PARLIAMENT

MPs divided on alcohol curbs in Little India

There were ''indications'' that alcohol was a factor in the riot, DPM Teo Chee Hean said in response to MPs' questions. Alcohol restrictions were also put in place to stabilise the situation after the riot, he explained. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
There were ''indications'' that alcohol was a factor in the riot, DPM Teo Chee Hean said in response to MPs' questions. Alcohol restrictions were also put in place to stabilise the situation after the riot, he explained. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Members of Parliament were divided over the role of alcohol in the Little India riot and the restrictions put in place since the incident.

There was Nominated MP Janice Koh, who asked why alcohol was deemed an underlying cause, and fellow NMP Nicholas Fang, who asked whether breathalyser tests were carried out on foreign workers involved in the riot.

Then there were those like NMP Eugene Tan, who said that 374 liquor licences in the area - including 43 inactive ones - was excessive. He wanted to know how the liquor licensing board issues them.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean said licence numbers have been stable in the last five years: Between 2009 and 2012, they ranged from 347 to 357.

In response to Ms Koh, he said there were "indications" that alcohol was a factor in the riot, but added that he would leave the issue to the evidence in court.

He also explained that alcohol restrictions were part of efforts to stabilise the situation after the riot. On the first weekend, there was a total ban on the sale and public consumption of alcohol in the area. "Subsequent to this, police have calibrated the measures," said Mr Teo.

The ban on public consumption remains on certain days, and retail hours have been curtailed. But drinking in licensed premises is no longer banned.

As of Sunday, police have found 38 violations involving 10 business operators and 57 people. The operators will be investigated and could have their licences revoked if convicted.

Advisories were issued to those who drank in public.

Mr Teo also noted the ongoing review of alcohol controls across Singapore. Consultation had begun on Oct 29, even before the riot.

"In our review, we will draw on the experience with measures taken in Little India, and take in views of stakeholders, as well as any findings and recommendations from the COI," he said, referring to the Committee of Inquiry.

"The full set of liquor control measures will be announced when they are ready and where laws are needed, of course, we will come to Parliament," he added.

The review could consider laws on open containers of alcohol in public, suggested Mr Alex Yam (Chua Chu Kang GRC). Mr Teo said he was "open to the idea".

Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) hoped the process could be sped up. But noting that views on the matter differ, Mr Teo said: "Calibration is quite important, and also you need something that's enforceable."

Speaking up for fewer alcohol restrictions was Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

Some Indian Singaporeans he met were unhappy and wanted to know when "the no-alcohol zone" would be lifted, he said.

Mr Teo's rejoinder was that Mr Singh should have informed them that there was no total ban.

Ms Denise Phua, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC where the riot occurred, offered an opposing view from residents living above liquor shops.

"More than 80 per cent of the residents say 'Please don't stop the ban'," she said.

Speaker Halimah Yacob then signalled the end of clarifications on Mr Teo's and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin's ministerial statements.

She invited Mr Teo to make his concluding remarks, which he did, expressing his confidence that "we will emerge... stronger from this incident".

At this point, Mr Singh insisted on rising one more time to make a final point, speaking over Madam Halimah's reminder that the time for such clarifications was over.

Mr Singh proceeded to say he empathised with the residents Ms Phua spoke about, and that he would be satisfied with any future rules on alcohol "as long as they are applied across the board".

Mr Teo expressed his disappointment at his interjection, saying: "I think it's quite unfortunate that Mr Pritam Singh has taken liberties with this very serious matter to make points in a very loose manner."

He noted that Mr Singh was now supporting Ms Phua, despite arguing earlier for the restoration of alcohol consumption and sales. "So I really am very puzzled by the position that he's taking and quite disappointed," he said.

janiceh@sph.com.sg