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Police gain sweeping new powers amid changing technologies, security threats

SINGAPORE — The police have been granted wide-ranging new powers to act during major security incidents, including the authority to curb public communications in affected areas, after Parliament passed fresh legislation to allow them to better deal with changing threats and technologies.

SINGAPORE — The police have been granted wide-ranging new powers to act during major security incidents, including the authority to curb public communications in affected areas, after Parliament passed fresh legislation to allow them to better deal with changing threats and technologies.

While Members of Parliament supported the intention of the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act (POSSPA) during the debate over the new legislation on Wednesday (March 21), several of them raised concerns about its scope and the potential for abuse.

Assuring the MPs, Second Minister of Home Affairs Josephine Teo said several safeguards were in place and that the special powers would be used judiciously for incidents that meet a "high" threshold.

The police, she argued, must be better empowered to deal with the changing security environment, as demonstrated during terror attacks like the one in Paris in January 2015.

"New threats call for new measures, to better protect Singaporeans and save lives when we come under attack," said Mrs Teo. "We did not introduce this Bill in a vacuum. We did so only after studying the terrorist attacks that had taken place in other countries, and the limitations and problems they faced in dealing with the attacks."

She cited the April 2013 Boston marathon bombing and the January 2015 Paris terror attack as examples where existing regulations would be inadequate if Singapore was hit with similar assaults.

For instance, if there was no public disorder while the police searched for the suspects, like in Boston, the Singapore authorities would not be able to activate the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) to enforce a curfew to prevent members of the public from getting in the way of enforcement operations.

POPA would also be inadequate for attacks involving multiple and rapidly changing locations, such as during the Paris attack, as the Home Affairs Minister would have to invoke the Act separately each time an assault shifted location.

WIDE-RANGING NEW POWERS

The new law, which replaces the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA) enacted in 1958, will grant police the powers to direct building owners to take certain actions, such closing their premises, to facilitate security operations.

The police can also stop individuals and demand information from them if they are near a security incident.

The most controversial aspect of the new legislation, however, involves allowing the police to issue a "communications stop order" to prevent the public and media from taking videos, pictures, audio recordings, or text messages that could compromise ongoing security operations.

Those who breach the order can be jailed for up to two years, or fined S$20,000, or both.

Several MPs who spoke during Wednesday's debate on POSSPA questioned whether the order would prevent individuals caught in such security incidents from communicating with their loved ones or the authorities. Others asked how the order could be enforced in practice, and whether the lack of independent documentation would result in less accountable behaviour by the police.

Civil society groups have also raised similar concerns after the Bill was first introduced in Parliament last month, saying that it could lead to abuse of police powers and oppression of protesters.

Workers' Party MP for Aljunied GRC Sylvia Lim said: "Parliament is being asked to approve very draconian powers to be given to law enforcement and supporting forces, but only in situations where there is an imminent and grave danger to the safety and security of people in Singapore .... The powers under this Bill must never be misused for situations that can be adequately dealt with under other laws."

SAFEGUARDS IN PLACE

Mrs Teo outlined three safeguards against potential abuses of the new law, including a "two-tier unlocking mechanism" that requires the police to first recommend to the Home Affairs Minister to activate the special powers.

The Minister can then issue an activation order – which will be made public – if two conditions have been met: there is a serious incident occurring or has occurred or there is a threat of a serious incident occurring in Singapore; and the special powers are necessary to substantially assist in preventing the incident or reducing the impact of the incident, or to control, restore and maintain public order.

However, the special powers do not "automatically come into force", stressed the minister. Each special power has to be "specifically unlocked" by the Police Commissioner "as and when deemed necessary," she added.

Mrs Teo also told the House that the duration of each activation order is capped at one month, after which the minister must make a new order if he perceives the need for one.

In the event that a "communications stop order" is invoked, the police must publicise it and give details such as the boundaries of the affected area.

The MPs who spoke on Wednesday expressed support for the intention of the new legislation, but some like Ms Lim and Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun questioned the need for expanded police powers in certain scenarios, such as those involving a sit down peaceful protest that later grew in size and disrupted traffic and business operations.

"Why are existing laws not adequate to deal with such scenarios?" asked Ms Lim, adding that law enforcement operation in such situations would not tactically sensitive to warrant the use of special powers.

Reiterating that the new law is not targetted at peaceful protests, Mrs Teo said the new special powers will only be invoked if the situation deteriorates and when the threat of large-scale public disorder or violence becomes imminent.

She cited as an example a sit down demonstration, which grew in size over a week in the central business district and disrupted traffic, public order as well as business operations.

CHECK AND BALANCE

During the debate in Parliament, Mr Kok also raised the issue of accountability for the sweeping new powers. He questioned why the Home Affairs Minister did not require approval from another arm of the Government or an independent body to invoke the new powers, whereas other legislation, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), required his decisions to be concurred with the President on the advice of a special advisory committee.

The NMP, who also called for a a procedure to be included in the new security law where both the Home Affairs Minister and Police Commissioner have to justify their decisions, stressed that his concerns did not arise out of "mistrust but accountability", as the new powers are "so severe".

Mrs Teo acknowledged that "it is not unreasonable to consider such risks", and that the Government is not averse to introducing checks if there are good justifications, like in the example of the ISA cited by Mr Kok.

But she stressed that POSSPA was designed to allow the police to act while "in a race against time", and asked whether MPs would in good conscience put security operations on hold while they debated the merit of the Home Affairs Minister's decision to invoke the new powers.

She added: "Once the threshold of a serious incident is crossed, we must give the police sufficient latitude to act decisively, and respond to whatever that threat may be.

"After the incident has been dealt with, and the danger has passed, we can have a debate, including here in Parliament, about whether the Minister and the Police did the right thing, and hold them to account."

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