Published: 30 January 2015
Madam, as I sat here listening to the few hours of debate, I am reminded of a T.S. Elliot quote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." I want to thank all the members who have spoken on this Bill and for participating in a very spirited debate, bringing different perspectives on this issue. In general, they have expressed support for the intent of the liquor control measures that the Ministry intends to implement. However, there has also been a diversity of views on a range of issues – the need for the Bill, the geographic coverage, the time restrictions, etc. I will endeavour to address them in turn.
NEED FOR THE BILL
2. Madam, several Members have highlighted that this Bill is timely, even long overdue. It will bring relief to residents in various localities who have been enduring disorder and disturbances arising from irresponsible liquor consumption in their neighbourhoods. It is for this same reason that we commenced this review of liquor control measures more than two years ago.
3. Mr Alex Yam and Ms Lina Chiam have asked for the statistics of liquor-induced crimes. I have shared them and I will reiterate one or two key points, in particular, the fact that we have had rioting incidents at least once a week, which have been attributed to liquor-related factors. We have also had other forms of serious hurt cases twice a week, which have been attributed to liquor-related factors, and we have had a variety of other crimes that have been contributing to this general concern. The problems are also compounded by voluminous incidents of affray, disorderly behaviour and public nuisance. Mr Pritam Singh asked for more resolution on liquor-related disamenities across the rest of Singapore, and in particular in areas like Geylang and Little India. As I said earlier, 40 to 50% of serious incidents in Geylang and Little India are linked to liquor consumption, and that is twice the national average. Nationwide, 30% of serious incidents are liquor-related. 9 in 10 of all serious incidents occurred after 10.30pm. This is consistent across the island, including in Geylang and Little India.
4. After all this granularity, data sharing and fine-tuning, I think we need to come to a consensus. Is there a need to take action with regard to this matter? I think the spirit of the debate in this House has been to confirm that there is a need to do so. The question then arises, how do we go about it? In particular, 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 just not to general principles, but also to specific steps that need to be taken on the ground. In doing so, our guiding principles have been two-fold. The first is to make sure that we minimise the disamenities and threats to public order that would arise from public consumption of liquor. Second, in terms of our approach, we have endeavoured to be balanced, trying to reconcile quite diverse views and interests, in order to achieve a pathway forward where we can all commit to and achieve some level of unanimity and take steps according to that.
5. Mr Baey Yam Keng and Ms Lina Chiam suggested that we should put more men on the ground and that it might be the solution. In other words, more enforcement. While enforcement may be an important factor, it is by no means the solution in total, and it is only one part of the equation. We must address the consumption and sale of liquor in order to set expectations and foster a culture of shared responsibility, with respect to this matter. It is equally important, as Mr Alex Yam has emphasised, that individuals and the community take responsibility and exercise restraint. In this respect, the restriction on the public consumption of liquor serves as a marker for members of the public to abide by.
6. Several Members talked about the mode and representation of various polls and also how we have undertaken consultations. Madam, I just want to emphasise that MHA engaged in a concerted, inclusive and deliberate process of consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including residents, various businesses, and dormitories operators. We also put up consultation papers, two of them, for the public to provide comments. Each phase of public consultation was widely publicised in mainstream papers. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of active citizens to step forward and give their views so that those views can be counted and taken into account when we formulate the policy. I do not want to get into a detailed discussion on the various polls that have been conducted on this matter. Several Members have entered opinions. It would suffice to state two points. The statisticians assured me that the sample size of 1145 in the MCI poll is sufficient for statistically significant conclusion to be drawn. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we did not base the proposed Bill and its specific measures on the basis of polls. It was on the basis of specific assessment of operational needs on the ground and the feedback we have gotten in order to achieve our objectives in reducing disamenities and preserving public order.
