SINGAPORE: What can be defined as a “serious incident” became a matter of intense debate in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 21), before the House approved the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill.
The new law gives the police special powers to deal with serious incidents like terror attacks. For instance, they can order people in the vicinity of the incident to stop taking or sharing pictures or videos of the area.
The Bill provides five examples of "serious incidents" that can invoke the use of these special powers. These include situations where explosives and firearms were used, or where perpetrators have forcibly taken over public transport.
Ms Sylvia Lim of the opposition Workers’ Party took issue with two of the examples, calling them "more controversial".
“Illustration (d) covers a sit-down peaceful protest that grows in size such that there is impediment to paths, roads and normal business," she said. "Illustration (e) is about a group protesting in the street that grows in size and then starts to commit violent acts, which sounds to me like rioting.”
Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun asked how such events were comparable to armed attacks or hostage situations in terms of severity, while Mr Louis Ng said it may “seem excessive” to fine, imprison or use lethal force for non-compliance in these cases.
In response, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo explained: “There are three limbs under the meaning of a ‘serious incident’: a terrorist act, serious violence affecting the public, or large-scale public disorder. The third limb ... is the subject of focus.”
“Peaceful protests are not the target of POSSPA,” she stressed, referring to the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act. “We will only invoke POSSPA if the situation deteriorates … If a protest is really peaceful, there should be no concern whatsoever.”
Mrs Teo insisted that a “high threshold” had been set on what constitutes a "serious incident". “There must be significant disruption to ordinary Singaporeans trying to go about their daily business," she said. "People ... are agitated. The tension is rising. If it is not defused, things could quickly turn chaotic.”
She added: “Outside of the House, there were assertions that POSSPA will be applied to peaceful demonstrations. The narrative goes something like this: First, the law allows POSSPA to be unlocked by the Minister (for Home Affairs) for peaceful protests. There is no definition of what large-scale public disorder means, so the law could be applied to peaceful protests involving a small group of protesters. Therefore the law potentially allows the oppression of protesters, and will have a chilling effect on society.”
“These assertions misrepresent what POSSPA is about,” Mrs Teo declared.
MPs also asked why current laws were not enough to deal with large-scale public disorder scenarios, to which she assured the House that where possible, existing laws will be used first.
Mrs Teo noted, however, that in certain scenarios, the police might need to order nearby premises to close, impose cordons, and direct people to stay out of the area. “POSSPA powers are necessary to do this,” she said. “No other laws have such provisions for such a situation.”
Mr Ng also asked to put a number to “large-scale”. Mrs Teo replied: “There is no easy answer. The size of a protest is one of many factors. It depends also where the protest is conducted, how it’s conducted, and the consequences on Singapore whether intended by its organisers or not.”
COMMUNICATIONS BAN A “COMPROMISE”?
Mrs Teo added that peaceful assemblies would not be subject to the Communications Stop Order (CSO) - which prevents people in the vicinity from taking or sharing pictures or videos of the incident area, and to not send text or audio messages about security operations.
She said the CSO should not discourage the public from submitting information to assist the police.
“If members of the public who are acting in good faith to provide information to the authorities but inadvertently breach the CSO, we do not intend to take action against such persons,” said Mrs Teo.
Ms Lim had also said that she was “most concerned” about certain segments of the CSO, saying: “I do not accept that the making and storing of such films and pictures for later viewing will undermine (tactical) operations.
“I note what the Minister said earlier about the operational difficulties on the ground in deciding who is simply making a film and not contemporaneously transmitting the films. As a former police officer, I understand that difficulty fully.”
She added: “Nevertheless, even if the offence of making a film needs to be on the books in the Government’s assessment, I would hope that the Government would be slow to prosecute if a film or picture adds value to post-review investigations.”
“I still have my concerns about the compromise we are making in the CSO and would ask the Government to adopt a more constructive approach towards unofficial recordings of major incidents.”
Mr Ng and fellow MP Ang Wei Neng asked similar questions of how the CSO would be effectively enforced on the ground, given the challenge posed by many people using phones at the same time for different reasons.
In response, Mrs Teo reiterated: “During a serious incident, the Police will not have the bandwidth to investigate every person who is recording a film or picture, to ascertain his true intent … Police will exercise discretion and take into consideration the circumstances under which the recorder was in, and if the breach could not have been reasonably avoided."
She concluded by re-emphasising that “the threshold which must be met before the POSSPA powers can be activated is high” and “will not be used for day-to-day policing”.
“It can only be used in exceptional circumstances with many conditions attached already … Once the threshold of a serious incident is crossed, we must give the police sufficient latitude to act decisively, and respond to whatever that threat may be,” she said.
“Ms Sylvia Lim used two terms. She said muscle and flexibility, and I think that sums it up aptly,” Mrs Teo continued.
Ms Lim had said the Government would need muscle as well as flexibility to respond quickly and effectively to new threats faced by Singapore today.
“After the incident has been dealt with, and the danger has passed, we can have a debate, including here in Parliament, about whether the Minister and the police did the right thing, and hold them to account,” said Mrs Teo.