benjamin was advised by the principal to call his mother, and he called his mother. When he finished conversing with his mother, the police officer also spoke with Benjamin's mother. He told her that Benjamin will be brought to Ang Mo Kio Division to give a statement.

Benjamin was then brought back to the station in an unmarked car, with three officers. One of the officers alighted along the way. That left two officers in the car - one to drive and the other to look out for Benjamin. At Ang Mo Kio station, an officer recorded Benjamin's statement. This was done by the officer at his workstation, in an open-plan office.

Another officer unrelated to the case was nearby doing his work. And there were other officers at their respective workstations. Benjamin was not handcuffed at any time. He requested to be given time to recollect his thoughts about the incident. His written statement was taken at 12.15pm, after he said he was ready. Benjamin was co-operative throughout. He was offered food and drink after the interview and he declined that.

After the interview, he was placed in a Temporary Holding Room, which was secured. This was pending his mother taking him back. He was alone in that room. Police also recorded a statement from the mother who was at the station. Benjamin was then released on bail. He left the police station with his mother and sister.

Time spent by Benjamin in the police station was about 3 ½ hours - which included the time the police spent taking the statement with the mother. That was the last contact between Benjamin and the police.

What happened after Benjamin and his mother left the station? Based on investigations, the following is what the police know. They went home. He had lunch. He played games on his phone. Sometime later, his mother told Benjamin that he would not be going to the school camp that would start the next day. This was after a telephone conversation between his mother and a school counsellor.

At about 4.20 pm, Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his block. These are the facts.

Now let us ask a question: If Benjamin had not taken his life, what would have happened in this case? Let me give Members some statistics, which will show what usually happens. Over the last five years, from 2011-2015, a total of 7,196 young persons have assisted the police in investigations. Of these, 70% i.e. seven out of 10 were either warned or placed on a Guidance Programme or had no further action taken against them. About 15% were charged. Another 15% of cases are under consideration.

Charges are usually only brought against young persons when there are aggravating factors, such as when the offence is of a serious nature like rioting, or if the young person is a repeat offender, or has breached the terms of a conditional warning, for example by failing to complete the necessary guidance programme. As the statistics show, the police approach to infringements by young people is generally as follows: Where possible, the police try to avoid criminalising the conduct. It is better to give the young accused a second chance, and help in rehabilitation.

It is likely that on the evidence available to us, Benjamin would have received no more than a warning. He is unlikely to have been charged in court. Police would have taken into account his age, and the fact that this is the first time. And while all molestations are taken seriously, the nature of the specific molestation in any case would have to be considered. The nature of the alleged molestation in this case can be characterised as being in the less serious range - that is based on CCTV footages.

POLICE PROTOCOL

Let me now deal with police protocol for dealing with young persons. Police adopt an expedited process for young persons. To interview them and release them as quickly as possible to their parents. In this case, Benjamin was released to his mother within four hours of being brought to the station.

Where suitable, the young person will be placed on a programme to help him. An example is the Guidance Programme. The focus is on diversionary supervision and counselling. The police guidelines are for the school to be kept updated on the progress of the case. That will allow the school to monitor and support the student.

Now, do we need to amend the protocol for interviewing young persons? I have asked my ministry to review the protocol. One suggestion is to video record interviews of all minors. We have announced last year that we are studying the matter of video recording. We will make further announcements when we have worked through the legal and other issues.

Another suggestion is that we extend the "Appropriate Adult" scheme to all young persons being interviewed. We have the "Appropriate Adult" Scheme to provide assistance to suspects who have mental and intellectual disabilities. The role of the "Appropriate Adult" is to assist these persons to communicate more effectively with the police. Police have said in their statement of Feb 1 that they will consider this point during the review.

ACLS (The Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore) has contacted us and have offered to give their views. We will engage them, and get their views. But I will caution against rushing to conclusions at this stage. If there is something that we can do better, we will do so.

THE EXPERIENCE IN THIS CASE

Are there any specific indications, from this case, that the processes need to be changed? There is nothing so far on the evidence to suggest that Benjamin was mistreated by the police. I have set out how the investigation was done. At this stage, we cannot say that the interview was the specific reason for the suicide. Suicide often involves a very complex set of factors.

Police will also consult psychologists, other relevant experts. Some people have asked: Why did we need to take him out of the school? Could we not have waited until Benjamin got home?

