SINGAPORE - The Hong Kong police were regarded as among the best in Asia, but it took only several weeks of unrest before perceptions changed and their relationship with the community became severely strained, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.
With the situation in the Chinese territory now being "people versus the police", there are several key lessons that Singapore can draw, said the minister on Monday (Sept 30).
He noted that a public perception survey in 2017 showed that 90 per cent of Singaporeans said they trusted Home Team officers to do their duties objectively and with integrity, as well as their ability to manage a national crisis.
However, he added: "This cannot be taken for granted, and we cannot assume that it will always be there."
Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking at the Minister's Awards Presentation Ceremony at ITE College West, said the Hong Kong police have been regarded as a "disciplined, highly professional, effective" force.
But with the ongoing Hong Kong protests, many different narratives are being peddled in the media, and most of them are one-sided: Protesters are always put in a positive light as democracy fighters, while the police are put in a negative light, said Mr Shanmugam.
He added that when the Hong Kong police are attacked, this is not captured but their responses are, giving rise to "unfair criticism" about how they have dealt with the situation.
The way Singapore sees it, there are three key lessons.
First, internal agencies are not the front-line solution for all problems, said Mr Shanmugam.
"They are a solution for tactical problems, but the problems (in Hong Kong) first of all start from politics, and the fundamental socio-economic issues," he said.
These issues cannot be dealt with by letting the police handle the protesters, he added.
"The responsibility starts with the government to get the basic issues right in society... If the fundamental issues are wrong, and 10,000 people go on the streets every day or every week, no police force I think can deal with it, including in Singapore," said the minister.
The second lesson, said Mr Shanmugam, lies in ministers taking responsibility in such situations, rather than the police.
He referenced what he had said in Parliament three years ago on the case of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, who was found dead after being questioned by the police for an allegation involving outrage of modesty.
At the time, in his ministerial statement, Mr Shanmugam had said: "My ministry has the responsibility for the protocol that is in place. And ultimately, responsibility is with me, as the minister. It is not with the individual police officers. Their responsibility is to act according to the protocol in place."
On Monday, he reiterated that stand, saying that the public has to know that the responsibility lies with "the people right at the top, not the individual officers facing the public on the ground".
Lastly, the Hong Kong unrest has shown that it is important to keep the public fully informed on what is happening, said Mr Shanmugam.
"Because if we leave an information void, the public will turn to unverified sources, rumours... It will happen anyway, but you've got to try and prevent it," he added.