SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) on Tuesday (Feb 6) threw their support behind legislation for the 14th renewal of a law allowing detention without trial, but also raised a number of clarifications centered on preventing abuses of power.
The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) is “a necessary tool” for Singapore’s law enforcers and will continue to be for the next five years until it lapses again, said Mr Christopher de Souza.
In a nod to how the Act has “clearly helped” maintain public safety, peace and good order, Mr Ang Wei Neng and several other MPs also pointed to the declining number of Criminal Law Detainees (CLD) over the years: From 1,260 in 1988 to 463 in 1998, 290 in 2008 and 103 in 2017.
The likes of Mr Louis Ng and Nominated Member of Parliament Professor Mahdev Mohan also noted how the use of the word “temporary” in the Act’s title belies its 14 extensions since enacted in 1955.
Mr Ng asked Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam to provide information on the number of cases in which Advisory Committees (ACs) recommended not to detain but were rejected by the Minister, stating his concern that its objective would be undermined.
Said Mr Shanmugam: "ACs do recommend against detention orders, and in the vast, significant majority of these cases, the Government accepts that advice and instead imposes police supervision orders. But there have been a small number of cases where the Government disagrees.”
Mr Ng also asked whether the Ministry had studied other solutions for addressing the difficulty of securing witness testimony in open court for CLTPA cases.
“Where we can, we want to move towards trials,” said Mr Shanmugam. “The suggestion of secret testimonies has been considered and found not workable - it’s difficult to have a witness who can’t be cross-examined, who the judge can talk to but no one else can. But we will review.”
On a related note, Mr Ang also raised the issue of younger CLDs under 21, asking: “Given the declining birth rate, each child is getting more precious ... Would the Minister be able to clarify why was CLTPA used on such youths rather than charging them in the open court? Do these youths have the means and connection to intimidate the witnesses?”
“We only act when the risk of reprisal is there, then we act against these persons,” Mr Shanmugam replied. “And the persons detained are not quite innocent children. They use deadly weapons, they recruit other members, attack people and in a way you need to remove them from society so other people of similar age are not influenced by them. That’s how you keep the problem under control.
“But where possible, we charge them in court. If not, then we use the CL if it’s neccessary to do so.”
Meanwhile Mr Murali Pillai mirrored a sentiment by the Workers’ Party chairman Ms Sylvia Lim when he questioned the timing of the renewal.
“It appears rather early to seek an extension of the Act, approximately 20 months before it is due to expire - this amounts to about one-third of the five-year extension period,” he said, stressing that Parliament would need to be apprised of the latest security landscape in order to make consideration.
Said Mr Shanmugam: “The last debate was in November 2013. I agree it’s normally done nearer to the renewal date. But since we are doing these amendments, we are coming with a request for extension as well.”
Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked if there were former CLDs who continued to be members of triads or secret societies and committed offences repeatedly after release.
“Of those currently under detention, about 17 per cent have been placed under detention previously,” Mr Shanmugam revealed.
Mr Gan and Mr Ang both called on the Minister to “re-assure” Singaporeans that safeguards were in place to prevent abuse of power.
“I’ve talked about the inbuilt procedural requirements for the parties involved; the processes,” said Mr Shanmugam. “In the end when you give such power to the executive, that is the concern - there is some scope for abuse, but you try and cut it down.”
“Philosophically, you can say you don’t want to give these powers and you take the trade-offs. That’s for Members to decide.”
He added: “But I think you should decide by accepting that if you don’t have the CLTPA, then your law and order situation will get worse. How much worse? It’s not possible to say, but it will.
“Are you prepared to justify that and take that kind of society?”