Volunteers a big help, no need for further security, say MPs here

Often, the most aggressive behaviour Singapore MPs face at their Meet-the People Sessions (MPS) is a drunk yelling or a distressed resident speaking loudly.

But they take this in their stride because such encounters are few and far between. Also, they have experienced grassroots leaders to help calm the residents.

Strict anti-weapons and security laws here further bolster their sense of security, said all the 10 MPs interviewed yesterday.

Said Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan: "Singapore is very safe. What happened to Mrs Jo Cox in Britain is unlikely to happen here."

The British MP was shot and stabbed to death by a resident on Thursday after a constituency surgery, similar to the MPS here.

While Singapore has tough laws to protect people, like the death sentence for those guilty of firing a gun when committing a crime, "that's not to say people can't carry a knife and stab you", said Mr Lim.

"But in general, the Government has made the environment safe for everyone, not just MPs," he added.

For many MPs, the attack on Mrs Cox brought back memories of how Mr Seng Han Thong, who retired as an MP last year, was punched by an angry resident at an MPS in 2006.

And in 2009, a disgruntled resident poured thinner on Mr Seng and set him alight at a community event. The attack left him needing skin grafts, but he recovered and returned to work six months later.

Like backbenchers in Singapore, Mrs Cox, 41, had no security officers protecting her at events.

Still, none said they would hire bodyguards or introduce bag checks or metal detectors at their MPS, as they have volunteers who act as front-line checks. They greet residents, record their particulars and brief details of their problems, and would spot any sign of trouble before a resident reaches the MP.

Said Marine Parade GRC MP Fatimah Lateef: "I brief grassroots leaders to watch the body language and pick up non-verbal cues - people who are loud and abusive, or are too quiet and look suspicious."

MPs also tend not to be alone with residents at these sessions.

Some, like Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, are accompanied by volunteers, while others like Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Ang Hin Kee opt for brightly lit open areas.

Mr Nair said: "We always meet people in groups. I don't do it for safety reasons, but it does make everyone feel more secure."

It's the same at community events. Said Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam: "My grassroots leaders keep an eye out for me because I'm a lady and sometimes male residents get a bit too cosy."

It is also about knowing how to respond to situations. For instance, when a resident expresses his frustration in dialect, Mr Ang uses the same dialect as "it shows empathy and... helps to defuse the tension".

Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin and his volunteers had to call the police twice last year when residents became rowdy. But, he added: "At no point did I feel that we were in danger of being attacked, only that we should not take the law into our own hands."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Volunteers a big help, no need for further security, say MPs here'. Print Edition | Subscribe