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Singaporeans need to know their legal rights

The recent suicide of a teenager after he was questioned by the police has spurred debate and calls for public education about rights

When I was 17, I spent a night in the lockup of Tanglin Police Division - the price I paid for using a school senior's identity card to try and get into a club.

I had been curious about a party many of my junior college schoolmates were at, but the door girl saw through my youthful indiscretion and called the police.

In the cold cell they put me in, I was filled with regret, and desperately worried about being kicked out of school.

I needed to call my parents, and at least let them know where I was past 3am that Saturday morning.

At that time, all I knew about police arrests was what I had seen on American TV programmes. So I was under the misguided notion that I would get one phone call and could call my parents and ask them to come and get me.

It was only later that I realised Singapore takes a different approach, and its reasons for doing so.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

In my case, my parents were notified of my arrest at 2pm, after my statement was taken and they were needed to post bail.

That incident provided instant education on my legal rights - something many Singaporeans are seemingly oblivious about.

WHAT ARE YOU ENTITLED TO?

In Singapore, the police can detain a person for 48 hours while they investigate.

The person arrested can request to inform his family or a lawyer of his arrest, ask for a visit from them or to consult a lawyer, but the police can delay that if they think it might interfere with investigations.

The law here is that the accused has the right to legal counsel but that right may not be exercised immediately upon arrest, but only within what the authorities consider a reasonable timeframe.

"This strikes a balance between an accused's rights and the public interest in ensuring thorough and objective investigations," Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament in 2010.

Whether that balance shifts over time remains to be seen. For now, people should be aware of their legal rights within the current system.

Criminal lawyers Sunil Sudheesan and Amolat Singh, with a combined 33 years of experience, estimate that at least eight in 10 of their clients do not understand their legal rights.

Experts and lawyers suggested a combination of reasons for this.

The common man does not expect to be arrested, so does not think he needs to know; education efforts, while growing, are still lacking; and there is a high amount of trust in local institutions.

"There is this view that it won't happen to us because we don't intend to break the law," said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

"Singapore police also have a good reputation - they are viewed as not corrupt and upright.

"There is very little reason for us to not expect that the police will guard our rights."

This is a testament to the way the police operate here, and the processes they have in place.

While in the United States, there is growing distrust and criticism against the men in blue, the system that evolved in Singapore has kept its crime rates among the lowest in the world - an achievement that those on the right side of the law sometimes take for granted.

Still, knowing one's rights is good for a society built on the rule of law, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan, a former Nominated Member of Parliament. "If a person has basic understanding of his rights and chooses to assert them, we will have justice delivered," he explained.

Associate Professor Straughan said: "If you don't have trusted officers in place, then you become vulnerable and easily victimised."

A CRITICAL DIFFERENCE

Criminal lawyers say knowing your rights can make a critical difference.

Mr Amolat Singh recounted the 1994 Oriental Hotel murder case, in which his client Abdul Nasir Amer Hamsah was accused of murdering a Japanese tourist in her hotel room. "It was only at the trial that he was saved from the gallows," said Mr Singh.

The interpreter who took the accused's statement had wrongly translated the Malay word "pijak", which means step, as stomp - and that led the court towards believing he had an intention to murder.

"One word like that could have sent him to death. After the interpreter explained that in court, the murder charge was reduced to robbery with hurt," said Mr Singh.

He believes it is crucial for Singaporeans to know how to handle the police statement. They need to know that they have the right to amend or delete any part of the statement before they sign it.

Mr Sudheesan said: "A person can potentially be convicted on a statement that is inaccurate. If statements are paraphrased, sometimes the person transcribing may change the meaning unintentionally.

"That affects the accuracy of the statement."

Under Section 22 of Singapore's Criminal Procedure Code, any person being questioned by the police "shall be bound to state truly what he knows of the facts and circumstances of the case".

But immediately after come the words, "except that he need not say anything that might expose him to a criminal charge, penalty or forfeiture" - the right against self-incrimination.

Still, the courts can and have drawn adverse findings if a suspect does not put forward a defence of his innocence to the police.

If these arguments are raised only in court, the judge may not believe them.

Mr Sudheesan said: "Unfortunately, people only realise these issues too late."

The Law Society of Singapore is working to get more people to know the law. Last April, it launched a four-page "pamphlet of rights" to help the public better understand their rights in the course of a criminal investigation, search or prosecution.

Mr Wendell Wong, co-chairman of the society's criminal law practice committee, said: "We recognise that information about legal rights during investigations may not be easy for members of the public to find or understand without the assistance of lawyers.

"The pamphlet is meant to enhance access to information and justice."

To add more transparency to the investigation process, the Ministry of Home Affairs is also piloting a system in which questioning sessions are recorded. Mr Wong said: "We believe this is a step in the right direction."

WHAT MORE TO DO

Knowing one's legal rights is also the first step to understanding criminal procedures, and paves the way for citizens to make informed decisions about whether the current system provides enough protection to suspects and whether there is a need for change.

Concerns were raised recently over the case of a 14-year-old boy who fell to his death after being taken to a police station from school and then arrested for molestation.

His parents had asked why the teen was handed over to the police by his school and why his mother was not allowed to see him during the investigation, or be with him when he was being questioned.

As far as stakeholders know, the police were operating as normal, and seemed to take the boy's age into consideration.

For instance, he was questioned in an open-plan office.

Still, some people, such as Mr Singh, point out that while the Children and Young Persons Act goes a long way in ensuring there is protection for minors when they enter the court system, there is little legislation on how they should be treated before they are charged.

He said: "Young suspects are also not called 'accused' but 'offenders'; they are sent to the boys' home and not jail. The legislation has taken great pains to try and handle young offenders very differently from adults.

"But when it comes to arrest and questioning, the laws for adults and minors are not very different."

Experts are calling for youth to be treated as a vulnerable group, and to have an appropriate adult alongside during questioning.

Associate Professor Tan said: "As a parent, I absolutely wouldn't want my child to be overwhelmed by that experience."

Criminal lawyers, through the Law Society and the Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore (ACLS), have long been calling for suspects to have immediate access to counsel .

"We have engaged and continue to engage the Home Ministry, Ministry of Law and the Attorney-General on this issue," said Mr Wong.

"Sometimes you need a lawyer just to answer questions," said Mr Sudheesan, who is also the acting president of the ACLS.

"Lawyers can advise you to list down your core defence, because if you don't say it now, the judge is less likely to believe it later.

"But you might not do that if you think you can just keep silent."

These are important issues and members of society need to get involved in the discussion on what is the best balance between giving police the tools- including the option of being firm when needed - to do their job and ensuring that the young, and other vulnerable groups such as the mentally disabled, are protected.

But such debates require that citizens know what the rules are, and where the trade-offs lie, to avoid unhelpful finger-pointing.

As Mr Singh said: "It's a fine balance between the public interest of keeping society safe and the rights of a suspect.

"But rights bring about a level playing field."

At the same time, "we must not become so fixated by the notion of 'rights' that we miss out on what they ought to facilitate", said Prof Tan.

In my teenage brush with the law, I would have appreciated it very much if the police had let me speak to my parents.

But at the same time, staying overnight in that cell ensured that I learnt my lesson.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'S'poreans need to know their legal rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe