The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, a law that allows detention of criminal suspects without trial, is obviously a tough law. This is why the Act, introduced in 1955, lapses after five years unless it is renewed. This built-in obsolescence gives Parliament an opportunity to review periodically the applicability of the stringent law to the prevailing law-and-order situation. Parliament may choose to repeal the legislation should it find it unnecessarily draconian. However, the fact that the law has existed for more than 60 years attests to its relevance even in an age that differs markedly from the lawless 1950s. Its renewal is up before the House again.
The Act is a potent weapon against criminals against whom the authorities would find it difficult to act decisively otherwise. There are forms of crime that depend on complicit silence: Secret societies, for example, operate on a code of silence equated with personal honour. In other cases, witnesses might be unwilling to testify against criminals in court for fear of reprisals. Indeed, crimes may not be reported to the police in the first place, making prosecution impossible.
The choice in such cases lies between insisting on a procedural system that may enable criminals to go scot-free, and to have a law that makes it possible to incarcerate them for lengthy periods if necessary. Singapore has become much safer than it was in the 1950s, but criminal threats have not become insignificant. Secret societies, and criminal syndicates involved in activities such as drug trafficking and unlicensed moneylending, continue to take a toll on the preservation of public safety, peace and good order here. Their primary victims are the weak and the underprivileged, who deserve society's unwavering vigilance in the face of stubborn criminality that can only be suppressed, not erased. The Act makes that suppression viable.
A proposed change to the Act prescribes a list of offences within its ambit. These include unlicensed moneylending, drug trafficking, kidnapping and organised crime. This effort to spell out the Act's scope should be welcomed because it clarifies the focus of its continuing purpose. For those worried about its wide-ranging powers, the proposed changes would restrict the powers of the Minister for Home Affairs. As it is, as a safeguard, every detention and police supervision order is reviewed by an independent advisory committee made up of prominent private citizens, who include Justices of the Peace, former judges and senior lawyers. Nevertheless, it is natural for concerns to be raised over the operations of even a well-conceived law, such as the possibility of challenging detentions in court. Yet, in the final analysis, the authorities owe it to Singaporeans to ensure that laws are fair to suspects while upholding the security of the people as a whole.