by Tan Tam Mei
A law that allows the detention of criminal suspects without trial has been extended for another five years from Oct 21 next year – but not without a heated debate in Parliament.
Over four hours yesterday, 11 MPs spoke on the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill, raising concerns over issues such as the powers it now gives the Home Affairs Minister.
While this is the 14th time the law has been extended, the latest version includes changes such as giving the minister the final say on whether detention is necessary for reasons of public safety, peace and good order.
Of the 89 MPs present, 10 voted against the Bill, and two abstained.
Those who voted “no” included all eight MPs of the Workers’ Party who were present. The party had supported the Bill during previous extensions. The remaining two dissenters were Nominated MPs Kok Heng Leun and Azmoon Ahmad. NMPs Mahdev Mohan and Kuik Shiao-Yin abstained.
There was some drama over the voting itself, with the electronic system mixing up Workers’ Party MP Muhamad Faisal Manap – who had voted no – and People’s Action Party MP Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim – who had voted yes. The second time, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s “yes” vote was not registered.
The debate began with Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam seeking to explain the proposed amendments to the Bill. They included prescribing a list of offences that will come under the Act: secret society activities, unlicensed moneylending, drug trafficking, kidnapping and organised crime.
We decided to list the types of criminal activities. There is more certainty and clarity in such an approach.
HOME AFFAIRS AND LAW MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
KEEPING PUBLIC SAFE
The Act is an essential tool in our arsenal. The path we have taken is good for society.
We decided to list the types of criminal activities. There is more certainty and clarity in such an approach,” said Mr Shanmugam.
The move to amend the 63-year-old Act follows the Court of Appeal’s decision in 2015 to free alleged match-fixing kingpin Dan Tan. The court had said it did not accept that the Act “has a loose or open-ended remit”. It noted that while Tan may have run an international match-fixing syndicate from Singapore, his activities did not pose a threat to public safety, peace and good order here.
The Act is traditionally used in situations where it is not possible to prosecute because witnesses, for instance former secret society members, are fearful or unwilling to testify for fear of reprisal.
Other changes to the Act include a clause that now makes the minister’s decision on the facts of the case under the Act final. It cannot be appealed or substituted.
A number of MPs rose to query Mr Shanmugam about this, with Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and NMP Kok asking if this meant judicial review is now excluded.
The minister said the provision was not new and has always been accepted by the courts. “It does not oust judicial review,” he stressed.
He said the courts can still review the decisions based on the traditional tests of illegality, irrationality and procedural impropriety.
Mr Shanmugam also tackled questions over whether listing the offences under the Act would increase the powers of the minister and reduce pressure to explain and justify each detention.
He said the minister would now have to fulfil two criteria: that requirements under an existing Section 30, that lays out the grounds for detention, are satisfied, and that the offence is listed.
“So, the detainees are no worse off, the minister is no better off. The same requirements continue. In addition, the minister has got to show that it is listed in the schedule. So, how does it increase the powers (of the minister)?”
Other changes included appointing sitting Supreme Court judges as chairmen of independent advisory committees that review police supervision and criminal detention orders, from March this year.
Mr Shanmugam said: “Having judges who are independent adds considerably to the robustness of the process.”
Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) queried why the Ministry of Home Affairs was seeking an early extension of the Act which would only expire in Oct 20 next year. To this, Mr Shanmugam said they had decided to include the extension along with the proposed amendments.
“The sooner, the better we move in line with everything else… So, we put it all together and because we are coming to Parliament for the amendments, we said let’s ask for another five years at the same time.”
Mr Shanmugam said the Act helps to maintain public safety and order. “The Act is an essential tool in our arsenal,” he added. “The path we have taken is good for society.”