SINGAPORE: He ticks almost all the boxes in the cliched impression of a reformed ex-gangster: Thickset and muscled, affable and soft-spoken. But Ben (not his real name) is quite different. There are no tattoos - “I was lucky,” he says - and the 26-year-old undergraduate only started filling out his T-shirts after a four-year spell in jail.
In fact, he was once a short and scrawny teenager who, along with his friends, would brazenly fight, riot and partake in “typical, violent” gang activities - yet quake at the mention of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA).
“We knew about the Act,” said Ben during an interview arranged by the Singapore Police Force (SPF) for him to share his personal experience as a Criminal Law Detainee (CLD), and as part of efforts to highlight the benefits of the Act. “Most gang members fear detention (without trial) - they all know they’ll be in prison for an unknown period.
“It’s a deterrent but at my age back then, I didn’t expect it would be me facing such consequences.”
The CLTPA allows for the detention of suspected criminals without trial - subject to annual reviews of each case - for the sake of "public safety, peace and good order". Last year, the total CLD population in Singapore’s prisons was 103 - of which 86 were jailed for secret society activities. These have been the majority since 2015, with the rest of the numbers made up by offences such as unlicensed money-lending and drug trafficking.
On Tuesday (Feb 6), Parliament passed a bill that will extend the legislation covering detention without trial for another five years.
“Secret society members are aware of the CLTPA, and it helps us keep them at bay,” said Inspector Eric Toh, an investigation officer with a decade’s work at the SPF’s Secret Societies Branch. “If not, they will cause much more problems; and influence much more people to join their gangs.
“The CLTPA remains a key legislative tool which is highly effective in suppressing secret society activity.”
Ben was 14 when he first joined a gang, and 18 when “a few incidents” led to police showing up at his house and informed him he was being arrested under the CLTPA.
“My parents were sad, upset,” he recalled. “Me, I was shocked, confused, totally lost and angry at the same time.
“My first few days in there, I just kept thinking how and when I could get out and back to my family. I didn’t know what to do in prison, and where I could go after. You’re basically doing nothing for 23 hours in a room … you will think a lot.”
But keeping CLDs locked up means witnesses can come forward knowing they are safe, said Insp Toh, 40.
“During investigations, we need to call up witnesses to tell us what actually happened. With the Act, they don’t have to be in fear and can come give us the evidence we need,” he outlined.
“We are then able to incarcerate the suspect, and this helps keep the secret society situation under control. This is why we have the CLTPA.”
Life in prison as a CLD still gave Ben, an Institute of Technical Education student then, an opportunity to further his studies.
“This officer told me to do something with my life, and recommended me to sign up for O-Levels,” he said. “I realised that maybe I could do this, and after one year was transferred to the prison school, where I went on to do my A-Levels too.
“It was a challenge because there was a lack of resources. News that came to us was two months old, but we made do with what we had.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I was actually capable of doing things right … and doing my family proud,” Ben related.
“The first year, I was praying to get out. But the second and third, I somehow didn’t think of that, because I had a goal in mind - to pursue my studies. So I used the time to focus on my studies and keep myself occupied.”
Right after taking his A-Levels, Ben was told he would be released. “It felt like my road had been planned out … and everything would be smooth,” he said.
Out of jail, Ben found a job, started applying to universities - and was placed under police supervision for a year. This stopped him from meeting his former friends, going to “high-risk” areas like entertainment outlets and staying out past 7pm. He also had to report to a police station every week - but said these measures helped prevent him from joining the gang again.
Not everyone is as fortunate. In Parliament recently, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam revealed that of out of the current CLD population, about 17 per cent had been placed under detention previously.
The Act, in and of itself, is not sufficient to prevent the proliferation of street gang activity in Singapore, said Insp Toh. “So the police adopt a strategy of both enforcement and preventive education.”
Reformed individuals like Ben are also part of these initiatives. Two years ago, he volunteered with children at risk - and also children with mental disabilities - until his university schedule got in the way.
He also agreed to this interview because he saw it as “necessary and important” to tell his story. “At my age back then, maybe you’re curious or not that mature yet, so you get rebellious and you make mistakes,” Ben stressed.
“But whatever you do, reflect on what’s the consequences of your action before you execute it. Don’t follow what I did, don’t follow in my footsteps; enjoy your teenage life instead.”
He is now belatedly doing so as a student, though his age often leads to probing from younger schoolmates. “I’m someone who doesn’t like to hide, it’s quite tiring,” said Ben. “So I will share what I was back then. They’re mostly quite open … after some time, they treat you as normal.”
Statistics for the number of ex-CLDs going on to higher education and employment were unavailable, making it unclear how common Ben's success story is. But does he believe his experience points to the usefulness of the CLTPA? Does he see the existence of a law allowing detention without trial to be absolutely essential?
“It really depends,” Ben said carefully. “But for my case, without my detention, I wouldn’t be studying today. And maybe ... I wouldn’t be alive.”