RATIONALE FOR PROPOSED RESTRICTIONS
7. Ms Foo and Mr Baey were part of the Members who have raised the issue of how we can keep restrictions to specific problematic areas and widen the coverage when problems are flagged out elsewhere. This is part of the larger discourse that we have been having on various issues, such as geographic coverage – should it be focused, should it be general. In terms of timing, should we put a restriction, should we have total ban, should we delay the timing to midnight, so on. Madam, with respect to geographic restrictions, as I have explained earlier, liquor-related law and order issues and disamenities, they do occur island wide. We can't predict exactly where it might occur next. There were also strong calls based on consultation to restrict liquor consumption at void decks, parks, and other common places in residential areas. If we were to draw zones around these areas, the boundaries and rules will be confusing and to say the least, ambiguous. I think in extremis, you would probably need a GPS-enabled app to guide you as you move around, on which zone and which rules apply. I think this is not the kind of situation that we want, Smart Nation notwithstanding. As Mr Hri Kumar quite aptly pointed out, "the law should not be an ass".
8. Furthermore, drawing experiences from similar measures in other cities, and in Little India in the past year, the displacement effect is real and it can be difficult to manage, especially depending on the terrain. Ms Denise Phua attested to this in her speech. Having a series of LCZs would simply exacerbate the problem for neighbouring areas. We should not wait until we receive complaints from residents that the restrictions in nearby neighbourhoods have caused the problems to shift before we take further action. In that scenario, we would then be accused of being slow to react. Why aren't you more proactive? Is this overreaching or is this being proactive? The greater the gradient between measures in different locations, the greater the propensity for displacement. I think we should all acknowledge that.
9. Now on timing, to address Members' question about the rationale of implementing the general restriction after 10.30pm, the Police's record of past incidents shows that the bulk of liquor-induced violence and disamenities happen at night, after 10.30pm. Now we can fine-tune this and get down to the last half-hour and so on, but that is a general marker. It also aligns with the end time for the many events in the communities, as we have all discussed whether it is getai, hungry ghost festival or seventh-month dinners, etc. The restriction will not stop people from congregating and consuming liquor in public before 10.30pm, but it does reduce the window period when people typically consume liquor because after 10.30pm we have the restriction. It greatly reduces the propensity of them becoming drunk and creating noise disturbances when residents are resting later in the night. So the correlation is real and I would say that wherever you draw the line, whether it is 10.00pm, 10.30pm or 12.00am, there would always be debate on why not before, why not later.
Retail sale hours
10. Mr Zainal and Ms Sylvia Lee asked about the rationale of restricting the retail sale hours for take-away liquor. I think the first point I want to make is, you cannot decouple consumption from the sale of retail liquor for public consumption. Imagine the scenario where you have total ban on public consumption but total freedom for retail sale, do you think that is a tenable solution? So you need to start somewhere because those who buy retail sale do not all go home and drink. Or at least, there will be a temptation do to other things. We do need to have some reference point.
11. Madam, unlike in coffee shops, restaurants and bars where the licensees are responsible to ensure that liquor is not served to patrons who already appear intoxicated, the consumption of take-away liquor is often unchecked. As many Members have highlighted, the problem is exacerbated by easy access to take-away liquor sold at nearby shops. A curb on the supply will reduce the propensity of drinkers obtaining liquor and consuming it in public late at night. This has been an effective measure in other cities. Does that mean there would be no gaming around the end times? Probably not. But that does not mean that we should not take a position on this, which we think is sensible and consistent with our larger objective that we have set out to achieve.
12. Several Members have raised concerns about the impact of restricting retail sale hours on residents and businesses. Currently, most shops and supermarkets generally close by 10.30pm. The proposed restriction is not an absolute one; in the sense that requests for extension of sale hours beyond 10.30pm will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and we have made that apparent.
13. Some businesses that have been affected, that depend solely on the retail sale of liquor, will inadvertently be affected. We can see that from our experience in Little India. It is also clear that over time, the business community will adapt and diversify and they will create new business opportunities and a different mix of trades. I think the fact that major retailers like 7-Eleven and Cheers, have committed that they will align themselves to support the overall objectives, is a welcome development. We will find a way to work closely with the industry to make sure that the transition is an effective one, with minimal disruption to businesses.
14. Mr Alex Yam asked a question on the conditions that the licensing authority will impose in granting extensions for retail sale hours. In considering those extensions, the authority will take into consideration various factors including the impact on the community and whether licensees take sufficient measures to mitigate any negative impact, and we will impose conditions accordingly.
