Necessary for Singapore to fast-track COVID-19 laws amid unprecedented situation: Lawyers

Necessary for Singapore to fast-track COVID-19 laws amid unprecedented situation: Lawyers

FILE PHOTO: Spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Singapore
An office worker wearing a face mask in Singapore on Apr 7, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE: In the past month, Singapore has fast-tracked a slew of regulations and laws aimed at limiting the number of COVID-19 cases, which crossed the 2,000 figure on Friday (Apr 10).

Some of the measures are also designed to help cushion the financial impact of the global pandemic on local businesses and members of the public.

Lawyers told CNA that some of these laws have been passed at uncommon speed, in a single day compared with the usual months-long period. 

While the situation bears some resemblances to the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, the current crisis is unique in its severity, and the legal steps taken are necessary to combat the situation, they said. 

The Bill for the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, a set of laws imposing restrictions on the movement of people and the conducting of business during the circuit breaker period between Apr 7 and May 4, was read and debated on Apr 7 before being passed on the same day.

READ: COVID-19: Social gatherings of any size in both private and public spaces prohibited under new Bill

Under the Act, gatherings of any size are not allowed whether outside or at home, and only those in essential services are allowed to continue working. Penalties listed in the Act go up to a maximum six-month jail term, a fine of up to S$10,000, or both.

Before this, the Ministry of Health (MOH) put the Infectious Diseases (COVID-19 - Stay Orders) Regulations 2020 into effect from Mar 26, to give legal force to safe distancing measures and provide enhanced enforcement for breaches of stay-home notices.

Already, some have been charged under the new laws - for breaching stay-home notices and for organising a gathering of more than 10 people for an illegal car race.

READ: COVID-19: Suspect behind illegal car race charged with organising event with more than 10 attendees

That a few people have already been charged under the new laws signals the need for authorities to have the requisite powers to deal with a variety of issues arising from the COVID-19 outbreak, which is not only the severest public health threat Singapore has faced but has also wreaked havoc on the economy, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

THE SPEED AND URGENCY OF CORONAVIRUS-RELATED LAWS

Laws typically take at least a few months to come into force, and the speed at which these COVID-19-related regulations have been introduced is "fairly unprecedented", said Mr Chooi Jing Yen, partner at Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the introduction of circuit breaker measures on Apr 3, so it became necessary to introduce additional regulations to give these the force of law, said Mr Chooi.

He said the introduction and passing into law occurred "at breakneck speed in relative terms to the timeframe in which laws are usually passed".

"Before a Bill is tabled in Parliament, there is usually a consultative process that can last several months, where relevant stakeholders are invited to give their input," he said, adding that this process can take years for complex legislation.

Cabinet in masks
The Cabinet practising safe distancing in April 2020. (Photo: Facebook/Lee Hsien Loong)

"In contrast, the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill came into force almost immediately after being read in Parliament, without the usual gap between time of passing and time of commencement," he said.

Ms Diana Ngiam, associate director at Quahe Woo & Palmer, said the passing of the laws was "intentionally expedited because of the severity of the situation".

"It is not common, to my knowledge, that laws are passed so expeditiously," she said, adding that she found it a necessary move given the unprecedented situation Singapore is in.

"Typically, a Bill can be read a second time after at least 10 days have passed after it has been printed and circulated to Members of Parliament. Thereafter, there will be a third reading of the Bill, before it is subsequently passed by Parliament and then assented by the President before it becomes law."

Lawyer Josephus Tan, managing director at Invictus Law, said the COVID-19-related laws are urgent as they concern public safety and any delay in enactment “could lead to a persistent large increase in COVID-19 cases in Singapore”.

Agreeing, Withers KhattarWong partner P E Ashokan added that “these are extraordinary times, and there was a dire need for Singapore to respond swiftly to the threat which the outbreak poses to Singapore's public health, economy and society”.

LAWS PASSED QUICKLY, BUT IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE

However, while the laws tackling the coronavirus spread were passed exceptionally quickly, it has been done before and shares similarities with how the Singapore government tackled SARS in 2003.

Mr Tan pointed to how the Government amended the Infectious Diseases Act in 2003 during the SARS outbreak under a Certificate of Urgency.

Mr Ashokan said the related Bill was introduced on Apr 24, 2003, before being read a second time a day later and passed on Apr 25.

He also referred to how the Housing and Development (Amendment) Bill was read three times and passed on the same day in July 2010, in an urgent response to prohibit the use of sale proceeds of HDB flats as security or collateral.

Further back in 1973, the Control of Essential Supplies Bill was read thrice and passed on the same day, in order to empower the Government to respond to the fluctuating prices and supply of essential goods like rice, bread and oil at the time.

Most legislation in Singapore is written by the Cabinet as a Bill, explained Mr Ashokan. It is introduced in Parliament with a first reading, and debated in a second reading at least 10 days after this unless it is an urgent Bill.

Any amendments to the Bill will be introduced in the third reading, after which Parliament will vote on it.

After this, the Presidential Council for Minority Rights will review the Bill to ensure that it does not discriminate against any racial or religious community. The exceptions to this step are Money Bills, Bills affecting Singapore's defence, security or public safety, and Bills certified urgent by the Prime Minister.

The President will give assent to the Bill after this and it will become law. The entire process could take weeks or months, depending on the situation.

