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Home Team Speeches

05 March 2010

Ministry of Home Affairs Committee of Supply Debate 2010 - Speech By Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee – Loansharks, Drug abuse, Law and Order, 05 March 2010

          Mr. Chairman, I will address issues on loan-sharking, drug abuse, and the law and order situation in Singapore.
 
Loan Sharks
 
2.      On loansharking, Mr. de Souza and Mr. Ang Mong Seng ask if the new measures introduced recently have deterred loansharks. When I moved the amendments to the Moneylenders’ Act in January, I said that we should not view the enhanced measures as a silver bullet or a panacea. Whilst the strong endorsement in this House signaled clearly our collective resolve to tackle this scourge, much more work remained to be done by all stakeholders.
 
3.      Since the Bill’s passage, which came into force on 11 February, I am gratified that more hands have come on deck to deal with this scourge. The fact that MPs have raised this topic at this COS is a warning to all loansharks and their runners that our sights are set on them.
 
4.      Sir, on enforcement, Police has pressed on with its ground efforts. Arrest figures remain high – 958 arrests in 2009, a 90% increase compared to the year before. Arrests reached a high of 132 in Jan this year, compared to a monthly arrest rate of 80 last year. That shows that Police is pressing on the ground too. This was achieved through ground operations to disrupt the runners as well as intelligence-led ones targeting syndicates. The number of harassment cases, after spiking from around 11,400 in 2008 to 17,883 last year, has shown signs of stabilizing. So, in response to Mr. de Souza, there are encouraging signs.  
 
5.      On prosecution, three persons have been charged for loansharking activities committed after the amended Moneylenders Act came into effect. If convicted, they will be subject to the enhanced penalties and we will publicise these cases as a warning to others. On preventive education, the National Council on Problem Gambling has intensified its outreach to warn against over-extending oneself in gambling.
 
6.      Sir, Mr. Ang asks if loanshark syndicates have acquired smaller operations to increase their strength, citing. I think an article in the Chinese press on what is allegedly happening in Malaysia. Police has not observed such a trend and would be happy to receive any information on it. Even if it happens, Police is able to counter it. On whether CCTVs can be installed at households harassed by the loansharks, Sir, we are already doing so. Police procured more CCTV systems this year and are working with households to install them, especially innocent households which have been harassed many times. As for his other suggestion, the Court now already has the powers to order a convicted loanshark to compensate the victim for damage done to the unit. However, a more practical approach, as you all know in this House, is the current one where the Town Council expeditiously rectifies the damage so that the impact is minimized and that is a key point. As rampant harassment affects not just the harassed household’s but the neighbourhood’s sense of well-being as well, it is quite in order to tap Town Council’s funds for this purpose.  
 
7.      Mr Arthur Fong, Mr. de Souza and Mr. Ong Seh Hong are concerned that the casinos would attract more loansharking activities. The recent amendments arm us with more powers to cripple the loansharks and impose tougher penalties on the perpetrators. Measures to ensure that licensed moneylenders do not venture into loansharking activities have been enhanced. In addition, under the Casino Control Act, a casino operator must take all appropriate steps to ensure that unlicensed moneylending or related activities are not conducted by its employees, patrons or any other persons inside the casino. Exclusion orders will prohibit those with serious criminal backgrounds, including loansharks, from entering the casinos. Hence, let me assure them and Mr. Ang that Police is ready to meet this challenge.
 
8.      Sir, in summary, tackling the loanshark scourge is really work-in-progress. MHA will closely monitor the impact of the enhanced measures. And as I have said, if necessary, we will adopt additional measures to tighten the noose around the loansharks. Meanwhile, let us all work together to combat this scourge.
 
Drug and Inhalant Abuse
 
9.      Sir, I turn now to drug and inhalant abuse. The context is how our drug and inhalant abuse situation has evolved over the past decade. The start point should be the year 2000, that is, pre-Subutex days, not 2005, which is the height of the Subutex phenomenon.
 