Liquor Control Zones
15. Several Members have asked about the criteria for designating Liquor Control Zones. Madam, the intention of having these few, but specific Liquor Control Zones, is to better control law and order problems in areas where the risks of public disorder related to liquor consumption are more significant. Stricter restrictions on the supply and consumption of liquor will be imposed, along with enhanced powers to remove persons from the area if they pose risks to public peace and order. Based on Police's operational assessment, Geylang and Little India are two areas where greater control over the consumption of liquor in public is needed. Records of past incidents also show that the occurrence of liquor-induced violent incidents such as rioting and serious hurt are more frequent in these two areas. So that is where we are focusing and that is our criteria and basis for doing so.
16. Ms Foo Mee Har has asked about how the measures can address the problems in her ward, in Teban Gardens. I have some familiarity with the area. Madam Speaker, other than the restriction on public consumption of liquor, the Bill introduces other powers and levers that enforcement officers can use to deal with drunkenness and disamenities that occur at any time of the day. In cases where drinkers are creating public annoyance, officers have the power to remove their liquor, and require them to move on and leave the place. These are actions that enforcement officers can take and they serve as a strong deterrent to anti-social behaviour.
17. Madam, as we can see from the diverse and varied interests reflected in the debate today, on just these two issues, the Ministry has had to find a position that is reasonable, and balances the needs of various stakeholders. Taking all the above-mentioned factors into account, we have formulated and proposed a set of measures, as embodied in this Bill that we assess to be the most appropriate and practical today.
18. The Bill before us provides a framework for these measures to be implemented. There is also sufficient flexibility for the measures to be re-calibrated, as the ground situation evolves.
19. I want to turn to some implementation details which several Members have asked. One pertains to the definition of 'public place' and the places that the law will cover. A public place under the Bill is a place where Members of the public can have access as of right, or with permission. This includes places like void decks, parks, and pavements. Places where Members of the public cannot freely enter are not public places and the provisions in the Bill will not apply. Therefore, the restrictions on the consumption of liquor do not apply to private condominiums where access is restricted to residents and guests only, or in the private quarters of the foreign workers' dormitories.
20. There are some public places where the consumption of liquor will continue to be allowed. Individuals can continue to drink in restaurants, coffee shops and bars. This includes any outdoor refreshment area that has been approved by the relevant authorities. To answer Mr Pritam's question, hawker centres are under the same licensing regime as coffee shops. Operating hours are based on the location and the environment in which the hawker centre or coffee shop is based, whether it is a residential or commercial area.
21. Several Members have suggested giving flexibility for the consumption of liquor in certain place, such as during a barbeque gathering in coastal parks and a grassroots event in the heartland, or in designated "party zones". I think some even talked about star-gazing in the park over a glass of wine. I would like to assure Members that these are not activities that we seek to restrict, particularly if the adverse impact on the community is not significant. We are committed to make it simpler for event organizers to obtain relevant permits where they are needed, or in some cases to exempt activities in certain places. Details are being worked out and we will announce them as they are ready.
22. We have to be careful about blanket exemptions or providing for certain areas which are drinking zones, an idea that Mr Yee Jen Jong suggested, because you must be prepared for unintended consequences of such a move. If all the other areas around you have restrictions and then you have this "free-drinking zone", the consequences can be quite undesirable.
23. I want to clarify a point several Members have raised regarding foreign workers dormitories. The "public place" seen in Clause 38 of this Bill relates to a consequential amendment to the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act, which was passed in this House two weeks ago. Under the Act, the Ministry of Manpower had decided that dormitories should be deemed as "public places" solely for the purpose of the provision relating to drunkenness under section 18 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act. As this provision will be transferred to this Bill, we need a consequential amendment under this Bill. It is a technical matter. I want to basically assure Members that we have no intention to single out foreign workers. I fully agree with Mr Hri Kumar and many others who have expressed this sentiment. That is not the objective of this Bill. The amendment does not turn dormitories into "public places"; neither does it forbid workers from consuming liquor within the foreign worker dormitories. Workers can continue to drink in their private quarters according to whatever rules they have within their dormitories. Some dormitories have varying rules on this matter, in terms of where their private quarters are. They can also continue to drink in the beer gardens in their dormitories, until such time as it is allowed under the licence. Whatever licenced areas there are today, those areas will continue to be available to the workers. It will not unduly constrain foreign workers in the dormitories.
