Parliamentary Speeches

Committee of Supply Debate 2020 on “A Strong Home Team for A Safe and Secure Home” - Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 02 March 2020

1. Thank you, Sir. I thank the honourable Members for their contributions and as usual, I’ll start by reviewing the year 2019, on what has been done.


What We Have Done in 2019


2. Our primary mission is to keep Singapore safe and secure – a safe and secure home.


3. If you look at international rankings, as well as more importantly, how our own people feel about their safety and security within Singapore, we do well.


4. Looking at international rankings, the 2019 Gallup Global Law and Order report, we are again ranked first, and that’s the sixth year running that Singapore has been ranked number one.


5. Our drug situation – something that I’ve spoken about quite frequently and Members have raised the point a number of times as well – it remains under control in Singapore.


6. I don’t think we could ever say we’ve won the fight. But the global situation, unfortunately, is getting worse with different regimes; a greater acceptance and a change in the legal position as well, where people are moving towards legalising in more and more countries because they’ve lost the fight. Whereas in Singapore, almost uniquely, we have managed to hold our own within the country.


7. If you look at fire safety, we are again ranked first in the 2019 World Fire Statistics, for the second year running.


Legislative Amendments in 2019


8. Moving on to our legislative calendar last year, I’ll touch on a couple of major aspects where we made legislative changes.


9. First, we focused quite a bit on vulnerable victims and how we can protect them.


10. The Penal Code was amended to cover more groups of vulnerable people, give them more protection and enhance deterrence. To give one example - for offences committed against intimate partners, or those in close relationships, the offender may be liable to up to double the maximum penalties for rape, hurt, wrongful confinement.


11. POHA, the Protection from Harassment Act, was also amended. It allowed victims of serious abuse who are in intimate relationships to get protection orders. In the past, only married women could get such protection orders under the Women’s Charter, and others had to rely on normal rules on criminal law, assault. But we have given greater protection for those who are deemed to be in intimate partner relationships. Where people harass others whom they are in an intimate relationship with; the offender harasses someone who is in an intimate relationship, and there are repeated breaches of protection orders, punishments have been doubled. And if the perpetrator continues the harassment in breach of the protection orders, now, arrest is also possible. And the processes have been simplified so that victims can seek protection orders quickly.


12. I have previously more than once commended the good work done by PAVE, and organisations like PAVE. They provide legal and other counselling services to victims of family violence who could be victims of intimate partner violence, or who could be victims in a marital situation. These organisations identify such individuals, often the individuals that I think Members of Parliament would have come across, that feel unable to leave the relationship. They find it very difficult, so they need a lot of help, and a lot of counselling. A number of NGOs are involved in it, including, as I said, PAVE, to really take the steps that are needed to turn their lives around.


13. In fact, PAVE’s advocacy played a crucial role in informing and shaping the POHA amendments. They invited me to their centre and shared with me what their clients go through. This was in August 2018. The stories were distressing. I listened to them, and I told them we would do something. That really formed the basis of the amendments which we put through last year. So, a very good example of how civil society and the Government can work together to make real change on the ground.


14. The second key area that we worked on last year was in dealing with preventing clashes from religious differences. These could be inter-religious as well as intra-religious.


15. Our peace, our progress, our prosperity, is based really on the social harmony that we have managed to foster in Singapore. And Members will know that worldwide, countries are really struggling with identity politics, and the fractured relationships between communities, within communities, in their respective countries.


16. Our approach over the years, in surveys, soundings, and Members’ own interactions with residents, will show that people overwhelmingly support the approach we have taken to emphasise on harmony and to come down quite hard on people who try and use religion as a basis to create public discord and social discord.


17. People overwhelmingly support our stand against divisive rhetoric and against using religion for political ends. We have had the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) on the books for 29 years, as of last year, and I think the success of our policies is shown by the fact that we have never had to actuallly formally invoke the MRHA even once in those 29 years.