Overall Drug Abuse Situation
 
10.     I assure Mr. Alvin Yeo and Ms. Sylvia Lim that the drug abuse situation is well under control. In the year 2000, we arrested 3,157 drug abusers. Arrest figures dropped to a low of 793 abusers in 2005, but picked up thereafter, reaching 1,883 abusers last year which is a 2% decrease from the 1,925 abusers arrested in 2008. 
 
11.     Members of the House will recall that there was a distortion in the drug situation between the years 2002 and 2006, caused by the availability of Subutex as a legal prescription drug for the treatment of opiate dependence. Many who used Subutex indiscriminately during that period were heroin abusers who had switched to Subutex as a legal alternative.
 
12.     Our classifying Subutex as a controlled drug in August 2006 resulted in an upswing in the number of drug abusers arrested, from the artificial low of 793 in 2005 to 2,211 in 2007. This is because CNB aggressively conducted enforcement action to arrest Subutex abusers, as well as Subutex users who had reverted to heroin arising from the tight supply of Subutex in the illicit drug market. So indeed, there was displacement. But a relevant point to note is that the total number of opioid abusers, that is, heroin and Subutex abusers taken together, has been decreasing since 2007.
 
Heroin Abusers
 
13.     Sir, heroin has remained the most popular drug of abuse over the decade. However, proportionately, its abusers amongst all drug abusers actually decreased from over 90% in the early 1990s to 81% in the year 2000 to 57% last year.1 With 1,080 abusers arrested last year, the situation in fact is much improved compared to the 2,557 abusers arrested, pre-Subutex phenomenon, in the year 2000. So, notwithstanding the Subutex phenomenon, the situation has improved over the years.
 
14.     Now on the socio-economic profile of heroin abusers, 90% arrested in 2009 had Secondary qualifications or below. About 4 in 10 (43%) were employed at the point of arrest – the majority being cleaners, labourers or holding related lower-income jobs. 80% of them had criminal antecedents2.
 
New Arrests vs. Repeat Arrests
 
15.     Sir, on the high percentage of repeat abusers, we will continue to galvanise the community, addicts’ families and employers to tackle this challenge. In fact, the numbers have decreased because of the improved relapse rate which has come down to 14% from 37% in the year 2000. Last year, 17% of arrestees had previously been on Long Term Imprisonment, or LT. Whilst rehabilitative opportunities are available to addicts willing to change, the fact is that there will always be a group of hardcore abusers who persist in their addiction. So, a key focus is to prevent people from getting on to the slippery slope in the first place. And to the credit of all of Home Team agencies who are engaged in preventive education, including NCADA, the number of new abusers arrested remains low, at 553 last year, or 29% of all abusers arrested. 
 
Inhalant Abuse Situation
 
16.     On inhalant abuse, in 2000, we arrested 133 inhalant abusers, a far cry from the peak of 1,112 inhalant abusers arrested in 1987. The inhalant abuse problem had steadily improved after the Intoxicating Substances Act was implemented in 1987. However, the number of inhalant abusers arrested increased between 2005 and 2007, peaking at 644 in the year 2007.
 
17.     CNB then acted decisively by stepping up preventive education and enforcement. As an average of 7 out of 10 inhalant abusers arrested each year were youths3, of whom about 50% were students, CNB worked with MOE and MCYS to resolutely tackle the problem. Sir, as with other youth problems, it is correct to address parents as they can play a role, both in prevention and detection of aberrant behaviour in their children. And these efforts arrested the spike in numbers and stabilised the situation. So last year, 600 inhalant abusers were arrested, down from the peak of 644 in the year 2007.
 
Malay Drug and Inhalant Abusers
 
18.     Sir, as to whether the Malay community is disproportionately represented compared to the other racial groups, in the year 2000, Malays formed half (50%) of all drug abusers and 26% of inhalant abusers. Last year, Malays formed less than half, at 44% for drug abuse and 37% for inhalant abuse. Now even though they are over-represented in these statistics, what is encouraging is that the number of Malay drug abusers arrested dropped from 1,575 in the year 2000 to 832 last year. In fact, this 47% decrease over the decade is the largest registered across all racial groups. The number of Malay inhalant abusers arrested has also declined by 14% from its peak of 258 in the year 2007 to 222 last year.
 
