The mood in the chamber was sombre as Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Acting Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng delivered their ministerial statements on Benjamin Lim, a teenager who took his life on Jan 26 after being questioned by police.
Once the ministers were done with their speeches, though, the questions flew thick and fast as MPs rose eagerly to seek clarifications. They raised issues in two important areas.
First, whether enough safeguards are in place to protect the interests of young people under police investigation. Several MPs expressed concern that Benjamin, who was 14, was not accompanied by an adult - whether a parent or teacher or counsellor from his school - when he was taken to the police station for questioning.
Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said that, as a mother of two teenagers, she wished to know if the police could have waited half an hour or one hour for Benjamin's parents to arrive before starting to question him. "He didn't have any prior record," she noted, "and as a 14-year-old, whom I still regard as a child, he must have felt quite frightened to be there, being interviewed by the police without a significant adult present".
Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) echoed her sentiments. He asked if the police believed Benjamin's offence was so grave and urgent that they could not interview him later, after his parents arrived. The offence in this case was molestation. An 11-year-old girl had made a police report against Benjamin and there was CCTV footage to show that he had followed her into a lift and touched a part of her body.
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam spoke of the wide range of youth crime that the police have to act against. Every year, some 1,300 young people on average are picked up for a range of offences.
"Young people get picked up for a wide range of offences, from rioting, sexual assault, physical assault to murder," Mr Shanmugam said. "Some could be involved in very serious matters. Police need to move quickly, arrest, investigate before the others (including other gang members) destroy evidence."
He also stressed that, with young offenders, the police sought where possible to avoid criminalising the conduct so as to give the young accused person a second chance.
They also have programmes to help rehabilitate these young offenders. Some 88 per cent of those who underwent the six-month guidance programme have gone on to lead crime-free lives.
Still, on police protocol which the Ministry of Home Affairs is reviewing, MPs signalled where they believed there was room for improvement. Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) sought an extension to the Appropriate Adults scheme, which assists suspects with mental and intellectual disabilities when they have to give statements to police. Ms Phua pointed out that in Britain, a similar scheme covered young persons aged under 18. "I'd like the minister to consider this," she said.
Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera asked if the Education Ministry had a regime to provide counselling and other support to students being investigated. Mr Ng said he would look into whether such a regime should be set up.
The second important area that MPs sought clarification on was the online media and its reporting of the case. Mr Shanmugam had taken aim at website The Online Citizen (TOC) for what he called a "planned, orchestrated campaign" of some 20 articles that used falsehoods "to tar the police unfairly".
Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) highlighted a TOC article that quoted Benjamin's father as saying that "without social media, especially TOC, the case would have died down a long time ago". Mr Shanmugam said the claim that the case would have died down without TOC was "ridiculous" as a coroner's inquiry is due to take place. That was made clear in a police statement issued on Feb 1.
Still, Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) said "we can't ignore the fact that the online media plays a very important part in communication". She put this question to Mr Shanmugam: "In situations where it's very emotive and very sensitive, while I totally understand your stance of handling the information very carefully... is there a way to share at least some information with online news sites?"
Mr Shanmugam had explained in his speech that he had decided early on to refrain from commenting too much or in detail out of respect for Benjamin's family, who needed time and space to grieve, and because the coroner's inquiry is the right forum to deal with the relevant facts. In response to Ms Tan, he said the law of contempt applied both online and offline. With a coroner's inquiry pending, the media should refrain from making allegations of fact which may be the subject of dispute during the inquiry.
Mr Shanmugam's carefully calibrated statement included a stout defence of the police officers involved in the case who, as he put it, "cannot defend themselves and are doing their job, every day, in difficult circumstances".
He also reminded the House that two young lives had been damaged by this "very sad case", a 14-year-old boy who died and an 11-year-old girl who has been traumatised. To calls from MPs who wanted the investigation processes involved in this case reviewed, the minister pledged to do so, saying: "We must do right by these two young lives."
Correction: An earlier version of the story gave the wrong date for when Benjamin Lim died. We are sorry for the error.