Parliament: Over 600 public entertainment licensing breaches last year; 90 per cent minor

Public entertainment outlets such as nightclubs, billiard saloons and gaming centres are set to have tighter regulations to prevent "unsuitable persons or businesses" from operating them.
Public entertainment outlets such as nightclubs, billiard saloons and gaming centres are set to have tighter regulations to prevent "unsuitable persons or businesses" from operating them. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - There were over 600 cases in which public entertainment licences were breached last year, although 90 per cent of them were minor, said Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin on Monday (May 8).

The major breaches included issues such as overcrowding, which pose a public safety risk, he said.

Minor offences included failing to maintain a proper record of all employees or failing to ensure that performers do not mingle with patrons.

Mr Amrin was speaking in Parliament during the second reading of the Public Entertainments and Meetings (Amendment) Bill, which was passed on the same day.

With this move, public entertainment outlets such as nightclubs, billiard saloons and gaming centres are set to have tighter regulations to prevent "unsuitable persons or businesses" from operating them, while errant establishments will face tougher penalties.

But the authorities will take a "lighter-touch" approach for the vast majority of licensees who are law-abiding and will grant them licences for longer periods of time, said Mr Amrin.

Currently, about four in five public entertainment establishments have good track records of complying with licence conditions.

Under the changes, licensing requirements will be expanded so that not just the applicants for the licence, but also the people related to the applicants - namely those with a substantial interest in, or control or direction over the applicant's business - must be assessed for suitability.

Said Mr Amrin: "This ensures that all persons who can influence the decisions of the businesses are duly assessed, and are not working behind the scenes to operate the PE (public entertainment) establishment."

The Bill will also see the maximum fine for providing public entertainment without a valid licence, or while the licence is suspended, doubled from $10,000 to $20,000.

The police will have more power to "deal effectively" with errant operators as well.

For example, an establishment's licence may be immediately suspended if the licensee, or a relevant person of the business, is charged in court for "serious crimes arising out of, or in connection with, any activity" in the establishment, said Mr Amrin.

Such crimes include drug offences and human trafficking, and allow immediate suspension before court trials on cases conclude.

"This also deters other operators from using their establishments for unlawful activities," he said.

Licensing officers and police officers will also be able to enter premises "using necessary force" if need be, and there will be a new provision for licensing officers to take into account the Urban Redevelopment Authority's planning considerations - such as to maintain the character of historic districts - before approving a spot.

"Suitably trained individuals" can also be appointed as "authorised persons" who may conduct inspections of establishments and events, although they will not be given the powers of forced entry and arrest that police and licensing officers have, said Mr Amrin.

In response to queries from MPs, he added that such individuals could include auxiliary police officers, or retired police officers who have the requisite skills and experience.

The Act's title was also amended to the Public Entertainments Act, with the regulation of meetings such as rallies, talks and forums now falling under the Public Order Act that was enacted in 2009.

The administration of the Act is shared by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Ministry for Communications and Information (MCI). While MHA regulates public entertainment spots and events, arts entertainment such as plays, musicals and exhibitions are regulated by the MCI.

On Monday, Mr Amrin also addressed MCI's proposed amendments to the Bill.

Under the Act, the Info-Communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) may refuse to classify arts shows and exhibitions held at public entertainment establishments or events, which exceed the maximum R18 rating. Such entertainment, if not classified, cannot be staged.

IMDA may also impose conditions on the arts shows and exhibitions, and licensees may appeal these decisions. Previously, IMDA could not do so for shows and exhibitions held at public entertainment establishments or events within the public entertainment licence issued by the police.

In all, 11 MPs spoke in support of the Bill, with Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) expressing concern over the use of proxies by "unsavoury businessmen" to apply for a public entertainment licence and Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) asking if there could be "better or stricter ways" to identify people associated with blacklisted companies.

Some, like Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), asked about the extent of power that may be exercised by the authorised persons who may conduct inspections on outlets and events, as well as the courses of action should a situation escalate to a public disorder or riot.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) sought clarification on points such as how the proposed amendments would take into account foreign proceedings against a licensee or responsible officer. He also asked for more clarity on the section of the Act allowing the arts entertainment licensing officer to "impose conditions as he thinks fit".

Others stressed the Act's importance given trends in illicit activities.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) expressed worry about the increasingly liberal attitude of young people towards drugs.She added that young people at entertainment outlets such as nightclubs may be especially open to new and exciting experiences, and hence be "vulnerable to taking higher risks" as they experiment with smoking, alcohol or drugs.

She highlighted that public entertainment venues include Internet cafes as well, which may be located within or near housing estates - hence the need to take "extra care" in keeping illicit activities out of neighbourhoods.

Mr Yong, too, pointed out the need to "tighten the approval of public entertainment licences, especially in or near mixed-use developments", citing concern among residents living nearby, while Ms Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) cited tension between the residents and the nightspot operators at places such as Sultan Plaza and Textile Centre.

Meanwhile, Nominated MP Randolph Tan urged the MHA to take a stronger stand in addressing "negative issues that are associated with such establishments", as the Bill deals with what occurs on their premises, but incidents may take place in their vicinity or be associated with them.

In response, Mr Amrin said licensees' staff should take appropriate action even if incidents take place outside their premises.