We need to be clear about how we expect the police to investigate cases in general. When the police went to the school, they didn't know who he was or his history. An accused person, unknown to the police, could well have engaged in other molestations, and until then maybe no one had reported.

If the police wait, and he molests someone else in the meantime, then the question would be - why did the police not move faster? When an incident happens, as a general rule, I am sure we want the police to move in quickly. Every year , we pick up more than 1,300 young people - students, and also others. What do you think the public's attitudes will be if it was a victim who commits suicide, a victim of the molestation? Police would be expected to have moved quickly.

Young people get picked up for a wide range of offences, from rioting, sexual assault, physical assault to even murder. Some could be involved in very serious offences. Police need to move quickly, arrest, investigate, before the others (including other gang members) destroy evidence. Should we make distinctions based on the types of offences? What about gang riots, deliberate arson, or unlicensed moneylending cases? What about those which are more security related. Say a 14-year-old who is radicalised and wants to go out and kill. ISD (Internal Security Department) has interviewed some in that age group. And to prove a point, two weeks ago, we stopped a 15- year-old radicalised boy from Indonesia. He had wanted to go and fight in the Middle East. So let's take this seriously.

Let me now turn to the third point. We must reduce systemic risk where possible. We cannot assume that all police officers will always follow protocols. There will be some who will be tempted to take shortcuts. We have to ensure that we have a system that minimises the risk. Police will look at past experience, the thousands of young persons who had been investigated.

There are many aspects to this issue, many questions which need to be carefully considered. This is not a situation where we should have knee-jerk reactions or come to hasty conclusions. Any of our children could have been in Benjamin's position, and any of our daughters could have been in that 11-year-old girl's position. We will approach the review of the processes with that perspective.

DELIBERATE FALSEHOODS

There have been a number of inaccurate statements that have been put out. We say inaccurate, based on the facts that police have. Some of the inaccurate statements are as follows:

• That the police were not in plain clothes when they went to the school to identify Benjamin, effectively alleging that the Police were lying to Singaporeans when they put out their statement on Feb 1.

• Allegations that Benjamin was interviewed and intimidated by five police officers.

• That he must have been coerced to make an admission to an offence that he did not commit.

• Some have even suggested that the girl might not have been molested, and might have made a false report.

A number of these falsehoods have been put out by The Online Citizen, TOC. It has gone on a planned, orchestrated campaign, using falsehoods, and has published about 20 articles or so as part of its campaign.

One example of the falsehoods: police had said on Feb 1 that they went in plain clothes. Yet TOC published an article on Feb 5 saying that police wore attire stating "Police". The suggestion is that the police were lying to Singaporeans.

They supposedly relied on a posting by a lady, Mary Anne Pereira. She had stated that her son saw police officers with Polo T-shirts and the word "Police". Police checked with Ms Pereira. She says she had gotten it wrong. She got her dates mixed up. She is wrong because the police went to the school in plain clothes on Jan 26. She has taken down her post. People make many statements online. They can be mistaken. This is why there is a court process, to establish the truth.

The overall narrative and impression conveyed by the various TOC articles are: Police were lying; The police intimidated the boy; and police put pressure on him to confess to a crime that he did not commit.

Allegations, implications which are false, practically leading people to conclude that Benjamin committed suicide, as a result.

It is sad to see this level of dishonesty and politicising of this matter. Where the police are wrong, we must and will take action. But we should not allow deliberate, dishonest attacks. I have asked my ministry to study how the police and other institutions can respond in future to such falsehoods.

MINISTRY'S SILENCE UNTIL NOW

That brings me to the fourth point: why has my ministry not commented substantially, particularly to correct these inaccuracies, until now? Why has there been no substantive comment on this matter, either from the ministry or myself?

I told my ministry, early on, that we should refrain from commenting too much, or in detail, on this matter. I decided that for two reasons: One: Out of respect for the family, to give them some space and time to grieve. Two, there will be a Coroner's Inquiry.

That is the right forum for the relevant facts to be dealt with. I think Members will know when I keep quiet; usually there is a good reason, a good legal reason.

The family has lost a 14-year-old boy. They issued a statement,an open letter, signed by Benjamin's father. That statement contradicted some of the things police had said on Feb 1, and made some additional points which the police disagreed with. The family also suggested that Benjamin had been coerced into admitting to the molestation.

