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Stricter alcohol laws passed, expected to take effect in April

SINGAPORE — An average of one rioting incident and two cases of serious hurt occur in Singapore each week, and the trend is on the rise, Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran said yesterday, as he sought the backing of Members of Parliament (MPs) for curbs on sale and public consumption of alcohol.

People consuming alcohol at Clarke Quay. TODAY file photo

People consuming alcohol at Clarke Quay. TODAY file photo

SINGAPORE — An average of one rioting incident and two cases of serious hurt occur in Singapore each week, and the trend is on the rise, Second Home Affairs Minister S Iswaran said yesterday, as he sought the backing of Members of Parliament (MPs) for curbs on sale and public consumption of alcohol.

There were 47 cases of rioting and 115 cases of serious hurt — such as stabbing — linked to alcohol consumption last year. The incidents occurred islandwide and nine of 10 happened after 10.30pm, said Mr Iswaran. Over the past three years, an average of 530 cases of persons found to be “drunk and incapable” in public places were also reported.

The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Bill was passed yesterday, after a debate lasting more than three hours. Of the 17 MPs who spoke on the Bill, only Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam opposed it. She said it was hastily drawn up and asked for further scrutiny by a select committee.

The new laws prohibit boozing in public places and retail sales of alcohol islandwide between 10.30pm and 7am daily, and are expected to take effect in April. Two areas — Little India and parts of Geylang — will come under stricter alcohol restrictions and be governed as Liquor Control Zones by regulations “substantially similar” to those currently in place in Little India under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act.

The two areas pose a heightened risk of public disorder associated with liquor consumption, with about one in five rioting cases and close to 10 per cent of serious-hurt cases happening there, said Mr Iswaran. About 40 to 50 per cent of serious incidents in the two areas are linked to liquor consumption — about twice the national average, he added.

The Government had begun its review of liquor control measures in September 2012. After several rounds of public consultation, the proposed laws were tabled in Parliament on Jan 19. It triggered spirited public discussions, drawing waves of criticism online although a survey by Government feedback unit REACH found overwhelming support for them.

MPs yesterday agreed that littering and disturbance caused by irresponsible boozing must be tackled, but several questioned if the laws were too restrictive. Some called for flexibility for events such as the getai concerts during the Seventh Lunar Month, which could extend beyond 10.30pm. Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair called for a simple and painless application process for permits to drink past 10.30pm at events such as barbecues.

Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng supported restricting the sale of takeaway alcohol but felt it unnecessary to ban public consumption of alcohol after 10.30pm.

Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh, however, called for the takeaway sale curbs to be relaxed, while his colleague Yee Jenn Jong felt drinking could be allowed at all times in areas such as coastal parks.

The Government’s intention is not to restrict activities that do not adversely impact the community, and the authorities will make it simple for event organisers to obtain permits, said Mr Iswaran. Activities in certain places could even be exempt, with details being worked out, he said.

But the Government has to be careful about blanket exemptions and creating zones without curbs on drinking hours, he said. “If all the other areas around you have restrictions, and then you have this free zone, I think the consequences can be quite undesirable,” he said.

The police will focus its resources on areas with disamenities arising from liquor consumption and take even-handed action, he said. Someone caught consuming liquor during the restricted hours will have his particulars taken down and be instructed to dispose of the liquor. No further action will be taken if he complies. But if he ignores the advice, or is a recalcitrant offender, the police may issue a composition fine or, in the extreme, make an arrest.

The new laws mark a transition from a regime with very few restrictions to one that is “carefully calibrated”. They will set new norms of individual behaviour on public drinking and buying of takeaway liquor, Mr Iswaran said.

“When does the Bill stop being blunt and over-reaching, and when does it start being comprehensive and effective? We can have a lot of rhetorical flourishes and pose interesting questions, but at the end of the day, we need to make a decision, and that decision applies not just to general principles, but also to specific steps that need to be taken on the ground,” he said.

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