SINGAPORE: While Singaporeans may be confident in the Home Team’s ability to manage a national crisis, this public trust cannot be taken for granted, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (Sep 30).
Using the Hong Kong police force as an example, Mr Shanmugam said that although they are considered “one of the best in Asia”, their relationship with the public has become severely strained over several weeks of unrest.
The shift in public perceptions was due to the "many different narratives", said the minister, who was speaking at an awards ceremony for Home Team officers.
“The local media, the foreign media, the social media - all with their own agenda, their own bias, and unfortunately, much of this is one-sided,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“The protestors are always put forward in a positive light - they are democracy fighters. The police are always put forward in a negative light.
"Frequently, bricks are thrown at them, they are attacked; that’s not captured. Their responses are captured."
Mr Shanmugam also pointed out that "unfair criticism" on how the Hong Kong police dealt with the situation has coloured public perceptions, and this has happened in a matter of weeks.
“It has become a ‘people versus police’ situation. That is very deliberate, because what you see in the media is often women being identified as being victims, or older people against police in full gear.”
Hong Kong has been convulsed by months of huge and often violent demonstrations calling for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
Many of the peaceful protests have degenerated into running battles between black-clad protesters and police, who have responded with tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and several live rounds fired into the air.
Protesters have also thrown petrol bombs, rocks at officers.
The police however have refuted allegations of using disproportionate force, saying they have shown restraint on the streets in the face of increased violence.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBLE FOR BASIC ISSUES OF SOCIETY
Mr Shanmugam in his speech outlined three takeaways from the ongoing situation in Hong Kong.
"The key lesson for us and for me, is that the starting point has got to be that the police are not the solution," he said.
The police are a solution for tactical problems – not those dealing with strategic issues, housing issue or social economic isssues, he added.
"The responsibility starts with the Government, to get the basic issues right in society," stressed Mr Shanmugam. No amount of policing would help in this situation, he said.
"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."
Secondly, the ministers in charge of the situation should take full responsibility of operational policies carried out by the police, said Mr Shanmugam.
The public should know that the responsibility falls on “the people right at the top, not the individual officers facing the public on the ground”, the minister said.
“The police have to know, because then they know they are protected. Operationally, if they do something wrong, of course they will take responsibility.
Lastly, it is important to keep the public fully informed in a timely way, said Mr Shanmugam.
“Not just the usual press statements and press conferences, but videos, pictures and quite importantly, the ability to push those messages on to the ground,” he said.
If there was an "information void", the public would then turn to unverified sources, rumours, distorted information and falsehoods, he said.