24. Mr Zainal and Mr Ang Wei Neng asked about easing the public into the new measures, and plans to ensure that individuals are not unfairly caught by the law. Ms Lina Chiam also raised concerns about enforcement. Police will also work with licensees and the relevant authorities to put in place appropriate information signages to remind Members of the public of the rules. In enforcing the law, enforcement officers will take a calibrated approach.
25. Let me elaborate on how enforcement will be calibrated. When a person is found consuming liquor during the restricted period, that is after 10.30pm, the Police are empowered to take down his particulars and require him to dispose of the liquor. At any time of the day, before or after 10.30pm, a person found consuming liquor and creating public annoyance may also be required to move on and leave the place, even if he is not drunk. No further action will be taken if he complies.
26. If a person ignores Police's advice, or if he is a recalcitrant offender, the Police may consider stiffer actions such as issuing him a composition fine or in extremis, arresting him. As with the practice today under existing laws, persons who are disorderly or pose a threat to public order and safety may also be arrested and prosecuted. Mr Yee Jen Jong also asked about the offence on consumption of liquor. To clarify, mere possession of liquor is not an offence.
27. Madam, it is not our intent to restrict people from enjoying liquor per se, but to encourage personal responsibility and considerate behaviour. Police will focus their enforcement on areas where there are public disorder and disamenities associated with the consumption of liquor, and take even-handed action. It is certainly not the intent of this Bill to seek out every person who is consuming liquor peacefully in a remote place. I don't think the Police have the resources for this. Should the Police encounter such situations, they will assess each circumstance carefully and not resort to issuing penalties, whether it is fines or arrests, in the first instance.
28. Mr Alex Yam asked about the treatment of inebriated youth. In the event that the Police encounter an individual who is drunk and incapable, the Police will as per current practice, take him back to the station and issue him a warning when he comes around. If he repeats the offence, the Police may, depending on circumstances take further actions.
ENFORCEMENT POWERS AND PENALTIES
29. I want to come on to specific enforcement powers and penalties.
30. Ms Tin Pei Ling and Ms Lina Chiam sought clarification on the rationale and safeguards of various powers, in particular Clause 30, which is a standard provision for arrest power that is common in many pieces of legislation, such as the Public Order Act, the Protection from Harrassment Act, and the Miscellaneous Offences Act. Given the propensity for violence and public disorder of liquor-related offences, they should be made arrestable without warrant so that Police can take swift actions. As I have reiterated, and I want to do so again, Police will not make arrest in the first instance.
31. Clause 22 relates to inspection powers that are adopted from the special event provisions in the Public Order Act. Where an individual is suspected of having committed an offence related to liquor consumption and drunkenness, and has hidden the liquor among his personal belongings including his clothing, Clause 22 allows enforcement officers to inspect his belongings for any incriminating evidence. This is not a new power for the Police. We have had the debate over this in the past. The Police have well-established protocols to assess when such an inspection is necessary and how it is to be administered based on operational experience applying such power to special events such as National Day parades.
32. Ms Fatimah asked about the rationale of imposing a banning notice period of 30 days. Under the current Public Order (Preservation) Act, there is a provision for indefinite exclusion. We do not need such strict powers in this Bill. 30 days is a reasonable period. The Commissioner of Police or an authorised officer will then have to make an assessment whether to issue another notice or whether the individual can then be allowed to re-enter the place.
33. Mr Zainal asked about the penalty quantum for offences related to the consumption and sale of liquor. These take reference from the existing laws and what we already have. In enforcing the law, Police will be given the option to issue composition fines in lieu of prosecution. Such composition fines will be of a lower quantum than the penalty prescribed in the law. Penalties related to the supply of liquor by businesses are aligned with those under the public entertainment regime.
34. Now on liquor licensing, Ms Foo suggested that we consider restricting liquor licences in a community and seek stakeholders' feedback in considering licence applications. I want to make the point that while restricting the number of licences is one of the tools available, the number of licences in an area per se may not truly reflect the situation on the ground. You may have one licensee who behaves irresponsibly, you may have many licensees who actually are very compliant and are responsible in the way they conduct their sales. The closure of any one shop will not necessarily reduce the overall problem on the ground. But what we will do, and what the Police will do is that they will assess the situation in a locality and consider which levers are to be used; including whether there should be restrictions on the number of licences.
