The Little India Bill: A Measured Response To An Issue Of Law & Order

Shaun Yeo is currently an active grassroots volunteer in the Kembangan-Chai Chee constituency who spearheads youth-centric projects in the area. He has a personal interest in local current affairs, having launched a Facebook note series called Our Singapore Happenings (blog) chronicling and analysing pertinent issues in the little red dot.

His views do not represent the organisations he is affiliated with.

The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measure) Bill (POATM) recently passed in Parliament outlined a specific set of powers scoped for the current situation in Little India.

POATM takes the place of the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) which was enacted immediately after the riots took place; and would last for 12 months, applying specifically to the Little India area.

It is important to note that the powers granted under POATM are far more limited than the extensive powers granted under POPA, although opposition and nominated members of Parliament (NMP) spoke up against the bill in a heated debate.

Their concerns include the need for such powers to be bestowed upon the home team to maintain law and order, the fear of abuse and the possible influence this may have on the ongoing Committee of Inquiry (COI)’s investigations.

If we take a look at the POPA, which was enacted directly after the riot and renewed on a weekly basis till date, I would say that the powers given to the police were disproportionate to the imminent/perceived threat of a similar incident taking place. The powers included imposing curfews, reporting orders on persons and the use of lethal weaponry to effect arrest among others.

Since it was established that the riot was an isolated, one-off event, POPA may have been too serious a response in the immediate aftermath of the riots. The powers under POPA were more suited for state-of-emergency or crises situations.

In fact, POPA has some serious infringement of human rights there.

It remains a wonder why no MPs or human rights activists spoke up against it when it was first implemented but instead, they are now questioning the more measured POATM.

Though some MPs may be unhappy with POATM, what are the other alternatives available? Reverting back to business-as-usual whilst stepping up police surveillance and patrol in the area? The question would be how effective this extra presence can prevent the repeat of a similar incident.

What if, fingers crossed, similar riots were to break out? The police would definitely be blamed for not taking preventive measures; which they now can with the additional powers under POATM. It would be better to be safe than sorry.

Some MPs are concerned with the possibility that the police may abuse their additional powers. The police have had a good track record of professionalism; there have been no cases of abuse when POPA — which grants the police even more powers — was enacted.

Besides, the police have strict protocols on when a search or seizure can be done. If there is any instance of abuse, the person involved will be severely punished and I believe the police know these consequences well. If we were to weigh the option of another riot happening or the abuse of power by a policeman, the probability of the former is higher.

On the concern of POATM promoting racial profiling, it is just unfortunate that the riot happened in Little India — a place frequented by South Asians — and that the riots involved South Asians. The government is simply treating this issue as one of law and order; if similar riots were to happen in Chinatown, Geylang Serai or Orchard Road, I believe a similar bill will be passed to guarantee order.

It must be noted that POATM applies to every individual in the Little India vicinity regardless of race or nationality.

Similar to POPA, POATM bans the sale, consumption and supply of alcohol in the Little India area. As the government has ascertained that alcohol was a “contributory” factor for the riots based on preliminary investigations, I do hope they will also review the way alcohol sale licenses are given and the safeguard measures in place to prevent sales without licenses.

Evidently, POATM is a stop-gap measure till the COI recommendations are implemented. Instead of the bill’s 12-month period, I believe this bill should cease immediately once COI recommendations are put in place.

My stance remains unchanged: these are all law and order ways of preventing similar incidents from happening again. However, I hope the government will look beyond that — into the welfare and well-being of South Asian workers.

Though living and working conditions have been said not to be contributory factors for the riots, addressing worker concerns will be welcome. As recreational spaces have always been a concern for these migrant workers, the government can explore how best to provide quality recreational spaces not just for them, but for the cramped Little India area as well.

Photo: Workfair Singapore


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