SINGAPORE: The Workers’ Party (WP) on Tuesday (Feb 6) said in Parliament the Government had “gone too far” with amendments to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA).
Eight of the opposition party’s Members of Parliament opposed a bill passed in Parliament to extend the Act for another five years, along with other changes such as a listing of the offences it covers. Two Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) Azmoon Ahmad and Kok Heng Leun also voted "No", while fellow NMPs Kuik Shiao-Yin and Mahdev Mohan abstained.
Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Dennis Tan expressed concern over what they saw as the bill’s curtailment of judicial oversight, with the former noting how “detainees cannot challenge evidence against them in an open court”.
“The prospect of locking people up for an undetermined duration is incongruous with the rule of law,” said Mr Pritam.
Calling the proposed amendments a “disconcerting change”, Mr Tan added: “The most controversial and draconian aspect of this Act is the fact it puts people behind bars without usual due process. To take away someone’s liberty like this is not something we should take lightly.”
WP chairman Ms Sylvia Lim said it was “premature” and she was “very surprised” Parliament was being asked to extend the Act now, in February 2018, when the Act - which lapses every five years - only expires in October 2019.
“Past debates did not have such a long timeline,” she noted. “Why is timing important? At each renewal, MPs are asked to consider the prevailing crime and order situation then, and to decide whether the extension is justified.
“Today, Parliament is asked to assess the circumstances to justify the renewal of the Act from October 2019 to October 2024. How do we know what the situation will be like towards the end of next year? Things can always change.
“Does this not make a mockery of the careful consideration Parliament is to exercise, when assessing whether the prevailing circumstances justify a renewal of this draconian law?” Ms Lim asked.
“A POSITION TOO ARROGANT”
Ms Lim also called the move to define the scope of criminal activities, under the Fourth Schedule, an “attempt to make the Minister (for Home Affairs) all-powerful”.
“Yes, the current Act does not list which kind of activities make a person liable to be detained. But that does not mean the Minister currently has carte blanche to detain anyone he pleases,” she said.
“The Schedule will likely short-circuit the assessment process of cases suitable for detention, and maybe enable the Minister to bypass answering questions such as whether cases are serious enough, or why it’s not possible to prosecute these persons in court.
“Also, the Bill potentially allows for persons to be detained for alleged activities of more minor nature, now there is a list of defined activities.”
Ms Lim also pointed out that an entry on the list of offences - “participation in or facilitation of an organised crime activity (OCA)” - would mean the scope of the CLTPA be expanded to include activities done overseas, or those that “may not pose a threat to public order in Singapore”.
“By linking the OCA to the CLTPA - is the new Schedule not expanding the Minister’s powers?
“This expansion of the kind of activities subject to the Act in effect makes the Minister a global policeman with no equal in the world. This is a position too arrogant for the House to support,” said Ms Lim.
But Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that while these descriptives “made for a good reading on a website”, it was simply a matter of satisfying two requirements now: one in the interests of "public safety, peace and good order", and in addition, its conjunctive - the new listing of offences.
“It’s not the case that if listed in the Schedule, you can automatically be detained,” he said. “So how does it increase the powers (of the Minister)?”
“Rhetoric has got to match reality, and it’s useful to read clauses carefully before making speeches.”
“POWER CAN ALWAYS BE ABUSED”
Ms Lim also added to the “chorus of concern” from other MPs over a clause making the Minister’s decision to detain, final.
“What is the justification? The Minister keeps saying and saying the clause is not intended to change the legal position and it is meant to preserve judicial review. But it is a tenet of interpretation that Parliament does not legislate in vain,” Ms Lim asserted.
“If what the Minister is saying is correct - that the clause is not meant to change anything - then why introduce it at all? Why not leave it at status quo, instead of causing confusion and possible problems down the road about what this clause is meant to cover?”
She stated: “The CLTPA has been enforced since 1955 for more than 60 years and no minister has come forward to ask for a finality clause. We find this very troubling.”
In response, Mr Shanmugam said: “As a matter of law, this clause cannot oust judicial review and I buttressed it by saying to go ask any lawyer. Second, I’m prepared to stand up here and say as the Law and Home Affairs Minister that there is no intention to oust judicial review.”
“There have also been questions as to why amend the Act and why not just stay with the current situation. But I’m making an amendment on something else - on the Minister’s decision being final, that relates to non-appealability, and not getting the courts or anyone else to substitute their views for the Minister’s views.”
Nonetheless Ms Lim branded the bill “untenable” and later declared: “Despite my own reservations …WP would have been prepared to support the renewal, if not for these new changes.”
“On the one hand, we know Singaporeans want Singapore to be a safe place to live in for ourselves and our families,” she said.
“At the same time, we are very mindful of tradeoffs and of giving the Government too much power to detain people without fair trial - as power can always be abused. This is all the more so when dealing with powers to deprive people of their liberty for years.”
“It’s possible to make grand statements about liberty and security if you don’t have to deal with real world problems,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“The current situation of law and order we have is based on the current legal framework we have, and if you remove the Criminal Law, or tinker with it very substantially, you will get some trade-offs in terms of increased levels of criminal activity.”
“Our current structure also has a trade-off - society accepts some risk in vesting power in the executive, which we try to reduce with the safeguards. And I have come to accept the path we’ve taken is probably better for Singapore and its society.”