Police get wider powers to deal with serious incidents

The Singapore Police Force and other agencies conducting an emergency preparedness exercise in Sentosa on Jan 26, 2018.
The Singapore Police Force and other agencies conducting an emergency preparedness exercise in Sentosa on Jan 26, 2018.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Powers include communications stop order; safeguards in place, says Josephine Teo

A new law that expands police powers to allow officers to respond swiftly and with greater flexibility during serious incidents like a terrorist attack was passed yesterday after a three-hour debate.

Under the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act, the police commissioner can impose measures such as a curfew and a stop order on communications to ensure the secrecy of security operations.

But the Act may be invoked only with the authorisation of the Home Affairs Minister, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said yesterday, following concerns expressed by MPs during the debate on the proposed legislation.

Other safeguards are also in place to ensure the police commissioner and the minister exercise their special powers only for specified incidents, where the police are likely to be in a race against time, Mrs Teo added.

"Once the threshold of a serious incident is crossed, we must give the police sufficient latitude to act decisively," she told the House on the final day of a three-day sitting.

The new law comes in the wake of a "clear and continuing threat" of a terror attack facing Singapore, which has been cited as a target in extremist publications and videos.

During the debate, Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun, who was among 10 members of the House who spoke on the proposed legislation, expressed concern over the discretion given to the minister and police commissioner.

Mr Kok asked if there could be conditions on the use of the special powers, and cited the Internal Security Act, which requires the minister's decision to be concurred by the president on the advice of a special advisory committee.

Replying, Mrs Teo stressed that the special powers will not be used for day-to-day policing, but only for specified incidents like a terrorist act or large-scale public disorder.

"Members will have to weigh: Which is the bigger risk in a serious incident? Which has the graver consequence?" she said. "There is a risk of too much discretion, but there is also a risk of too much delay."

Mrs Teo also said that after an incident has been dealt with, Parliament can still debate if the minister and police had done the right thing and hold them to account - as was with the 2013 Little India riot.

This new law repeals the Public Order (Preservation) Act, which allowed Parliament to annul the minister's proclamation as a safeguard.

 
 
 

This will no longer be the case. "There is no sinister reason for this," said Mrs Teo. " Judicial review of the minister's decision to make an activation order remains an avenue to curb improper use... of his powers."

She noted that the old Act was used only once since independence, and it was after the Little India riot.

"Even then, it was tightly scoped, to control the consumption of alcohol, to calm the situation and prevent further violence," she said.

Another concern raised is what constitutes reasonable force, during which lethal weapons can be used.

Mrs Teo said lethal weapons are used only if the police have no other choice, and cited the Shangri-La Dialogue incident in 2015, in which a car sped through a police checkpoint. Police had to use "reasonable force", including lethal weapons, as it was a high-profile event involving foreign dignitaries, and there was a risk the driver was committing a terror act.

Almost all the MPs sought clarification on the communications stop order, which can make it an offence to take photos or videos of an incident area when the order is activated.

Mrs Teo said: "Police will exercise discretion and take into consideration the circumstances under which the recorder was in and if the breach could not have been reasonably avoided."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2018, with the headline 'Police get wider powers to deal with serious incidents'. Print Edition | Subscribe