Support scheme for young suspects during interviews by law enforcement agencies under review by MHA

The Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects allows an independent, trained volunteer to be present with suspects under the age of 16 during interviews with agencies. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is reviewing a scheme that provides support for young suspects while they are interviewed by law enforcement agencies.

It will announce its findings in the coming months.

The Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS) allows an independent, trained volunteer to be present with suspects under the age of 16 during interviews with agencies such as the police and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) noted in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 2) that the cut-off age for minors under the Children and Young Persons Act (CYPA) was raised to 18 in 2019.

"Does MHA then not accept the fact that the spirit of that will require all measures protecting young suspects to have a cut-off age of 18 instead of 16?

"I mean, we can understand that it may need to be phased in and so on, but at the very least, does the ministry not agree that we must commit to moving all these protections, whether legal or procedural, to the cut-off age of 18 in line with the amendment to the CYPA on the definition of child?" asked Ms Lim.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim had earlier said in a response to questions posed by Ms Lim, Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah and Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) that MHA is reviewing the expansion of the AAYS to cover this age group, and will announce the outcome in the next few months.

Responding to Ms Lim's question, Dr Faishal said: "The appropriate adults are volunteers and we will need more volunteers to support the expansion to cover more young suspects."

He estimated that the current pool of 351 volunteers would have to be doubled to cover 16- and 17-year-olds.

He added that training, which would have to be conducted face to face, has been made difficult in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Faishal said: "Expanding this scheme is not straightforward without a sufficient pool of appropriate adults. (If) interviews will be delayed until an appropriate adult is available, this could add more strain on the person who is being investigated."

The issue of expanding the AAYS comes after the death of Justin Lee, 17, on Sept 16 from a fall from height. He was arrested by CNB officers on Feb 3 and charged in court on June 24 with drug trafficking.

He was not assigned an AA during CNB questioning since he was 17 at the time of his arrest.

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Mental health was a key issue as Education Minister Chan Chun Sing spoke on the pressures faced by teachers and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng revealed mental health support measures for migrant workers.

A similar AA scheme provides support for the mentally vulnerable, such as those with mental disabilities or mental health issues.

CNB said last month that Justin told officers that he had been diagnosed with depression before, but he was observed not to show signs of distress during the interviews.

On Tuesday, Ms Lim pointed out that some of the special needs suspects may be non-verbal or non-communicative, and only the family members would understand what the suspect is trying to say.

She asked if law enforcement agencies allow family members to assist in the investigation so that the communication can be better understood.

Dr Faishal responded: "We observe not only what the suspect has but we also train our officers to better understand the behavioural component, the needs of the suspect as well as how we can facilitate the interviews - all in the name of (doing things) fairly and professionally.

"So if there's a need for us to reach out to the family members, we will do so."

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