The police could have immediately rebutted the family's statement. The police could have set out their version, what I have set out today. The police could have released the CCTV footages which will show quite objectively what happened inside the lift.

But is that the right thing to do? To have a public trial by media, at this stage? Rebut the family in public, and add to the family's grief? The answer, good sense, is clearly NO. We can understand that the family, in their grief, may genuinely believe some things, and perhaps even assert them in public. But we chose not to respond. These matters can be dealt with at the Coroner's Inquiry.

And even at this stage, I have decided that we should not release the CCTV footages of what happened in the lift, out of respect for Benjamin's memory and to help the young girl as well. Police have continued to engage the family. When police spoke with Benjamin's family last week, his father told us the family felt pressured by the public and media attention - photographers and reporters have been loitering around their house. He asked for privacy, and explained that he would like his family to be kept out of the spotlight. He asked that we inform the media of this and tell the media that the family did not want their identity, names, pictures published.

The family even asked for the entire Coroner's Inquiry proceedings be held in private. AGC will give the request careful consideration. Ultimately it will be up to the court to decide.

The CI will, to the extent possible, try to establish the cause of Benjamin's death and the facts.

All Coroner's Inquiries in Singapore are held in public, unless the court decides that some part of it should be in private. For example in this case, it can be argued that the identity of the 11- year-old girl should not be revealed. She is a young victim who has been deeply traumatised. And it could be argued that the CCTV footage of what happened within the lift should be viewed in private as well, for the sake of Benjamin's memory and for the young girl.

Once the coroner announces his findings, both facts and conclusion, then people can offer their criticisms, viewpoints, comments on what the police did, what my ministry did, or did not do. That is the official version of the facts, after people are cross-examined on the stand.

Sub Judice principles set out what can and cannot be said when a court hearing or inquiry is pending. The various pronouncements, suggestions, statements which imply, allege that five officers interviewed him, that the police intimidated, pressured Benjamin, into wrongly admitting to guilt. And that these must have been amongst the reasons why he probably committed suicide. These allegations possibly infringe the principles of Sub Judice, apart from being highly improper at this stage prior to the Coroner's Inquiry.

Police came out publicly on Feb 1 to say that there would be a Coroner's Inquiry once police investigations into the death were completed. Police said in their statement that all relevant facts would be presented and the family would be able to raise all questions that they may have. This is Singapore, there is no such thing as a cover-up.

It is surprising that even a lawyer, Mr Thio Shen Yi, has made some comments which should not have been made. He has said that five police officers spoke to Benjamin. That is false. And that the five officers took him to the police station. That is also false. And that police should have behaved in a less intimidating way. He seems to make the assertion of intimidation, based on his other statements which are themselves false.

His statements imply that Benjamin killed himself because of police intimidation. Mr Thio has a duty to be fair to the police officers. He needed only to have referred to the police statement of Feb 1 to know that many of the assertions he is making were untrue. And without knowing anything about Benjamin, his mental make-up, his family background, one cannot reach such conclusions, that Benjamin was intimidated and that is why he took his life.

I have gone into some detail. We have the following set of circumstances. Assertions which go to the integrity of the police force have been repeated several times, including untrue "factual" assertions. And Members have filed many parliamentary questions. In these circumstances, not everyone will know why the Government has not responded, and people may misunderstand if the Government did not respond.

I have decided with some regret, and considerable reservation, and after consulting AGC, that we will have to set out the facts, discuss the matter. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police force must be maintained.

The law is as follows: The rules of Sub Judice generally preclude discussions which may prejudice proceedings but public officials like myself can make statements, if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest, even if there is a hearing pending.

As we go forward, from time to time, there will be other incidents in the future. The incidents will raise legitimate public queries. We must have a clear, proper framework to deal with them, such that when an incident happen: First the facts have to be established. We must avoid jumping to conclusions. We must also avoid attacking individuals or institutions based on those hasty conclusions. We must allow the facts to be established first. This is Singapore. There are proper processes for all facts to come out.

Second, if there are going to be public hearings, we should not prejudice or prejudge the hearings. There can be a full, open discussion, once the hearings are over.

Even prior to the hearings, there can be legitimate discussions on general principles and approaches. But it has to be done with some care. We will review the law to see how we can try and achieve this better.

At the end of the day, every life matters. It matters to the police. It matters to the Government. It matters to all of us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'Teen's death: This is a very sad case'. Print Edition | Subscribe