WHAT SETS COVID-19 LAWS APART

The laws enacted in relation to COVID-19 can be distinguished from other laws in their urgency, latitude and flexibility, as well as how they are targeted and temporary, said Mr Ashokan.

Generally, other types of laws are quite specific about the type and extent of powers that the Government may wield, but the COVID-19 laws give the Government "the necessary latitude and flexibility to respond swiftly, dynamically and decisively to the COVID-19 outbreak, especially if the situation suddenly worsens or calls for an urgent intervention by the Government", said Mr Ashokan.

While other types of laws are intended to remain in force and apply until specifically repealed, these laws are specifically targeted at the coronavirus outbreak and are meant to be temporary.

Singapore food market tables chairs covered safe distancing
Tables and chairs at a hawker centre in Singapore are covered to prevent people from dining in, as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19, Apr 9, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

"For example, the temporary measures introduced by the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, such as temporary relief for inability to perform contracts, are intended to last for only six months," said Mr Ashokan. "However, if the COVID-19 situation calls for it, the relevant minister may order for this six-month period to be extended or shortened."

He added that the COVID-19 laws can be adopted, with necessary amendments, for similar situations in the future such as another disease outbreak.

SARS VERSUS COVID-19 LAWS

While the laws passed during the SARS crisis and the current outbreak are similar, one major difference is in how the COVID-19 laws are specific and temporary.

"Nevertheless, both were passed to combat new and evolving situations and the unique challenges posed by the particular pandemic and the circumstances of the time," said Mr Ashokan.

When SARS broke out, the Infectious Diseases Act was already in force, but SARS led to several amendments to the act.

These include making it an arrestable offence to break home quarantine or refuse compliance with quarantine conditions, making it an offence to provide false or misleading information for related investigations, requiring suspected cases to submit to medical examination or treatment and requiring people suspected to have exposure to the disease to act in a socially responsible manner.

"At the time that Singapore was facing SARS, it was still working out the kinks in its policies of quarantine, surveillance, contact tracing and social distancing measures when faced with a relatively contagious and lethal disease," said Mr Ashokan. "These amendments to the law, passed during the SARS crisis, reflect the refinement of such measures."

The measures were general in nature and meant to remain in force and apply to all infectious diseases, in contrast to the COVID-19 laws.

Mr Chooi said that the difference in the coronavirus laws from the SARS ones “is stark”. 

“To the best of my recollection, SARS did not prompt the government to enact laws specifically to deal with it … There was certainly no enactment of a targeted parent act such as the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 which gives the health minister sweeping powers to enact subsidiary legislation to curb the movement of people,” he said.

Public areas closed in Singapore COVID-19 circuit breaker
A cordoned-off playground near Block 878A Tampines Street 86. (Photo: Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources)

However, Singapore is not alone in this - several emergency COVID-19 Bills have been passed very quickly in other countries too, reflecting the severity of the pandemic, said Mr Ashokan.

For example, the UK Government announced the Coronavirus Bill 2019-2021 on Mar 8 and received royal assent on Mar 26, leading to the Coronavirus Act 2020. The Act imposes restrictions and prohibitions on events and gatherings and grants the authorities powers in dealing with potentially infected people.

IMPLICATIONS OF PASSING THE LAWS SO QUICKLY

Passing the laws so quickly in Singapore could mean that the problem "gets arrested as early as possible", said Mr Ashokan. 

"It is really anyone's guess at this juncture, but if the COVID-19 laws were not passed so quickly, Singapore might be looking at far higher numbers of confirmed cases,” he said.

Mr Chooi said that the key implication of the new laws being passed so quickly is “public confusion over what is permitted and prohibited”.

“Nothing like this has been done in Singapore before, and there has been an urgent need to quickly educate the public,” he said. “Otherwise, the authorities would be faced with the unenviable task of bringing large numbers of ignorant offenders to court, or of having to pick and choose its prosecutions – neither of which is a desirable outcome.”

Ms Ngiam acknowledged the possibility that people might not be fully aware of the scope and extent of the new laws that are passed in such a short span of time.

However, she added that the risk of this has been minimised substantially “by the efforts of the government to promulgate and educate the public of what can or cannot be done during this period, in simple and non-legalese language, for instance, through the Gov.sg WhatsApp broadcasts”.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Currently, the control period or circuit breaker period lasts till May 4 under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) (Control Order) Regulations 2020.

empty spaces - a look at singapore during covid-19 circuit breaker
Lau Pa Sat food centre at mid-day during the circuit breaker. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

However, its parent, the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, can be in force for a six-month period, and the law minister can extend or shorten this period as necessary, said Mr  Chooi.

“How long these measures actually last, therefore, really depends in large part on whether or not we manage to contain the spread of COVID-19,” he said. 

“Since Part 7 of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 gives the health minister the power to make control orders to curb the spread of COVID-19, it is not inconceivable that we may see stiffer measures being introduced if there is no improvement in the situation. As we have seen, this can be done in a matter of days.”

But the enactment of laws alone is not enough, said Invictus Law’s Mr Tan.

“In my view, in order for such expedited measures to be thoroughly effective, it must be coupled with expedited enforcement to send out an effective message of deterrence,” he said.

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Source: CNA/ll

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