Friday, 24 January 2014

Singapore: police powers and the Little India riot

I am a 'Law and Order' man. Generally, Singapore's tough laws are fine with me. Want to hang convicted drug traffickers? Be my guest. Wish to cane criminals convicted of vandalism? Carry on. If anything, I find the punishments for certain crimes, e.g. drink driving, too lenient. Nonetheless, I cannot get myself to support the proposal to enhance police powers in Singapore's new 'Special Zone,' i.e. Little India.

The proposal will permit the police to strip search individuals to look for alcohol. Additionally, police officers ranking Sergeant and above may raid any establishment within the Special Zone without a warrant, in case of suspicion that an offence is taking place. Individuals may also be banned from entering the Special Zone for up to 30 days if their presence is deemed detrimental to maintaining order.

Certainly, Singapore's police must have adequate authority to ensure there is no repeat of December 2013's Little India riot. Hence, having a more stringent alcohol licensing regime makes eminent sense. Particularly, as seems likely, alcohol was a contributing factor to the Little India violence.

However, don't the police already have enough powers to control 'miscreants' all over the island? Of course they do. Act in a 'suspicious' manner and see if the police present you with a warrant before carting you off to the nearest police station! Better still, walk around with a can of spray paint near an MRT subway train depot and see how long it takes for the police to 'interview' you? This is not just about a car entering Singapore illegally from Malaysia but preempting a serious act of vandalism!

Surely, Singapore's first riot in decades requires a drastic response from the authorities but I cannot see more policing taking Singapore to a better place. Already, some analysts suggest unskilled and semi-skilled foreign labor (as opposed to foreign talent) felt persecuted and intimidated by police measures in place prior to the December 2013 riot.

The answer lies in taking a more balanced approach. For example, by providing greater recreational facilities and outlets for Singapore's hordes of semi-skilled workers, while at the same time ensuring wrong doers are dealt with harshly (under existing laws). Needless to say, unless Singapore stops functioning, the thousands of foreign laborers on our island are not going anywhere. (Do we have any locals prepared to act as sanitation workers?)  

Giving the police a freer hand to stop, question, strip search and detain individuals – foreign or local – creates a dangerous precedent which can only lead Singapore down a slippery slope ... particularly when it will inevitably result in racial profiling of persons belonging to non-majority races (Caucasians exempted?). How long before individuals from minority backgrounds (like me) are asked to justify their presence in 'Special Zones' around Singapore?

Singapore is ahead of its time in many aspects of urban organization. I hope Orwellian style '1984' policing does not become one of these areas.
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including walking tours of historic districts such as Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam. Imran can be reached at or +65 9786 7210. 

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