18. When it was first introduced, there was some disquiet. Several people said different things. I must count as one of those who was uncomfortable with the legislation. But we amended the MRHA last year, in October, and it will enable us to take effective, decisive action against threats to religious harmony. And in a way, this framework actually has enhanced religious freedom within Singapore, because people of all religions, whatever your religious persuasion, feel confident and comfortable to go out there and practise their faiths. And if you are agnostic, also the same. So no one feels uncomfortable in Singapore because they know that there is a very protected framework that protects the freedom of religion. That confidence is based on the fact that the authorities both have the power to take effective action, and will take effective and swift action to threats against religious harmony.


19. Amongst the amendments, we looked at our religious organisations. We don’t want them to become channels or conduits for foreigners to channel their own agenda into Singapore or impose their values. We also put in various provisions to reduce conflicts, as I said, not just between religions, but also within religions, intra-religion. We also don’t want religion to be used as a basis for attacking other groups, who may not be of a religious persuasion – for example, say, the LGBTQ community.


20. During engagements with the LGBTQ groups, many of them have told us they felt targeted as a community. Meanwhile, religious groups also felt that they were targeted by LGBTQ groups. And our approach is - whether religious groups target non-religious groups, or whether non-religious groups intend to target religious groups, both will be proscribed.


21. You know, people can go about their own lives, they should deal with their lives as they wish, but not use social or religious causes to attack each other. And really, that comes from the position that every Singaporean has his or her place in Singapore. They must feel safe, and we will take actions against anyone who threatens anyone else’s physical safety. We should all be free to express our individual views, but in a responsible manner. So, when we amended the MRHA, we explicitly stated that in the Explanatory Statement, and used the LGBTQ community as an example of what would be covered by these provisions.


The Need for an Effective Home Team


22. That was brief survey of our international rankings, our approach and the legislative changes. Let me now turn to the Home Team itself. I earlier spoke about how our people, Singaporeans, feel about the Home Team.


Public Confidence in the Home Team


23. Mr Teo Ser Luck spoke about the importance of maintaining public trust and effectiveness in the Home Team. That to me is fundamental, is crucial.


24. And we can safely say, year after year, that the high level of confidence and trust that Singaporeans have in the Home Team is very clear. Surveys show that. I have referred to the surveys several times in this House – last year’s surveys, public perception surveys. 91 per cent of respondents agreed that the Home Team is fulfilling its mission of keeping Singapore safe and secure. 90 per cent trust Home Team officers to do their jobs objectively, and with integrity. In an SCDF survey, 99 per cent were confident in the SCDF’s ability to cope with emergencies. In an SPF survey, 90 per cent trust SPF as an organisation, and they all agree that the Police Force is well-respected in the community.


25. And this trust is reflected in people’s lived reality. If you look at the Global Law and Order Index by Gallup, which I referred to earlier, 94% of residents in Singapore feel safe walking home alone in their neighbourhoods at night, including women. That is more than any other place in the world, and if you were to look at the global average, that is 69 per cent. And parents are confident of letting their young children take public transport home alone, or anywhere, alone.


26. We talk about freedoms. These freedoms are priceless – the freedom to be yourself, the freedom to let your children be children, the freedom to know that they can grow up safe and secure. These freedoms are priceless, and they have come about because of our practical approach, our tough legal framework, where we come down hard on offenders and the fact that within that framework, a broad level of freedom for people to carry on with their lives exists.


The Home Team’s Ability to Manage Crises


27. Our people also trust the Home Team to manage incidents effectively.


28. In our surveys, nearly 90 per cent – 89 per cent of respondents are confident in the Home Team’s ability to manage national crises.


29. Talking about national crises, of course we are dealing with COVID-19 now. Mr de Souza asked how have the Home Team officers been deployed in the national fight against the virus.


30. I think Members would have seen from newspaper reports - Home Team officers together with others from the agencies involved, have been working round the clock in dealing with COVID-19.


31. Many of the officers are at the frontlines. You look at the border control and health screening measures at the checkpoints with hundreds of thousands of people coming in every day. Officers are also securing the Government Quarantine Facilities and checking on Persons under Quarantine, supporting, quite crucially, the Ministry of Health’s contact-tracing operations.


32. CID has lent its expertise, its team of officers – their work has been reported fairly extensively. They have done quite exceptional work. The kind of contact tracing that has been done is very detailed. I don’t think you see a parallel anywhere else in the world.


33. Home Team officers also have to help conduct swabbing operations among suspect cases, which puts them on the frontline. They test for the virus, and for the second planeload of Singaporeans that the Government flew back from Wuhan, our officers helped convey suspect cases to hospital.


34. That is the frontline. Non-frontline officers obviously are heavily involved. MHA is part of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce involved in the Whole-of-Government response to the crisis. The Ministry also chairs the inter-agency Homefront Crisis Executive Group (HCEG) which supports the Ministerial Taskforce, to get the actions executed on the ground, and to ensure the smooth, coordinated, and effective running of the crisis response operations.


35. All of that of course comes on top of the officers’ day-to-day responsibilities, which have to carry on.


36. I have to say, I think I join many Singaporeans, and I am sure I join Members of Parliament, in saying that we are very proud of the way all of our public officers have responded, including Home Team officers.


37. Members will know that the Home Team is actually very lean, like much of the Public Service. If you look at the ratio of Police officers to population: London: 0.34 per cent, Hong Kong: 0.39 per cent, New York City: 0.42 per cent, whereas we are 0.23 per cent, including full-time National Servicemen. Much leaner compared with any of these cities, but our outcomes are much better compared to any of them.


38. I think it comes from a combination of many years of a proper law and order framework, which sometimes went against international opinion. Secondly, the fact that our people have cooperated with that framework and have been strongly supportive. The fact that if you have committed a crime in Singapore, you are going to prosecuted, regardless of who you are. And if you are guilty or likely to be found guilty, cases don’t stretch for years and years and years, and punishment is reasonably certain. These factors, and a whole attitude that is supportive of a law and order framework, shared by a vast majority of the population, has meant that people who want to break the laws are a very small minority. That has allowed our taxpayer funds to be put to other uses, and not towards the heavy policing that you see in many other countries. And yet, we still give the outcomes that people want, in terms of safety and security, and how they feel about the country.


Investing in a Better Home Team


39. Mr de Souza and Ms Cheng Li Hui asked how the Home Team can remain effective and operational in a changing environment.


40. That requires continued heavy investments into the capabilities of the officers.


41. We work with our partners to encourage our officers to engage in continuous learning and upskilling, just like the rest of society, from recruitment to retirement.


42. Mr Desmond Choo asked if the retirement age for our Police officers will be raised.


43. We will be increasing the retirement age gradually, not just for Police officers, but officers under the Home Affairs Uniformed Services Scheme, from 55 years old currently to 58, by 2030. That will allow us to tap on the experience of our more mature officers. It will enhance career transition efforts, and it will help them secure a meaningful second career after retiring from the Home Team.


SPF 200


44. This year is a very important year for SPF. It is the SPF200, as many Members would know. I am told it’s the first, if not the second, organisation that was set up in Singapore. If you go back to colonial times - understandably the British may have set up the Customs first before they set up the Police Force. Subject to that, in the 200 years, we have seen the Home Team grow from strength to strength.


45. I think Ms Cheng Li Hui and Mr de Souza remarked about SPF’s 200 years.


46. If you go back to the early 19th Century, we were a booming town, but a booming immigrant town with its more than fair share of social ills - lawlessness, rampant piracy, clandestine activities within secret societies, riots between the different Chinese dialect groups.


47. There was really an urgent need for law and order. Major-General William Farquhar formed the first Police Force with just twelve officers. They had to get up quickly.


48. By 1846, the first set of rules and regulations were established. And they spelt out the duties, the way Police officers conduct themselves, and the demarcation of patrol sectors.


    Moving to the 1900s - the Criminal Procedure Code, the Criminal Registry Department, and a fingerprint system were set up, and new Police buildings were constructed.


    Fast forward to after the Second World War - a ‘999’ hotline and the Radio Division was established.


    After the Maria Hertogh riots, the Riot Squad was set up.


49. After 1965 – Independence – the Police have taken on an even greater role in the safety and security of our society. The Police National Service was introduced in 1967. The first Neighbourhood Police Post in 1983. That really transformed the image of the Police officer, not just as a person enforcing the law, but also as a member of the community, out there in the community helping people and responding to incidents.


50. Then we had the September 11 incidents in New York that changed the operating landscape yet again – a new normal. We had to build counter-terrorism capabilities and put in place safety measures. I would say after the attacks in Paris in 2015, we had to yet again step up considerably to look at the fact that a variety of soft targets could be attacked by terrorists.


51. I think Members will agree with me, today, when we look at the SPF, it is a highly capable, professional Police Force, and highly regarded.


52. Our SPF officers deserve our recognition and appreciation for their professionalism, their readiness, and their sacrifice over the years.


53. This year, to better handle incidents in our coastal waters, our Pollice Coast Guard (PCG) will be enhancing its capabilities. We will be getting new Fifth Generation PT-class patrol boats. They will replace the Third Generation boats. We will also get additional boats and that would be a significant upgrade to PCG’s ability to handle such incidents.


54. I am confident the Police Force as a whole will continue to uphold the tradition of excellence, so that Singaporeans will continue to enjoy the very high levels of safety, security, law and order.


The Importance of Good Governance


55. Now, safety and security is not just the responsibility of law enforcers. I want to move away from the usual COS speech to say something a little bit more philosophical, maybe even reflective.


56. And this comes from some of the points made by MPs, including Mr de Souza, who questioned about the street protests that have taken place around the world. What are the lessons for us? Where do we go from here? Can it happen here? And I think it comes back to this point. You can have the best Police Force in the world; but you cannot deal with riots unless there are other things that are taken care of as well.


57. You’ve had riots across the world – in Chile, Europe, Hong Kong, of course, and other places. Street protests have escalated to violence, they have disrupted the lives of ordinary citizens, and destroyed public and private infrastructure. You have had Lebanon where several months of protests have caused a lot of damage. In Santiago, as I mentioned, demonstrators were enraged by hikes in public transport fares. They looted stores, and set fires to vehicles and properties.


Hong Kong Case Study


58. We saw Hong Kong, seven months of protest.


59. Mr Gan Thiam Poh asked, what can we learn from these protests. I will take this opportunity to discuss Hong Kong, and the others, and what are the lessons for us.


60. You have seen hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Hong Kong. Some of them have engaged in extremely violent, disruptive behaviour, with the whole purpose of crippling the government, and inflicted severe damage to the economy, and to the reputation of the city.


61. It obviously caused very severe challenges for the Hong Kong Police Force. Before this latest period of unrest, the Hong Kong Police Force was considered one of the finest in Asia. The Singapore Police Force and the Hong Kong Police Force were two very highly regarded Forces in Asia —disciplined, professional, well respected by local residents.


62. But since the protests started, the Hong Kong Police have been caught between the need to uphold public order, and protestors who resorted to increasingly violent tactics just to attack the police and instigate them. That has, I would say, severely damaged the relationship between the police and the public.


63. This is not helped by the one-sided portrayal of the situation in the media, in particular the international media, which often focused on criticising only the police force. The demonstrators were always titled pro-democracy protestors, while the police always were mentioned with reference to their brutality, and their brutal response. The first time a police officer fired a live round, the media depicted the incident as an example of police brutality, and the picture went around the world. But, all the events leading up to that point were ignored. Protestors, as I said, were often portrayed in a positive light. That the police were being attacked, their lives were frequently in danger, their families were being exposed -- all that was ignored.


64. The protestors were not just violent towards the police. Hong Kong residents who went to try and clean up were set upon by the protestors. In one instance, a man was hit over the head with a drain cover by a masked assailant while clearing the roadblocks. Today, just before the COVID-19 situation, the Hong Kong Police Force was seriously stretched. It faced persistent criticism both domestically and internationally. Even when they were off-duty, they had to fend off protestors targeting their family, and their loved ones. Morale was obviously affected.


Singapore’s Public Order Approach


65. So what are the lessons for us? I think one key lesson is, the actions of a disaffected few should not be allowed to threaten the rights of the majority to live in a stable, peaceful society.


66. And, really, there has to be a zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests. We already have the Public Order Act. We take a zero-tolerance approach. So it is an offence to organise or participate in a public assembly in Singapore, without a Police permit. But where Singaporeans want to protest or demonstrate about issues that concern them, there is the Speakers’ Corner - no permit is needed.


67. Now, here is a balance. Some countries have traditionally said that the freedom to protest is part of the freedom of expression and should not be clamped down. But when it comes to the crunch, they all take different steps. For example, in 2009, Copenhagen hosted a UN climate conference. [Mr Speaker, with your permission, may I display a slide on the LCD screen]. They anticipated widespread protests, and this is Denmark. So Danish law enforcement constructed a holding facility. What you see is a holding facility. We don’t do this in Singapore. They set up 36 steel cages that could hold more than 350 persons. So anyone who protested would find themselves in there.


68. In London, climate activists calling themselves the Extinction Rebellion mounted non-violent protests for two weeks last year. They conducted marches, blockaded roads, disrupted train services. More than 1,800 were arrested. In one protest, an activist climbed onto the roof of a train during the morning rush hour. Commuters were suitably frustrated; they dragged him off the roof and assaulted him. We don’t recommend that in Singapore. But the Metropolitan Police then banned the Extinction Rebellion protests across London.


69. We have been criticised for disallowing protests outside of Speakers’ Corner, even if it was just one person. But where do we draw the line? One, two, three, 30, 50, 100, 200, 5,000? How many protesters are acceptable? How do we tell what will be a peaceful protest and what will escalate into violence?


70. Part of the issue in Hong Kong is that protests are allowed; while the police are only allowed to intervene when it turns violent. So by the time you have 50,000 people on the streets, and some people go in there, let’s say 500 who are deliberately intent on creating violence, how do the police handle this? This sets up the police for failure and sets up the police to be the fall guys. It is far better to say, only allow protest in specific places and no protests in other places, because you really want to strike a balance between competing interests.


71. Sometimes, people want to protest, say, at take iconic places, Orchard Road or Tanglin or places like that, where there is a lot of commercial activity. Primarily because of the disturbance it will cost to everyone else, therefore their cause will get noticed. So, on the one side is the desire of the protesters to get themselves noticed, on the other side is the disamenity to the rest of the community. Why should one be favoured and why should the rest of the community just accept it? Why not we put a place, if you want to protest, you go there and you protest. And anywhere else, you don’t put my Police Force in an impossible position, where they will have to let as many thousand people as they want to congregate, and then deal with violence, as it inevitably in many places, does result in.


72. So that is the first lesson. I think our approach, the approach we took, was the correct one, of being strict about where you can protest. Otherwise, the best Police Force in the world would still not be able to handle it.


The Foundation of Good Governance


73. The second lesson is, it cannot be seen purely as a law and order issue. If you seek to deal with protests, and your approach to protests is simply to have tough laws and enforce them, it’s not going to work, because underlying it is, what’s your social order? What’s your level of inequality? What’s your social justice? How do people feel in your society? Is it a fair society? Do people want to support the system? Do they by-and-large believe that they benefit from the system?


74. If a large majority of your people feel that it is a fair system, that they have opportunities, that the government and the system are set up to help the largest majority possible, then people have faith in the system, and the people who want to break the laws will be a minority. Then your police can handle it.


75. But if a significant section of your population believes that the system is fundamentally unfair, that the social economic system and the benefits are fundamentally unfair, and that it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, at the expense of the many, then no amount of strict policing and strict laws, are going to keep people off the streets. What do they have? Why should they support a system that is fundamentally unfair?


76. So the first-order point of importance for any government, and for us, as a lesson, is really the socio-economic, political structure. It must deliver good governance. It must deliver to the majority, then your Police Force can go and deal with those who break the law, and the rest of the population will say, “Yes, we support it; these people ought not to be breaking the law.”


77. So, law and order, yes, but it’s not possible without good governance. None of these concepts are new. All these different approaches have been tried.


78. Those who are familiar with Chinese history will understand. Legalism, going back to the Qin dynasty, during the Warring States period. That was the preferred way of bringing order to a chaotic, fractious society. So the emperor’s rule was based on strict laws, harsh enforcement, and collective punishments.


79. But such a system cannot carry on for long. People often misunderstand and think that our approach is based on very strict punishments. Now, it’s first and foremost based on making sure that the majority progresses and that the system is fair. Strict punishments can only be built on such a system. The Qin emperor’s rule, as people will know, collapsed, because the approach actually worsened people’s social and economic lives.


80. You move forward to the Han Dynasty - China’s emperors tried to follow Confucianism, which depended solely or primarily on the leaders setting the example and inspiring people to be like them - family and social harmony, a responsible government with the moral duty to promote harmony. Confucianism appealed to people because they enjoyed internal peace and stability, and under it, the country experienced remarkable progress.

81. But it had its limitations as well, because in every society, a large majority of people can be inspired to be good, to be noble, to do the right thing, following the example of leaders - assuming you have leaders who can inspire that kind of confidence. But you will always have a group that will want to challenge your laws, that will want to break them and that will want to destabilise. You will need to deal with them through a system of laws which can be enforced. What framework, how strict, what you allow, and what you don’t allow, must be for each society to decide.


82. So you have to build it on a basis of fairness, upholding moral responsibility on the part of the leadership, proper governance - an approach of upright, virtuous governance which inspires people, and bring that across to the people as a whole, and then deal with the law-breakers in a way that makes it clear to everybody, that the laws will be applied fairly, evenly, and law-breaking will be dealt with. If there is good governance and people benefit, you can always deal with a small number, who want to disrupt.


83. Now, with that background, let me deal with the specific question that Mr Singh asked. I think we can apply these principles, broad as they are, to the specific question. We amended the Road Traffic Act last year to increase deterrence against irresponsible driving.


84. I think all of us agree, including Mr Singh, that there can be very significant social costs through irresponsible driving. Yes, in specific cases, there may be no incidents, no loss of life. But imagine when there is loss of life. You lose your 3-year-old child, or you lose your grandmother or grandfather through somebody else’s irresponsible driving. And unfortunately, over the last few years, we have seen enough incidents of people driving when they shouldn’t be driving, when they were under suspension, or driving when they were under the influence of alcohol. People have died as a result of those actions.


85. And we want to send, I wanted to send, a very strong signal that penalties are going to be enhanced, because we cannot accept people being irresponsible on the roads. And I made a speech saying that we are going to now deal with this. It arose from an incident where a young man who was under suspension drove and hit somebody else and killed - if my memory serves me right, a lorry driver. In that case, the young man was from a different socio-economic group. In fact, the lorry driver was from the lower socio-conomic group, as you can expect. And I said, I think we have got to re-look this. We therefore enhanced the penalties in the Road Safety Act.


86. So to the specific question on whether a discount on fines can be given for first-time offenders - we currently give a discount for demerit points, to eligible drivers. So if they have accumulated up to one third of the maximum points, if they go for the Safe Driving Course, then their accumulated points would be taken out. But giving a discount for fines for first-time offenders, we might as well not have increased the fines in the first place. We could have said, first time offenders, no increase, but it cuts against the very policy that we are seeking to put in.


87. I think I understand where Mr Singh is coming from and my own approach would be that where people cannot afford to pay the fines, then we should consider instalment payments. We should also consider then giving them some other support to help them pay the fines. The fines are there, but in a way we should see - and this is where MPs come in - whether we can help the lower-income drivers when they come and see us, pay the fines. That, Traffic Police would take a sympathetic approach, but I think the framework should be kept intact.




88. Chairman, our operating landscape will continue to change. Society will change and progress, and there will be new uncertainties and crises that will emerge. Those are the only certainties. And I have outlined some of the approaches we take to try to deal with that and to be future-ready, as it were. My fellow Ministers and office holders will answer the other questions.


89. Thank you.


Law and order
Managing Security Threats