35. Mr Thomas Chua made several suggestions relating to the liquor licensing regime to balance the need between achieving public security, being pro-business and maintaining Singapore's tourism appeal. We will take note of all of his suggestions, including the idea of a demerit point system, and we will review them. As of now we do not have any plan to have such a system but we will continue to engage the industry and refine our processes.
36. Several Members have asked about the Police enforcement and resourcing for that purpose. I am very glad so many of you have raised this and I would urge you to hold that thought. The Committee of Supply is around the corner and you should make a strong pitch for the Ministry of Home Affairs. In enforcing this law, the Police will focus resources on problematic areas, particularly in the two Liquor Control Zones. That is in other words, the way that we will prioritise. These are areas with greater law and order concerns where we already dispatch more resources today, to patrol and respond to incidents. As with the current practice, auxiliary police officers, who are trained and supervised by Police, will be deployed to patrol areas such as Little India where large congregations of people frequently gather and consume liquor. These APOs are also empowered under the Bill to assist and supplement Police in enforcing the law on public consumption of liquor, including effecting arrests. I agree with Ms Lim and in fact this is the point we have discussed in this House before. We do need to ensure that our APOs are well-trained because of the interface they have with the larger community. That is indeed the basis on which the Police engage the APOs and ensure that there is a rigorous training regime for them. We will continue to do so.
37. In areas that do not carry as much problems, the enforcement officers will also have the levers and powers under the law to take decisive and quick actions, when they come across such cases in the course of their work, or if it brought to their attention through a report or a notification. We do not envisage a significant increase in resource requirement because of this prioritisation approach and the way the Police will respond. Madam, I want to say that we will commit ourselves to resourcing the Police as necessary to do not just the enforcement of this Bill and its provisions. But in general, we have larger law and order and security concerns, and the resourcing in the Police has to take into account this larger context, it is not about this particular Bill per se.
38. But having said that, I do want to make the point that in the context of this Bill, it takes the concerted effort of all stakeholders to ensure that the objectives of the Bill are met. Enforcement alone will never be sufficient, and we need the industry and the community to take responsibility, exercise more self-control and be proactive in mitigating liquor-related risks.
39. Ms Lina Chiam has suggested that we commit this Bill to a Select Committee. I disagree with her and I would argue against it. There is no need because the policy behind the Bill had undergone a long period of deliberation and consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. The public has generally shown support and this is underscored by various polls. The discussion in this House also confirms it. The offences in the Bill are also not new; the powers are scoped tightly and are similar to those in existing legislation. Police's enforcement approach will also be targeted, balanced and measured, as with their enforcement of any other law.
40. Madam, to conclude, the intent of the Bill, its proposed measures and enforcement, are guided by and focused on preventing disorder and disamenities, to deter and to deal with troublemakers and trouble-making.
41. We have sought to take a calibrated and balanced approach to deal with a somewhat complex issue. This will guide both the geographical areas that we focused on for our enforcement and the enforcement touch and the approach that is adopted on the ground. We have heard a great diversity of views, in this House and outside. From all this diversity, I think one clean, clear point is that we are united in the desire for the same outcome – a safer and more secure living environment for all, local and foreign, young and old.
42. We are not transplanting policies of other cities indiscriminately but we are learning from their experience and adapting useful examples for our purposes. In general, if you look around at the examples we have cited, and others that you may have experienced personally. These cities have not lost their buzz, and I don't think their residents feel unduly put upon by the restrictions that have been put in place.
43. Madam, the proposed measures are reasonable, balanced, focused and they are not excessive. We are not setting out to stop people who want to enjoy their liquor; rather, this Bill aims to set the norms for liquor consumption in public places and purchase of take away liquor to be conducted in a responsible way. Ultimately, we do need all parties to step forward. Individual responsibility, the cooperation of the community and the industry has to play its part. We need effective enforcement and we need to educate all so that we can achieve the full intent of this Bill.
44. Madam, I urge Members to give their full support for this Bill.