Why good governance is key to maintaining public order

Excerpt of Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam's speech on good governance if law enforcement is to be effective

Safety and security are not just the responsibility of law enforcers. I want to move away from the usual COS (Committee of Supply) speech to say something a little bit more philosophical, maybe even reflective.

And this comes from some of the points made by MPs who questioned about the street protests that have taken place around the world. What are the lessons for us? Where do we go from here? Can it happen here? And I think it comes back to this point. You can have the best police force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well.

You've had riots across the world - in Chile, Europe, Hong Kong, of course, and other places. Street protests have escalated to violence, they have disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens, and destroyed public and private infrastructure. You have had Lebanon where several months of protests have caused a lot of damage. In Santiago, as I mentioned, demonstrators were enraged by hikes in public transport fares. They looted stores, and set fires to vehicles and properties.


We saw Hong Kong, seven months of protest. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked what can we learn from these protests. I will take this opportunity to discuss Hong Kong, and the others, and what are the lessons for us.

You have seen hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Hong Kong. Some of them have engaged in extremely violent, disruptive behaviour, with the whole purpose of crippling the government, and inflicted severe damage to the economy, and to the reputation of the city.

It obviously caused very severe challenges for the Hong Kong Police Force. Before this latest period of unrest, the Hong Kong Police Force was considered one of the finest in Asia. The Singapore Police Force and the Hong Kong Police Force were two very highly regarded forces in Asia - disciplined, professional, well respected by local residents.

But since the protests started, the Hong Kong police have been caught between the need to uphold public order, and protesters who resorted to increasingly violent tactics just to attack the police and instigate them. That has, I would say, severely damaged the relationship between the police and the public.

This is not helped by the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the media, in particular the international media, which often focused on criticising only the police force. The demonstrators were always titled pro-democracy protesters, while the police always were mentioned with reference to their brutality, and their brutal response.

The first time a police officer fired a live round, the media depicted the incident as an example of police brutality, and the picture went around the world. But, all the events leading up to that point were ignored. Protesters, as I said, were often portrayed in a positive light. That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed - all that was ignored.

The protesters were not just violent towards the police. Hong Kong residents who went to try and clean up were set upon by the protesters. In one instance, a man was hit over the head with a drain cover by a masked assailant while clearing the roadblocks. Today, just before the Covid-19 situation, the Hong Kong Police Force was seriously stretched. It faced persistent criticism both domestically and internationally. Even when they were off duty, they had to fend off protesters targeting their families and their loved ones. Morale was obviously affected.


So what are the lessons for us? I think one key lesson is, the actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society.

And, really, there has to be a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests. We already have the Public Order Act. We take a zero-tolerance approach. So it is an offence to organise or participate in a public assembly in Singapore without a police permit. But where Singaporeans want to protest or demonstrate about issues that concern them, there is the Speakers' Corner - no permit is needed.

If there is good governance, the police can deal with law-breakers with support from the public, says Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.
If there is good governance, the police can deal with law-breakers with support from the public, says Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Now, here is a balance. Some countries have traditionally said that the freedom to protest is part of the freedom of expression and should not be clamped down. But when it comes to the crunch, they all take different steps.

For example, in 2009, Copenhagen hosted a United Nations climate conference. They anticipated widespread protests... so Danish law enforcement constructed a holding facility. We don't do this in Singapore. They set up 36 steel cages that could hold more than 350 persons. So anyone who protested would find themselves in there.

In London, climate activists calling themselves the Extinction Rebellion mounted non-violent protests for two weeks last year. They conducted marches, blockaded roads, disrupted train services. More than 1,800 were arrested. In one protest, an activist climbed onto the roof of a train during the morning rush hour. Commuters were suitably frustrated; they dragged him off the roof and assaulted him. We don't recommend that in Singapore. But the Metropolitan Police then banned the Extinction Rebellion protests across London.

We have been criticised for disallowing protests outside of Speakers' Corner, even if it was just one person. But where do we draw the line? One, two, three, 30, 50, 100, 200, 5,000? How many protesters are acceptable? How do we tell what will be a peaceful protest and what will escalate into violence?

Part of the issue in Hong Kong is that protests are allowed; while the police are allowed to intervene only when it turns violent. So by the time you have 50,000 people on the streets, and some people go in there, let's say 500 who are deliberately intent on creating violence, how do the police handle this?

This sets up the police for failure and sets up the police to be the fall guys. It is far better to say, allow protests only in specific places and no protests in other places, because you really want to strike a balance between competing interests.

Sometimes, people want to protest, say, at iconic places, Orchard Road or Tanglin or places like that, where there is a lot of commercial activity. Primarily because of the disturbance it will cause to everyone else, therefore their cause will get noticed. So, on the one side is the desire of the protesters to get themselves noticed, on the other side is the disamenity to the rest of the community.

Why should one be favoured and why should the rest of the community just accept it? So that is the first lesson. I think our approach was the correct one, of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best police force in the world would still not be able to handle it.


The second lesson is, it cannot be seen purely as a law and order issue. If you seek to deal with protests, and your approach to protests is simply to have tough laws and enforce them, it's not going to work, because underlying it is, what's your social order?

What's your level of inequality? What's your social justice? How do people feel in your society? Is it a fair society? Do people want to support the system? Do they by and large believe that they benefit from the system?

If a large majority of your people feel that it is a fair system, that they have opportunities, that the government and the system are set up to help the largest majority possible, then people have faith in the system, and the people who want to break the laws will be a minority. Then your police can handle it.

But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair, that the social economic system and the benefits are fundamentally unfair, and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws are going to keep people off the streets. Why should they support a system that is fundamentally unfair?

So the first-order point of importance for any government, and for us, as a lesson, is really the socio-economic, political structure. It must deliver good governance. It must deliver to the majority, then your police force can go and deal with those who break the law, and the rest of the population will say, "Yes, we support it; these people ought not to be breaking the law."

So, law and order, yes, but it's not possible without good governance. None of these concepts are new. All these different approaches have been tried.

Those who are familiar with Chinese history will understand. Legalism, going back to the Qin dynasty, during the Warring States period; that was the preferred way of bringing order to a chaotic, fractious society. The emperor's rule was based on strict laws, harsh enforcement and collective punishments.

But such a system cannot carry on for long. People often misunderstand and think that our approach is based on very strict punishments.

Now, it's first and foremost based on making sure that the majority progresses and that the system is fair. Strict punishments can only be built on such a system. The Qin emperor's rule, as people will know, collapsed because the approach actually worsened people's social and economic lives.

You move forward to the Han Dynasty - China's emperors tried to follow Confucianism, which depended solely or primarily on the leaders setting the example and inspiring people to be like them - family and social harmony, a responsible government with the moral duty to promote harmony.

Confucianism appealed to people because they enjoyed internal peace and stability, and under it, the country experienced remarkable progress.

But it had its limitations as well, because in every society, a large majority of people can be inspired to be good, to be noble, to do the right thing, following the example of leaders - assuming you have leaders who can inspire that kind of confidence.

But you will always have a group that will want to challenge your laws, that will want to break them and that will want to destabilise. You will need to deal with them through a system of laws which can be enforced. What framework, how strict, what you allow, and what you don't allow, must be for each society to decide.

So you have to build it on a basis of fairness, upholding moral responsibility on the part of the leadership, proper governance - an approach of upright, virtuous governance which inspires people, and bring that across to the people as a whole, and then deal with the law-breakers in a way that makes it clear to everybody, that the laws will be applied fairly, evenly, and law-breaking will be dealt with.

If there is good governance and people benefit, you can always deal with a small number who want to disrupt.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2020, with the headline Why good governance is key to maintaining public order. Subscribe