The Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill was introduced for First Reading in Parliament on 27 February 2018. In view of the clear and present threat of terrorism, the Bill seeks to give the Police the powers necessary to deal with serious public order and safety incidents, such as terrorist attacks. If passed, the Bill will become an Act – the Public Order and Security (Special Powers) Act, or POSSPA.
1. Under what circumstances will POSSPA be activated?
Only the Minister for Home Affairs can issue an order to authorise the use of special powers by the Police (which are not available in routine operations) under POSSPA. To do so, the Minister must be of the opinion that:
1. Either a serious incident has occurred or is occurring in Singapore, or that there is a threat of such a serious incident occurring, and
2. That the special powers are necessary to prevent the occurrence of the incident, reduce its impact, or control, restore or maintain public order.
The Bill provides for special powers to be used in serious incidents where public safety is threatened, and also where there are acts of serious violence affecting the public. This is an expansion of existing powers under the Public Order (Preservation) Act which deals with large-scale public disorder incidents but cannot be used in situations which threaten public safety and where there is no large-scale public disorder.
2. How is a “serious incident” defined?
According to the Bill, a “serious incident” can refer to terror attacks, an act of serious violence affecting the public and/or an act causing large-scale public disorder. Examples include:
- A bomb exploding in a shopping area during business hours. The bomber is evading the authorities, and a manhunt is mounted to capture the bomber, such as in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
- Gunmen launching multiple coordinated attacks at a concert hall during a performance attended by a large audience, and at several other crowded locations, such as in the November 2015 Paris Attacks.
- A sit-down demonstration that grows in size over a week, and demonstrators start to occupy publicly accessible paths and other open spaces in the Central Business District – their presence impeding the flow of traffic and interfering with trade and business activities in the area, such as in the 2014 Hong Kong protests.
- A group of protestors destroying nearby vehicles and throwing projectiles, after gathering along the street and growing in size.
- The hijacking of the rapid transit system by an individual or group, putting the safety of the train, or any passengers or crew on board or outside the train, at risk.
3. What is a communications stop order?
The communications stop order is one of the special powers which becomes available to Police only after Minister’s activation order has been issued.
A communications stop order requires all persons in an incident area to stop making or communicating films or pictures of the area, and stop communicating text or audio messages about ongoing security operations in the area. It is a special power that would only be used when the security situation calls for it.
During the siege on the 2015 Hyper Cacher Deli in Paris, the terrorist who was holding several hostages was able to watch live television broadcasts showing Police officers outside preparing to storm the deli. As the terrorists were able to receive information on ongoing Police operations, it reduced the chances of a successful operation and put the safety of the officers and hostages at greater risk. Four hostages were killed, and another four were injured.
The Paris incident demonstrates how the sharing of information about ongoing Police operations can endanger the lives of security forces and members of the public caught in the attack. The communications stop order is key to preventing such important information from reaching the wrong people.
4. When and how will a communications stop order be enforced?
It doesn’t automatically come into effect once the Minister authorises the use of POSSPA. A communications stop order has to be separately activated by the Commissioner of Police, and only if he is certain that communicating information about an incident area or operation will compromise the operation or endanger lives.
The details of the communications stop order, such as the period when the order starts and the areas affected under the order, will be communicated clearly to the public – once activated, the order will be communicated via the Singapore Police Force’s Facebook, Twitter and website, as well as through media such as radio and television.
5. What do I do when the communications stop order is activated?
Typically, a Communications Stop Order will apply only to a specific location where a security operation is being carried out, for the duration of that operation. There is no intention for the communications stop order to be used widely.
As the order prohibits the communication of films or pictures of the incident area, and text or audio messages about the ongoing security operations, it is best you know that this is not the time to take pictures or videos just for the memories.
Besides this specific circumstance of a security operation, the sharing of information between the Police and the public is an important part of the response to a serious incident. For example, the Police rely on information from the public to make sense of the situation, and to support investigations.
In summary – together with the amendment of the Public Order Act and the enactment of the Infrastructure Protection Act in 2017, POSSPA aims to enhance the ability of the Police to deal with serious public order and safety incidents and combat the threat of terrorism.
For more information on POSSPA, read the Press Release.
2 March 2018