Psychotropic Drugs
 
19.     Sir, Mr. Yeo is concerned that the integrated resorts and bustling nightlife in Singapore could result in more abuse of psychotropic drugs. To prevent the drug culture from taking root, CNB conducts regular raids at nightspots. The National Council Against Drug Abuse or NCADA also actively engages entertainment outlets to play their part in keeping their premises drug-free in their annual Clubs Against Drugs campaign. Overall, the psychotropic drug situation is under control.
 
Future Outlook and Conclusion
 
20.     A key challenge is to keep illicit drugs out of Singapore. This is because of the ready supply of drugs in the region and the proximity of methamphetamine production activities near our borders. But CNB will remain vigilant, aiming to disrupt or cripple drug trafficking syndicates and their runners who target our local market. As a society, Sir, we cannot go soft on drug abuse. I am confident that our long-term drug and inhalant abuse situation will remain under control, even though there could be fluctuations in abuse rates, if we all keep our resolve to keeping Singapore drug-free. But like crime rates, we cannot expect as a matter or course that our drug-abuse rates will continue to go down all the time.
 
Law and Order
 
21.     On our crime situation, in the face of an increasing population, let me assure Mr Chris de Souza that the general law and order situation is good. Indeed, Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. I assure him that the increase in number of foreigners in Singapore has not led to a rise in crimes. On the contrary, with strong enforcement by the Police, tapping technology and with proper training for its officers, and working with a vigilant public, the overall crime reported in Singapore has actually declined over the past 5 years. Overall crime decreased from 37,093 cases in 2005 to 32,968 cases in 2009, despite our population increasing. On a per 100,000 population basis, the overall crime rate fell from 870 in 2005 to 661 in 2009, a reduction of 24 %. Indeed, the crime rate last year was the lowest in the past 7 years. 
 
Criminal Records
 
22.     Dr Maliki is correct that a key part of our crime reduction strategy is to help ex-offenders who genuinely want to change gain a fresh start in life after they have paid their debt to society.
 
23.     In October 2005, we implemented a second chance policy. Someone who has committed minor offences will have his criminal record marked as ‘spent’ after a period of time, so that he can reply “no” when asked if he has a criminal record, though the fact that he has been convicted remains. This is not the same as ‘expunging’ the record, which is also what Dr. Maliki talked about, which goes further to obliterate even the fact of the conviction, an approach we decided not to adopt.
 
24.     Sir, to strike a balance between the interests of ex-offenders, employers and society at large, only records of less serious crimes where the offender receives a light punishment qualify to be rendered spent. This is why, to maintain this balance, some for sensitive vocations like security officers and airport employees, applicants are screened for past criminal records. But let me assure Dr. Maliki that even for security officers, Police takes a calibrated approach, taking into account the nature of the offence and how long ago it was committed. In line with the Yellow Ribbon movement, we have in fact allowed ex-offenders to work in the security industry. 
 
25.     Since 2005, more than 142,000 persons’ criminal records have been rendered spent. As to how many of these persons have subsequently re-offended, based on Police records on reoffending in Singapore, the re-offending rate is less than 2%.
 
26.     Sir, Dr. Maliki asks if there is any intention to expand the ‘spent’ regime. As it has been 5 years since its implementation, just like the Home Detention scheme which we expanded after operating for several years, MHA will monitor the scheme to see if there is a need to widen the criteria.
 
27.     Sir, let me conclude on these cuts. The issues of loansharking, drug abuse, and crime are matters which concern all Singaporeans. The Home Team will press on resolutely to tackle these problems, exploring new and pragmatic measures and approaches to sharpen its arsenal. Ultimately, however, what the Home Team can achieve depends not only on the professionalism and dedication of its officers but on the support they enjoy from a public who shares their commitment to keep Singapore safe and secure.
 

 
Footnotes:
 
1 The other drugs abused were methamphetamine (19%), buprenorphine (7%), nimetazepam (6%), ketamine (6%), cannabis (4%) and ecstasy (1%).

2 Excludes offences committed under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA).

3 Persons below the age of 20.
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