Does Little India Bill mask the state’s true intent?

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By Vincent Wijeysingha

Home Affairs Deputy Secretary of Operations and Development Roy Quek is the latest government officer to defend the Public Order (Additional Temporary Provisions) Bill currently proceeding through Parliament. Writing in the civil service’s news portal, Challenge, he said powers contained in the Bill already exist in current legislation: “[I]t’s no different from what we already have,” he wrote.

Introducing the Bill in Parliament on Jan 20 Home Affairs Minister Mr Teo Chee Hean said it is scoped more tightly than current legislation and is valid only for one year. Separately, Law Minister K Shanmugam said current legislation is too strong and the new Bill is required due to the numbers of foreigners Little India attracts.

Echoing his political masters, Quek repeated that the Bill will only be on the statute book for one year and defines and limits the powers already existing in legislation such as the Public Order (Preservation) Act.

The incident in Little India on Dec 8 rocked the nation and posed serious questions for us. However, a recent briefing paper produced by a panel of civil society activists noted that government may be acting precipitately if it does not wait for the findings of the Committee of Inquiry summoned precisely in order to, in the words of the Home Affairs Minister, “study the issue thoroughly, come to a fair and objective assessment and submit their recommendations thereafter”.

Last Wednesday, human rights organisation Maruah held a forum to discuss issues relating to the Little India incident. Unsurprisingly, the Public Order Bill took up the greater proportion of the debate, both from the speakers and audience. Professor Kevin Tan, an administrative and constitutional law don, noted that three statutes already exist to deal with public order issues. As a member of the panel that produced the briefing paper, I spoke from the floor. I said that in fact the statute book contains 14 statutes which possess the powers the government is asking Parliament to give it under the new Bill.

To recap, the government has outlined two reasons for the new Bill:

·       That it is required to deal with the vast numbers of foreigners who frequent Little India

·       That current legislation is too strong

By way of placating concerns about the Bill, the government assures us that the Bill should not worry us because

 

·       All powers under it already exist in current legislation

·       These powers are scoped more tightly than current legislation

·       It is only valid for one year and will give more time to formulate longer-term measures following the Committee of Inquiry’s findings.

Indeed, none of these reasons holds up to scrutiny. If the Bill’s powers already exist in other statutes, and if those statutes are strong, and if the government is content to wait until the findings of the committee before enacting longer-term legislation, it is entirely unclear whether there is an urgent need for a 15th Act to maintain public order.

The question is particularly relevant since, according to a handout circulated by Minister Teo Chee Hean to Parliament on Jan 20, the riot was contained in two hours. Furthermore, the area has remained calm and peaceful in the two months since, which defends our claim that current measures are effective.

The government’s case for another public order measure has not been articulated with any degree of soundness. The call for a reasoned, considered response which draws on the valuable data that the Committee of Inquiry (and the criminal proceedings) will yield cannot be overestimated, if the government is serious about avoiding a repeat of the riot.

The briefing paper, which the panel submitted to the Speaker of Parliament last week, suggests that “Governance on the basis of reaction rather than data can result in implementing the inappropriate solutions to the problem.” It argued that this can weaken the standing of the Committee  “whose role is to independently and fearlessly identify problems of governance”.