Singapore Budget 2014: Sparring over Big Brother, cabs and cycling

Robust, transparent rules needed on storage, access and use of CCTV info

There was a moment when yesterday's lively Parliament session would have pleased Big Brother.

Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu showed footage of a man caught on film tossing a cigarette butt at a roadside. As the licence plate of his motorbike was visible, he was duly identified and fined.

Taken with this idea, MP Lim Biow Chuan asked if the National Environment Agency "would be relying on CCTVs installed along lamp posts in the private estates to take enforcement action against litterbugs".

Ms Fu's reply: NEA already taps CCTV footage from government agencies for a range of purposes. It uses Land Transport Authority (LTA) footage to monitor flooding.

In fact, it wants to do more: "We are very keen to leverage on all existing resources within the government agencies. We are particularly interested in what MHA has announced about the CCTVs that it is going to install at our void decks. That is a lot of CCTVs for us to consider. And also all existing and future technology that will help us put in place a more effective enforcement regime."

On March 6, the Ministry of Home Affairs said it would put up CCTVs in all 10,000 Housing Board blocks and multi-storey carparks by 2016.

But since raw footage is not very helpful, Ms Fu said good analytics is needed to make use of it. Even if CCTVs caught someone littering in public, the person would be hard to identify, she noted.

MP Heng Chee How chimed in, suggesting that NEA tap in-car cameras that can capture littering from moving vehicles - complete with the cars' licence plates.

Listening to the exchange, I quailed at the thought of all that invasion of personal privacy. What if facial recognition technology is used, mapped against identity card records and photos?

Clearly, the time is ripe for a serious discussion on the protection of personal data - not just from merchants, which is the main subject of the recent Personal Data Protection Act, but also from the claws of an overzealous State.

Since an Act to protect citizens' data from the State will take a long while to be enacted, in the interim, there must be transparent and robust guidelines on storage of all that CCTV footage, and strict rules on access and use of that information.

Vague assurances of safeguards from the Government are not enough. When footage of citizens are being snapped as they go about their daily lives by State CCTVs, they have a right to be involved in creating the rules on what can and cannot be done with all that information by the State. Some exceptions might be made in matters of life and death or national security; but the threshold for release of personal information must be high.

To be fair to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the use of surveillance technology to tackle, say, high-rise littering which can kill, may be justified. But using mass CCTV footage to catch a few folk who forget to bin their disposable cups sounds like overkill.

While MPs and ministers joined forces on this, there were other moments when they seemed to be talking at cross purposes.

MP Ang Hin Kee pressed LTA to review its taxi availability standards. The executive adviser of the National Taxi Association (NTA) said cabbies had complained about having to cruise empty just to chalk up daily minimum mileage requirements. He said: "I would urge that LTA officials may want to go down to the ground and understand the implementation on the ground, because it deviates fairly much from the intended objective of what the MOT (Ministry of Transport) has put in place."

Mr Ang clearly knows the issue inside out, and could recite figures showing that the new standards have not caused an increase in taxi ridership. In other words, what is the point of insisting on taxis chalking up mileage - and cruising empty - when it does not result in more commuters managing to get cabs?

Without conceding the point, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo nevertheless replied in good grace at the end of the exchange: "It is good that the NTA has continued to raise this issue with the taxi companies, and we certainly agree with Mr Ang that it is useful to find out what more is happening on the ground, and we will do so."

On cycling, too, there was no easy meeting of minds. Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Muhamad Faishal Ibrahim said Bishan, Bukit Panjang and Woodlands would become cycling towns, and that Marina Bay would pilot a bike-sharing scheme.

MP Irene Ng, an ardent cycling advocate, acknowledged progress in cycling infrastructure, but thought the approach was too "piecemeal". She pushed for a national plan, with a target to be set for cycling as a mode of transport.

But is that what people really want, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew asked. Most cyclists in Singapore are recreational ones. Some bike to get to nearby areas. Only a small group use it as their primary mode of transport.

Given this profile of cyclists, he said, "our priority is to have off-road segregated cycling paths" that let cyclists get to their destinations without over-exposure to speeding cars, and on paths where they will not endanger pedestrians.

The issue of cyclists on the roads is at risk of becoming polarised between motorists and cyclists, with some incidents of conflict caught on camera.

While some want a concerted effort to promote on-road cycling, Mr Lui is right to be cautious.

It is easy to say all road users must share the road - which of course they must - but it is a different thing altogether to get more cyclists using fast-flowing roads when other road users are not ready to give way.